Beirut reverts to darkness of war Israeli bombs extinguish hopes for a rebuilt Lebanon

April 18, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The growl of generators fills this darkened capital. Cobwebs of makeshift electric lines have been rewoven over streets, as Lebanese resume the survival habits that got them through 15 years of civil war.

Israel's bombardment in Lebanon has brought back hardships and fears that the people of Beirut thought were finally behind them.

The week of attacks has tripped up Lebanon's eager rush to rebuild the country after the internal warfare ended in 1990 and squelched the bubbling Lebanese optimism that is the lifeblood of that effort.

"I want to go to some country to get peace," Nabahan Zahi, 18, said in a shaky voice as he helped his father string electric cable to a generator yesterday. "Every moment you fear you may be dead. Every night you feel you must go to a shelter. This is the feeling of war."

Most of the 46 people killed so far have been in South Lebanon, where the bombardment is fierce. But the feeling of a wartime siege has returned to Beirut, as Israeli jets buzz the capital, drawing anti-aircraft fire, and Israeli warships sit menacingly offshore.

Beirut's port traffic is slow, tourists have canceled vacations and business people overseas are faxing their regrets for meetings, officials say.

They are scared off by the air and artillery blitz that has rained more than 12,000 shells on Lebanon in a so-far unsuccessful attempt to stop Islamic Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon from firing rockets into northern Israel.

"They are trying to undermine our economic recovery," Lebanon's prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, complained on a European trip this week seeking diplomatic support.

Mouhib Itani came to the same conclusion Monday afternoon as he worked late in his 13th-floor office at the headquarters of the Lebanon electric utility. It was three years since the engineer had returned from abroad to help rebuild Lebanon and three months since his crowning achievement: restoration of 24-hour power service to Beirut.

The lights flickered in his office.

"I knew we really had a problem when that happens in the headquarters," he said. He heard muffled explosions and looked from his window to see flames dancing from the new power distribution plant on the slope above Beirut.

Israel had hit the second of two power distribution plants -- the one in flames was just 3 months old -- cutting the country's power supply by half.

The 1.5 million people of Beirut had packed away portable generators and cut the home-strung lines that had gotten them through electric rationing during 15 years of civil war and an earlier invasion by Israel. Now they found their new 24-hour electric service reduced to just four hours a day.

"It was a catastrophe," said Mr. Itani. "I saw the darkness ahead."

The utility chief said it will take a year and $60 million to repair the transformers. He shook his head sadly yesterday as he stood a hillside, looking at the blackened and crumpled transformers that still smoked from the bombing.

The cut in electric service means more to Lebanese than simply dusting off their generators and unplugging air conditioners. The restoration of full-time electric service was a potent political issue in Beirut and an important symbol of having left the war years behind.

"We had finally gotten on our feet, finally gotten confidence," said Edmund Helou, 56, a merchant in East Beirut. "Now it seems like war all over again."

The Israeli jet raids, using guided rockets to disable the power plants, seemed to many Beirut residents a particular bit of spite. Israeli officials said they plunged Lebanon's capital into darkness to avenge a disruption in electricity in the Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona.

East Beirut residents were especially puzzled. The Christians in that sector have little affection for the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah in the south, and until the bombings would have been likely to push for curbs on the guerrillas' activities.

"I don't support Hezbollah. Before the bombings, I wouldn't blame Israel for what it did," said Antoine Zagigi, a Christian store owner. "Now I blame them. The Israelis want to punish us all."

Many here say the bombing of the power stations proves that Israel has goals other than striking at the guerrillas.

"The power plants have nothing to do with Hezbollah. Israel is just trying to postpone the renaissance of Lebanon so we don't compete with Israel's economic role," said Mohammed Obeid, general director of Lebanon's Ministry of Information.

The Lebanese, ancient and vigorous traders, dream of reclaiming Beirut's role as the economic center of the Middle East. After an exhausting and fratricidal civil war from 1975 to 1990, the Lebanese economy had rebounded an amazing 40 percent in 1991 and nearly 7 percent annually since.

Now, the anchorage outside Beirut's port is largely empty. Port manager Antoine Rayees said Israeli warships have intercepted incoming freighters, delaying them from two to 20 hours.

"It's just harassment. The shippers aren't going to risk paying damages for delays. They are going to send the cargo to Tripoli, Syria, Cyprus," he said.

Nearby, in the Canadian Embassy, Ambassador Daniel Marchand was bemoaning the setback in the work he has done to promote business since the embassy reopened in Beirut a year ago.

"We were just starting to get a good influx" of tourists and business people, he said. "They were hearing good things about Lebanon. Now they are sending faxes saying they won't be coming."

Prime Minister Hariri said he will present the United Nations Security Council with a demand that Israel compensate Lebanon for its losses. But there could be no easy accounting for the blow to the country's spirit caused by the renewed scenes of war.

"What's the point of staying here?" said Mesrob Oulikian, 28, an air conditioning repairman. "We've had 10 years of darkness. Now we will have more."

Pub Date: 4/18/96

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