Daily life in Beirut -- just how much artillery fire is 'normal'?

Life is "normal" in the Lebanese capital when a traffic dispute is settled by one driver killing the other, touching off several days of fierce fighting between the families and friends of the two.

Life is not "normal" when the airport and schools close for several weeks, and heavy shelling of both sides of the divided city is as certain as nightfall itself.

Since the 1975-76 civil war in this tiny Mediterranean country where the death toll is thought to have reached 60,000, "normalcy" has taken on an entirely different meaning.

The definition of day-to-day life here is very twisted and violent by comparison to virtually anywhere else in the world.

Should a Lebanese come home from work and find his apartment taken over by refugees fleeing the Palestinians in southern Lebanon -- he can do nothing unless he is friendly enough with his local militia to arrange a strong-arm removal.

Beirut is a city where residents are more than grateful for the basics of electricity and water. Electricity cuts occur frequently, especially when it rains.

The city does provide water but most residents won't drink it except during the summer months. Its reservoir is dry more often than not. People looking for housing insist on buildings with their own wells.

Residents receive mail only if they are lucky enough to afford a box in the central post office. However, while the airport was closed during the April crisis, mail neither came nor went.

To make a phone call is a major feat because the caller must wait an average of 20 minutes during the day for a dial tone. And the caller had better already have the number he needs, because telephone directories have not been printed since 1974.

Before the eruption of fighting in the capital April 1, a favorite topic among Lebanese was "safe places" to go in Beirut. Opinions varied widely on which restaurants in which sections of the city were safe to go to at night.

During the last month of fighting, the question has become irrelevant, since many of the restaurants are closed and residents won't dare go out. The whole city is scared and the streets are deserted by 8 p.m. Sandbags outside storefronts are piled higher daily.

During April 452 people died in the clashes.

The Christian east section of Anshrafiyeh, which has been a primary target of more than a month of intense shelling by the Syrian peace-keeping forces and their leftist allies on the west side of the capital, is virtually deserted now.

The Christian Phalange party, whose militia has been shooting back, says only 10 to 15 percent of Anshrafiyeh's population remains.

Those who could have gone to the west to live with relatives or gone into the mountains to the north to summer homes.

Talk during these times wavers between emigration to the United States or London and hoping for an all-out battle to end the continuous small ones imposing on ordinary life.

"My parents called from the United States and asked if we wanted to move there," said a 23-year-old bookkeeper cheerfully.

"But it would take too long. We won't get away from this now. It is terrible to just be able to go to work during the day and have to stay home all night because of the trouble," she added dejectedly.

"Why didn't I leave after 1976? Did I really think life was going to improve here?" is a common refrain

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