Lebanese stagger under weight of economic ruin. From food to school fees, life grows increasingly unaffordable

Lebanese who have lived through the bombs and bullets that have claimed scores of thousands of lives now face a bitter fight for survival against a crushing economic collapse. The drastic decline of the national currency, skyrocketing inflation, and a breakdown of many public services make meeting life's basic needs a major preoccupation for almost all social classes.

``The majority of Lebanese children do not have access to milk anymore, and the quality of the food they are getting has dropped badly,'' says Marwan Sidani, acting director of the Lebanon program for the British branch of Save the Children Fund. ``We know of 100,000 families, with some 200,000 to 300,000 children under six, in dire need of help. They have had to cut out such staples as oil, grains, sugar, and milk, and they live off bread, which is subsidized. Even that takes up 70 percent of their income.

``It is not starvation yet, but it is threatening. I can show you children who are getting only one meal a day, of bread sprinkled with thyme,'' Mr. Sidani says.

The main pillars of the once-booming Lebanese economy - notably tourism, banking, and services - were either destroyed or badly damaged by successive rounds of civil strife since 1975.

After holding firm against the United States dollar for the first 10 years of crisis, the Lebanese pound first showed signs of weakening in the summer of 1985. Economists and bankers warned that a major economic crisis was inevitable unless a political settlement brought stability.

But there has been no political solution. The economic crunch has arrived with a vengeance. ``It represents the cumulative result of all the years of destruction, the progressive erosion of the country's social and economic fabric, and general despair over the prospects for a political settlement,'' says economic consultant Riad Khouri.

After a steady decline since last year, the Lebanese pound (L) nosedived in recent months to its current level of around 500 to the dollar, with no floor in sight. Since most of the country's consumer goods and foodstuffs are imported, prices have soared, often doubling or tripling in the space of weeks or even days.

One recent report assessed the current annual rate of inflation at 678 percent.

For many workers taking home the minimum monthly wage, the L8,600 they earn is now worth a paltry $17. That is not enough to buy two small sandwiches a day.

``If I buy one tin of powdered milk and one packet of disposable diapers - not enough for a month - I have already spent more than the minimum wage,'' says Lillian Dagher, a mother of three.

While the wealthy elite were able to switch their capital into dollars or other hard currency early on, people whose income is fixed in Lebanese pounds - the vast majority of blue- and white-collar workers and public officials - have found themselves reduced to subsistence level.

Bankers say there is a great deal of private wealth that would reenter the economy as soon as a political settlement was reached, and few economists doubt that there would be something of a boom. But the chances of a settlement's being reached between estranged Christian and Muslim leaders appear as remote as ever. The general prediction is that the country faces its longest and darkest winter yet.

Prices of everything from clothes to cement - all but the most basic commodities - are now set in dollars and translated into Lebanese pounds at the prevailing daily rate. For those with incomes in the local currency, this has carried prices into the realm of fantasy.

It is like an American waking up to find that a soft drink costs $100, a pair of shoes $5,000. The price of a restaurant meal for four would have bought a limousine a few years ago.

``Life became totally impossible,'' says Abdullah Qasim, one of many breadwinners who, having stuck it out through all the upheavals, are now forced to seek work abroad and send cash home to their families. ``My last job working for a Muslim charity was paying L9,000 a month - about $18. With three teenage children in school, how could we begin to live on that?''

Hard-currency remittances from relatives abroad have become a lifeline for thousands of Lebanese families. A few hundred dollars sent from outside may have to spread across an increasingly large family network, as needy relatives turn to kin for help.

Community-based charities among both Muslims and Christians have taken on an increasingly important role in helping those most in need. Outside aid organizations are working hard to keep starvation at bay, too. The Lebanese state system, paralyzed, fragmented, and almost bankrupt is unable to help.

Signs of the hard times are apparent on Hamra Street, Beirut's equivalent of Fifth Avenue in prosperous pre-war days. Every morning, the sidewalks are jammed with people buying and selling dollars.

``Everybody changes their salaries into dollars at the beginning of the month, and their fortunes rise and fall with the dollar,'' says a Beirut bartender. A half-dozen local radio stations give hourly updates of exchange rates.

On a side street, a Sunday morning flea market has sprung up, offering a bizarre and depressing assortment of used and stolen articles, ranging from a grandfather clock down to small pieces of old electrical wire and hose pipe and other worthless items, some of them scavenged off street-corner garbage heaps.

``The people who go through the garbage are not finding much nowadays,'' says one West Beirut resident. ``Very little that might be worth anything at all is being thrown away now, and what there is gets picked out straight away.''

In addition to the economic squeeze, the difficulties of life in Beirut are aggravated by frequent shortages of basic commodities and essential services.

Lengthy and unpredictable power blackouts occur almost every day. Making a few local phone calls can be a frustrating day's work, and calls between east and west Beirut are virtually impossible.

``We Lebanese are worrying all day long about gasoline, about bread, about electricity, about medicines - we don't have time to think about anything else,'' says Muhammad Abboud, a carpenter.

Because gasoline, bread, and bottled gas for cooking are subsidized, supplies disappear onto the black market or are smuggled abroad. Members of the warring sectarian militias are widely accused of leading the racketeering.

Only after the government recently raised the official price of gasoline to L111,400 for 20 liters (it was 1,117 a few years ago) did supplies begin to reappear at gas stations - albeit with a militia percentage tacked on. The militia mafiosi, some merchants, and people on dollar salaries survived and even prospered.

``The government has been subsidizing the militias, and is being bankrupted by them,'' says one militia official.

Tomorrow: Iranian money helps Islamic radicals gain support among Lebanon's hardest hit community - the Shiites.

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