Lebanese reclaim homes long occupied by Syrian troops

This weekend, homeowners returned to property that they had not seen for almost three decades.

Although he lives only a few miles away, Walid Riachi gazed Saturday for the first time at the hotel his grandfather built and ran in the 1930s.

He and his brother inherited the three-story stone building when their father died in 1983. But they were never able to see the property because it fell within a Syrian military zone.

"It's amazing to be here, to see it at last," Mr. Riachi says.

Just a few days ago, the hotel housed Syrian soldiers. They were part of an army brigade that took over abandoned houses or sequestered homes in this once- fashionable resort village north of Beirut.

But now that the Syrian troops are withdrawing from Lebanon and leaving the pine-forested mountains above Beirut, many homeowners are slowly returning to their houses for the first time in 29 years, and have started reclaiming what belongs to them.

Syria completed the first phase of its withdrawal from Lebanon last week when it removed some 6,000 troops from the coast and the mountains above Beirut, redeploying some to the Bekaa Valley in the east while other returned to Syria. After many blamed Syria for the Feb. 14 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, throngs of protesters, as well as international leaders, called on Syria to remove all of its 14,000 troops from Lebanon.

"It was all over in two days. People don't really believe they have gone," says Georges Ghostine, the village mayor and owner of the Bois de Boulogne Hotel, as he greets friends who have come to say "Mabrouk," or congratulations, at the departure of the Syrian troops.

Like a handful of other residents in the area, the Ghostine family chose to live in Bois de Boulogne throughout Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war to prevent the Syrians from taking over the hotel.

"If a building was just empty, they would take it. If there was a janitor there, they would kick him out. If a family had two homes, they would take one of them," Mr. Ghostine explains. "They never interfered with us but it was disturbing to have this constant military presence here, as if we were living in a barracks. People came here because it is a resort. They don't like to have soldiers all over the place."

'Holding back the tears'

Syrian troops first arrived in Bois de Boulogne in 1976, a few months after Damascus dispatched troops to Lebanon to help quell the initial stages of the civil war. For the next 29 years, there was a constant troop presence in the area.

"During the war, there were four times as many soldiers here and they took over 90 percent of the buildings," Ghostine says. "It will take two to three years to rebuild everything. I hope it will go back to what it was before."

After almost 30 years, it has been an emotional experience for many homeowners. When Karim Makdissi returned to his grandfather's home in neighboring Dhour Shweir, his parents stayed at the front gate, refusing to enter the house.

"My father was holding back the tears," Mr. Makdissi says. "I have vague memories of the house, but my parents grew up there. They even met at that house."

One resident flew from London when he heard the news the Syrians had left and spent a day looking at his old home before returning to England.

At a chapel beside a former Syrian billet, several residents attend a mass for St. Joseph, whose feast day was marked on Saturday. "My father built this chapel and named it after St. Joseph," says Roger Tohme, the owner of the adjacent house. "We come here every March 19 to hold a mass. This time we have something extra to celebrate."

Lebanese soldiers have replaced the Syrian troops, setting up a checkpoint at a junction in the center of this village, which just a week ago was manned by Syrian military intelligence agents.

Technically, all the abandoned buildings fall under the responsibility of the Lebanese Army until the homeowners present the property deeds and a document signed by the mayor confirming their ownership. No one is expecting any compensation, however.

Some of the most prestigious villas and hotels are found on either side of a dirt track running along a narrow ridge with magnificent views of the mountains. To the east, soaring above a forested ravine, lies the snow-streaked summit of Mount Sannine, dazzling against the deep blue sky. Terraced hillsides of grapevines and apple trees fall away into shaded valleys. The red terra cotta roofs of traditional stone houses contrast with the dark green of the umbrella pines. The sound of a tolling church bell in a distant village carries on the chill morning breeze.

The surroundings may be awe- inspiring, but the Syrian soldiers lived in miserable conditions. Their billets, once comfortable summer villas, hotels, and mansions, long ago fell into disrepair. The stone or tiled floors are stained and scorched by countless fires, the walls daubed with graffiti. There was no central electricity, no running water, and sanitation was basic. All interior fittings had been stolen or used as firewood to keep the troops warm in the bitterly cold winters. Anything that could be removed is gone: light switches, electricity sockets, wiring, water pipes, even window and door frames.

In one house that reeked of wood smoke, someone had decorated a tiny kitchen with dozens of small cake wrappers, an attempt to provide some color in the drab surroundings.

Many windows and doorways are bricked up, a defense as much against inclement weather as potential enemies.

"Everyone feels free and happy," says teenager Hala Kfoury, wandering through the shell of the Moukarzel Hotel with her family. "We can go out without fear now."

A plan to rebuild?

Riachi's hotel sits at the end of a promontory where the landscape falls away on three sides. He looks dazed as he walks through the empty rooms and climbs the staircase. Instead of operating as a hotel, it's been completely ruined. "Instead of making us money, it will cost a lot of money to fix up," he says.

Riachi says he and his brother hope to restore the hotel, but that a final decision rests on the security situation in the country. A car-bomb explosion in a Christian suburb of Beirut in the early hours of Saturday rekindled fears among the Lebanese of a return to violence.

Lebanese opposition figures blamed the bomb blast, which wounded nine people, on Syria, claiming that Damascus is seeking to sow instability in the wake of its troop withdrawal.

"We don't need a war, but what if it starts again?" Riachi asks. "We didn't want a war in 1975, but it happened and lasted 15 years."

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