South Lebanon lives in ruins

Little progress made toward rebuilding more than 6 weeks after Israeli bombing campaign

October 01, 2006|By New York Times News Service

BEIRUT, Lebanon --A ride through the south of Lebanon, across rutted and bombed-out roads, past a landscape of twisted metal and crumbled concrete, reveals little progress toward rebuilding tens of thousands of homes devastated by the 34 days of Israeli bombing that ended more than six weeks ago.

Money has begun flowing in, from foreign governments and nongovernmental organizations. But nearly $900 million in international pledges remains untapped by the Lebanese government, whose presence is barely visible in the south. In contrast, Hezbollah, with money from Iran, continues to give cash payments to individual Lebanese for damaged homes. And Lebanon's government has allowed, and indeed encouraged, some foreign countries to begin giving similar grants.

Those villages lucky enough to have been adopted by foreign donors are preparing to rebuild. In those less fortunate, villagers sit staring into ruins, and waiting.

"There is nothing from the government, not even a phone call," said Muhammad Azzam, mayor of Siddiqin, a small village that has reported 449 homes destroyed by Israel's military. Such comments are repeated, nearly verbatim, across the south, although an arm of the Lebanese government has cleared rubble from many towns.

The government defends its performance, saying that it has gotten vital services such as water and electricity back, opened roads and kept the economy functioning. It says that it is nearly done putting in place the trustworthy financial system needed to tap into the international pledges, one that will provide a level of accountability and transparency unprecedented for Lebanon.

"It has only been one month, and a lot has been accomplished," said the country's finance minister, Jihad B. Azour. "But people only see what wasn't done."

However, when it comes to homes, the government has been slow to respond. Government officials said they would pay $40,000 cash for each destroyed house, but they have not been able to say when. And winter is approaching.

The central government's stumbles started early. Even before the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah ended, it was encouraged to create financial mechanisms to guarantee that international aid would not be squandered; they remain incomplete. Foreign donors who pledged millions at a conference in Stockholm, Sweden, last month have proven so wary that, instead of funds, they have sent delegations to Beirut to work out exactly how their money will be spent, according to people in the government and others affiliated with nongovernmental agencies and a Persian Gulf-area donor country.

Officials in Beirut, determined to get projects moving, have encouraged donors to bypass the central government. "We are trying to make ourselves flexible," said Azour, the finance minister.

Foreign countries have agreed to adopt 99 out of 251 damaged villages, and will likely spend about $640 million on the work, officials said. The United States has agreed to spend $20 million to help repair the Mudarrij Bridge in partnership with Italy, for example. In total, the United States has pledged $230 million in humanitarian assistance and what are known as early recovery systems.

Terms such as flattened, crumbled and collapsed barely describe what happened to Aita al Shaab, a Hezbollah stronghold in the south, and neighboring villages. The landscape is a canvas of destruction, 750 homes destroyed, 400 damaged. Communities have been uprooted, families forced to crowd in with relatives, schools shattered. Many residents worried that reconstruction would be uneven, with little planning, and villages forced to take what they can get.

Popular animosity toward Beirut has hardened.

"The government prefers to get the money directly so they can decide how much money to take for themselves and how much to give to us," said Afif Bassi, head of a newly formed local reconstruction committee in the shattered village of Bint Jbail, another Hezbollah stronghold a few miles north of the border, which saw some of the most intense fighting when Israel sent in ground forces. "We drafted a plan for reconstruction that includes electric, roads, water, gardens, sidewalks."

The government has guaranteed that every village will be rebuilt, but the current patchwork of aid has raised concerns about the fate of villages that are not adopted. And if there are few, if any, signs of confidence in the central government, there is growing anxiety about the willingness to turn planning and decision-making for individual villages over to foreign governments. Qatar's offer of up to $100 million to help rebuild Bint Jbail - where village officials say 700 homes were destroyed, 300 heavily damaged and 1,500 moderately damaged - was based on a plan to distribute money to individual homeowners. The village officials said they were pressing Qatar to adjust the plan.

"What we are asking for from the Qataris is to rebuild the whole village themselves in a modern way which also preserves its historical aspect," said the mayor, Ali Bazzi. "But they are insisting on paying the people directly. This would be a disaster to the city and to the country, too, because people will take the $40,000 or $50,000 and leave the country."

Qatari officials said they have no interest in overseeing the reconstruction; they are already overseeing the restoration of 11 damaged schools. In Bint Jbail, they intend to give grants in three stages, with residents having to meet deadlines and show progress to receive each succeeding payment.

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