On the streets of Beirut

At the heart of the storm

MARY NEMETH November 4 1991
On the streets of Beirut

At the heart of the storm

MARY NEMETH November 4 1991

At the heart of the storm

On the streets of Beirut

It may never be possible to restore the glamor and romance to a place once known as the Pearl of the Mediterranean. Much of Beirut still lies in ruins a year after the end of Lebanon’s civil war. And the long shadow of the black-bearded Shiite militants who randomly kidnapped Western residents throughout the 1980s still haunts the country as it struggles to emerge from beneath the rubble of battle. But there is cause for optimism. Last week, the Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine released 44-year-old American computer-science and mathematics lecturer Jesse Turner—the fourth hostage to gain freedom since August as a result of complicated UN-brokered negotiations. Four other Americans, two Germans, a Briton and an Italian remain captive. But there is now renewed hope that their ordeal may end soon. Virginia Steen, whose husband, Alarm, a journalism professor kidnapped along with Turner in January, 1987, said last week from her home in Clarklake, Mich., that she refuses to raise her expectations. But she added: “There is some talking going on now, and in Beirut, the shelling has stopped, thank God—the atmosphere of relative calm is a helpful sign.”

Whether Steen and his fellow hostages win their freedom may well determine whether Lebanon can regain the confidence of Western governments and private financiers, and rebuild itself into the country it was before the civil war erupted in 1975. But for Turner’s Lebaneseborn wife, Badr, the process of renewal has already begun. She and her four-year-old daughter, Joanne, born five months after her father was captured, flew from their home in Boise, Idaho, last week to meet Turner in Germany, where he was undergoing tests at a U.S. military hospital.

“He is in good health,” she told reporters after being reunited with her husband. “We will continue our life as a family again from the point where we stopped.”

That reunion and a series of other hostage exchanges since August were choreographed by Giandomenico Picco, the United Nations’ special Middle East envoy. Israel holds an estimated 10,000 Palestinians prisoner for their alleged role in the intifadeh, or uprising, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It also retains more than 300 Arab prisoners captured in Lebanon. Israel agreed to free some of them in exchange for the return, or proof of death, of seven of its servicemen who went missing in Lebanon between 1982 and 1986. Under Picco’s mediating efforts, Israel recently released 66 Arabs in exchange for the remains of one Israeli servicemen and evidence that two others had died. Four others remain unaccounted for. The hostage-takers, meanwhile, released Britons John McCarthy and Jack Mann, American Edward Tracy and, most recently, Turner.

Even as the hostage negotiations continued, Maclean’s Correspondent Allan Thompson found on a recent visit to Lebanon that residents are struggling to rebuild their battle-scarred country. Most Lebanese now talk about their 15-year civil war in the past tense. Although skirmishes between rival militias have continued over the past year, the pitched artillery battles that regularly lit up the sky across the Green Line dividing Moslem West Beirut from the Maronite Christian East came to an end on Oct. 13, 1990. On that day, Lebanese government soldiers, backed by 40,000 Syrian troops, forced rebel Christian militia-

men to surrender and their leader, Gen. Michel Aoun, to seek asylum in the French Embassy (he is now in France). The Syrians have since extended their control over most of Lebanon. Omar Ismail, an engineer who stayed in Beirut throughout the war even as his friends fled to Paris and Montreal, said recently: “I think it’s really over this time.”

Many Lebanese are taking advantage of the new peace to revisit parts of the country long cut off by the fighting. During the war, it used to take half a day on dangerous mountain roads to drive the 70 km from West Beirut to Baalbek in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where the pro-Iranian Hizbollah (Party of God), widely thought to be the umbrella group for most of the hostage-takers, set up its headquarters. Now that roads through the Christian sector have reopened, the trip takes only 90 minutes.

Tourists, most of them Lebanese, but including a few French, Swiss and other foreigners, are flocking to Baalbek to see the 2,000-year-old towering granite ruins of three Roman temples. Before the war, such entertainers as Ella Fitzgerald and Ginger Rogers used to perform on the temple steps. Now, Syrian troops keep the peace in Baalbek, although they have not driven the Hizbollah fighters from their bases there. And the Shiite militants coexist uneasily with the tourists and the vendors offering soda pop, chocolate bars or camel rides among the ruins. Near a poster of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, musicians in kaffiyehs (head scarves) pose for photos and play traditional Arab music for tips. “I’ve never seen the place before,” said one Lebaneseborn teenager, wearing a Canada’s Wonderland T-shirt, who had moved to Ottawa with his family during the war. “My parents have always told me about it,” he added, “so here I am.”

In Beirut, seaside clubs are crowded with sunbathers, the streets and nightclubs teem with activity, and boutiques are full of the latest Paris fashions. “There’s really no place like it,” said

Hussein El-Rifai as he relaxed in the Blue Note bar recently. He returned to get married in Beirut after living abroad for 10 years. “There’s something special about this place I can’t describe,” he added. “This will be my home again some day.” But officials still face a mammoth task in restoring the city. Nearly every building suffered some damage during the war. Residents enjoy only she hours of electricity daily, and officials predict that it will take four years to restore full power. That is partly because innovative residents have strung a spaghetti-like maze of lines to tap limited power supplies—in the process, weakening the system. Few homes have running water. And it is almost impossible to place a phone call. Officials estimate that, as well, it will take four years and more than $400 million to rebuild a telecommunications system. “The peace and security are wonderful,” said Joumana Abou Khaled, who shares a bachelor apartment in West Beirut with her husband and infant daughter. “But life here isn’t getting much easier.”

Still, the city shows some signs of progress. During the war, rats and cockroaches thriving on mountains of garbage plagued Beirut. Since then, their presence has been reduced as emergency cleanup crews dredge sewers and a fleet of 50 new garbage trucks haul 500 tons of refuse daily. Said one senior official involved in the cleanup: “In three or four months, we will have a different Beirut—not the Beirut we want, but it will be more livable.”

To that end, the Oger Lebanon firm, owned by Lebanese-born Saudi millionaire Rafic Hariri, is doing much of the reconstruction so far, funded by a $65-million Saudi donation. But many more millions will be required to do anything other than cosmetic work. The Lebanese government’s Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) has vowed to undertake a lavish $2-billion development of Beirut’s one-square-mile downtown district, once the world’s fifth-largest banking centre. There, along the

waterfront, the city’s opera house and cathedral stand in ruins. Tourists pose for photos beneath a bullet-riddled statue in Martyr’s Square, shadowed by the ominous skeletons of bombed-out buildings. CDR officials say that the downtown’s renewal is the key to restoring confidence in the Lebanese economy. “It’s the main economic and financial centre,” said CDR adviser Ali Serhal. “It could trigger the process of economic recovery for the country.”

CDR officials say that they hope to renew foreign development loans frozen because of uncertainty during the war. They are also seeking to attract investment from the hundreds of thousands of expatriates who fled the country and who, according to the International Monetary Fund, hold more than $17 billion abroad. Said Serhal: “If they can come here and say they are confident enough to invest in their own country again, then others would follow.”

Already, more than 20 navigation companies have returned to Beirut, although shipping traffic is still only half what it was before the war, when the city had one of the busiest ports on the Mediterranean. And at least 14 airlines have returned to Beirut’s airport.

Still, some analysts say that the political climate must change markedly before Lebanon wins more Western investment. Asked one observer in Lebanon who requested anonymity: “Who is going to sink any money into a country controlled by Syria?” Ending the hostage crisis may be even more critical. “Until it is solved,” said Jerrold Green, a Middle East specialist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, “the Lebanese government will look like a fake government that doesn’t have control of its own country.” Lebanon, he added, “is trying to live down a reputation as a lawless, barbarous place.” That may be impossible—at least until the eight remaining Western captives win their long-awaited freedom.