Wary Lebanese Quietly Return as Militias Disarm

Exiles flood Beirut airport, but not without booking a flight out

OUTSIDE the magnificent Roman ruins at Baalbak in the Bekaa Valley, tourist camels with gaudy trappings grunt and sway as guides tout for custom.After years of being off limits to foreigners and most Lebanese, Baalbak is back in business as one of Lebanon's major attractions. Most of the thousands who now flock daily to admire the soaring columns of the temples of Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus are themselves Lebanese, rediscovering their own country thanks to the current outbreak of peace. But some foreigners mingle too. "I visited Beirut two years ago, but I couldn't come to Baalbak because it was all Hizbullah," says the son of a Yugoslav diplomat, referring to the Iranian-backed militia. "Now it is okay to come. My mother was here 30 years ago. She says it hasn't changed, but she has." "It's a new phenomenon - the Lebanese coming home to be tourists in their own country," says Layal Hakem, an office manager who stayed in Beirut throughout Lebanon's 16 years of civil strife. All flights to Beirut airport - until recently blacklisted by foreign airlines as a hijackers' haven - are booked solid for weeks. But so are the flights out, because most of the homecoming Lebanese - many of them returning for the first time in over a decade - are not yet ready to move back for good. They plan to return to their adoptive homes abroad at the end of the summer, and wait another year or two to make sure that this time, the peace is really solid. I've come back to check on my house, to visit family and friends, and to test the waters," says a Lebanese advertising executive now based in Paris. "But I wouldn't move back here yet. Communications are still disrupted. The infrastructure's all shot to pieces. The administration's riddled with corruption. And who can be sure this peace will last?" This upsurge of peace and tourism has been made possible by the achievements of the Syrian-tilted Beirut government, implementing the 1989 Taif accord on ending the civil war here. The reunification of divided Beirut last December, the disbanding and disarming of most of the militias in April, and the deployment of the Lebanese Army in many areas, have all made it possible for people to move safely and easily around most of the country for the first time in years. The Lebanese militias have supposedly handed over their arms before. But this time, it is much more serious - if not irreversible. The Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces, was the biggest and most powerful of the private armies. With some 10,000 military personnel and about 8,000 civilians on the payroll, it was effectively a state within the state, raising taxes and running social programs normally the prerogative of government. Now all that is gone. The Forces' chief of staff, Gen. Fuad Malek, sits in a smart office in Juniye, a Christian port town north of Beirut, with not a uniform or gun in sight. A fluffy Blue Persian cat lolls on the beige carpet. Glossy high-tech military magazines on the coffee table are the only reminder that just last year the militia was locked in an internecine battle with the Christian army of Gen. Michel Aoun, who remains penned up in the French embassy. He sought refuge there after his ouster by Syrian troops last October. "Three months ago, we had the power in the field," says General Malek. "But now we are obliged to disappear, and to transform all this power into political power. It's a big difference, but we believe that if we want to build a country, we have to go this way." "I hope we won't be obliged to reassemble the militia, because everybody here in Lebanon hopes the war is definitely finished," he adds. "But if we had to, we could do it quite quickly, in 10-15 days." At his ancestral family seat in Mukhtara, deep in the Shouf mountains, the reception rooms of the Druze militia leader Walid Jumblatt are packed with supplicants seeking his help in finding a job. Most of them are former militiamen. "In military terms, I have nothing left," he says. "I am moving my weapons out to Syria. But I still have on the payroll some of my old officers, friends, and comrades. I cannot just abandon them to hunger." As part of the agreement with the government for dissolving the militias, some 2,800 of Jumblatt's 5,000 or so fighters are to join the national Army or police forces. One of them is Rabia Hassoun, a 29-year-old who joined the Druze militia in 1978 and fought in many battles, mainly against the Christians. I'm not sad, in fact I'm very happy at what's happening," he says. "The militia has told us to put away our guns and join the Army to help Lebanon. The Army of today is very different from the [sectarian] Army of four or five years ago. This Army is for everybody, it brings together Druze, Christians, and Muslims." In spite of the militiaman's optimism, Lebanese civilians tend to be more skeptical about the future. It's one reason why many of the Lebanese tourists will be returning abroad at the end of summer. There is a long list of things that many of them say they want to see happen before they decide to come back for good. These include: * The disarming of the radical Shiite Hizbullah, which is refusing to disband as long as Israel retains control of the southern border area. * The deployment of government forces in the border zone, starting with the Christian town of Jezzine, controlled by Israel and its local allies, the South Lebanon Army. They show no signs of ceding. Few Lebanese believe this will be possible until the Middle East peace conference is resolved. * The release of the remaining 12 Western hostages, including six Americans. Lebanon can expect little outside aid for reconstruction until this happens. But diplomats report nothing new on this front. * The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Beirut and other areas to the eastern Bekaa Valley, which is supposed to be completed by autumn of next year. Many Lebanese observers believe this will happen. * The formation of a new government, less heavily tilted toward Syria and more competent to shoulder the task of national reconstruction than the current 30-member Cabinet.

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