Rebuilding war-torn Lebanon under a hail of bullets

Can war-torn Lebanon be salvaged?

Some Lebanese say that attempting to rebuild the country will encourage people to make peace. Others maintain that it is a waste of money by a government trying to look busy.

Government officials hold the first view. The feuding factions, which have ensured that the 1975-76 civil war never really ended, hold the second.

Ask the man in street about reconstruction, especially one of those who had shells and bullets crashing through his home just a few months ago. He will either laugh heartily or respond with an incredulous stare.

Muhammad Atallah, president of the Council for Development and Reconstruction , explains that the atmosphere in Lebanon in 1977 was very different when the council began. At that time the Lebanese expected to be on the road to recovery with the help not only of Arab funds but also of Arab peacekeepers, Atallah says.

But neither of these restored law and order to Lebanon. Indeed, the rate of reconstruction has often been surpassed by new destruction.

That does not mean that there is no building going on. In fact -- in some areas -- it would be fair to say there is a booming construction business. But the building goes hand in hand with a strong militia. When even a small neighborhood in Beirut is securely controlled by a militia group, new buildings begin to rise next to ones still sandbagged in expectation of the next round of fighting.

Apartments in what is dubbed ''lawless west Beirut'' frequently sell for 1 million Lebanese pounds ($208,000). Landlords often offer tenants large sums ($ 30,000-$50,000 roughly) to move out so they can sell. And this is for an apartment in a city where residents have no assurance of water, electricity, garbage service -- or even their lives.

Shopowners pay 1 million Lebanese pounds to rent a shopfront on west Beirut's main shopping street, Hamra. But chic Hamra still abounds with rubbish piles, myriad stolen electricity lines strung among the trees, and enormous rats scurrying through the street at night.

This is the private ''reconstruction'' of Lebanon. The problem with this boom is that much of the construction is illegal, Atallah and government officials concede. People are building on land that does not belong to them or that violates zoning and building codes.

Minister of Housing Selim Jahel raises another problem with the boom: Most of the housing boom involves the upper-middle and upper classes.

In the rubble of downtown Beirut, the mainly Christian rightist militias square off at gunpoint with the Syrian peacekeeping forces and the mostly Muslim leftist militias. When Atallah's council tried to begin a cleanup, workers had barely started the tractors to clear the debris before they were sniped at and fighting broke out.

The council claims repairs to the Port of Beirut as one of its successes. True, two of the five berths have been repaired. But they were the ones least damaged. Half-sunken ships still clog the first two berths. Moreover, the port is under de facto control of the Christian militia, which collects most of the custom duties meant for the government. The repaired warehouses once again have gaping shell holes in the roofs after the 1981 clashes. And illegal ports, controlled by the militias, have taken the bulk of business away from the ''government'' port.

As planned by the council, Beirut Airport has been improved and a cornerstone for a new terminal laid. However, the airport had to close during the spring fighting and then have runways re-repaired because of shell holes. Middle East Airlines put up funds to fix the runway approach lights and replace the landing system after giving up hope of the government doing the job.

UNICEF, under the auspices of the council, has made some strides in supplying south Lebanon with the basics. Gunnar Andersson, chief of the reconstruction of south Lebanon program for UNICEF, said the project has supplied 66 villages with drinking water in the last year. Thirty-two schools have been extended or repaired. And Mr. Andersson hopes to repair and equip three hospitals in the south this year. He says that the various factions in the south would not have allowed the Lebanese government to do the work.

The south is also seeing its share of the private building boom, Andersson says. He notes that much of the money comes from Lebanese who moved abroad when the war erupted.

United Nations officials say people are moving back to south Lebanon despite the heavy fighting between the Israelis and Palestinians last summer and the constant threat of an Israeli invasion.

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