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Salam, Beyrouth [Hassan Ibrahim / AFP/Getty Images]

Dream Is Over in Lebanon


Beirut rose from the wreckage of the civil war to become a fashionable city. As the bombs rain down again, residents are falling into despair.

BEIRUT — After years of taking on debt, forgiving their neighbors and hiding the scars of civil war, the people of Lebanon are watching with dread as their carefully rebuilt country splinters around them.

The last four days of Israeli airstrikes have shattered bridges, bloodied children and wasted roads. But they also mark another cycle of destruction for this seaside city, forcing some to wonder whether their country is cursed to live in perpetual violence and others to gird defiantly for another round of death and destruction.

"We feel raped," intoned Camille Younis, a burly man with bags under his eyes and reddish hair giving way to gray. "We never, never, never expected anything like this."

It was Saturday afternoon, the city smothered in sticky heat. The deep rumbles of explosions from the south shook the floor under Younis' feet. His car rental agency was the only shop on a strip of newly rebuilt downtown real estate that had bothered to open its doors under Israeli bombardment. The place was deserted.

Younis, 50, sat glumly in his office, a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka and an ashtray brimming with Gitanes butts sitting before him. He had invested all of his money in the business, he said. He borrowed money and invested that, too. When the fighting started, his livelihood began to melt away. Younis was disgusted with Israel and angry with Hezbollah.

"My God, we had a dream," he said, pointing out his window to the mosque and church that rose side by side across the street. "We had a dream of Lebanon, and I'm sorry it didn't work."

The torrent of airstrikes has cut down a national wish that has sometimes seemed on the verge of coming true: That the people of Lebanon, with its mountains and cedar forests and sparkling beaches, could have a peaceful, prosperous country.

"We are in shock. Nobody is ready to go through this war," said Nayla Mouawad, the minister of social affairs. Like most Lebanese, she has been scarred by her country's cycles of bloodshed.

Her husband, President Rene Mouawad, was assassinated just days after taking office in 1989. She was an outspoken critic of neighboring Syria's tampering in Lebanese affairs.

And now she is facing a fresh round of violence.

"People are depressed and more than depressed," she said. "They are desperate."

The history of this tiny seaside country is a tapestry of betrayal, assassination and patronage. Lebanon has been repeatedly divided. Animosity among its many religious sects and a shaky central government exposed it to foreign meddling.

The civil war that dragged on from the mid-1970s until 1990 split the capital in half and pitted Lebanese against one another amid intrusions by Americans, Iranians, Syrians and Israelis. Israel's presence didn't end until 2000, when it pulled its troops from southern Lebanon.

The years of fighting left a bleak inheritance: The nation was physically destroyed, nearly drained of citizens, deep in debt and known internationally as a haven for warlords and terrorists.

The war also left Lebanon under the absolute control of Damascus. Syria sent its soldiers to control the countryside, backed Hezbollah and exercised a puppeteer's control over the government in Beirut.

It took violence, too, to drive Syria out of Lebanon. When charismatic former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated last year, enraged Lebanese blamed Syria and thronged the streets in mass protests. Under heavy international pressure, Syria finally withdrew from Lebanon in the spring of 2005.

A weak and fractious government was left to sort out its considerable political differences, including the fate of Hezbollah. The movement kept its weapons and became a partner in the new government.

A raid into Israel by Hezbollah guerrillas provoked the massive attacks last week.

"We have paid a price for this homeland with our blood and our souls," a grim-faced Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora told his country Saturday night. "We will rebuild what the enemy has destroyed, as we did in the past. Lebanon has bled before, and today it is bleeding anew."

Just a few months ago, Lebanon seemed to be rising from the wreckage of its past. The sun-splattered maze of shops and cafes, mosques and churches, plazas and pedestrian walkways in the heart of the capital had been rebuilt, limestone block by limestone block. For the first time in years, there was no war or occupation. Tourists came pouring in to explore the hillside city at the lip of the Mediterranean Sea.

When Beirut rose from the ashes, it did so with flair. Racing to outdo one another, Lebanese built gourmet restaurants, gleaming boutiques and pulsing nightclubs. The city became fashionable again, particularly among wealthy Arabs looking for a place to escape the oppressive summers of the Persian Gulf.

But Lebanon never decided what to do about Hezbollah.

When the explosions of Israeli airstrikes echoed off the hills of Beirut on Saturday afternoon, 18-year-old Nancy Abi Aad's cellphone rang. Her father's voice was urgent.

"He said, 'Come home right now. You don't understand. You don't remember the war,' " Aad said a few hours later, sitting at a metal table in a fast-food restaurant in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Achrafieh.

"My parents say there's going to be another war. They've forbidden me to go anywhere."

She paused, absentmindedly twisting her long, dark curls around her fingers. She and her family have watched the bombings from their hilltop home, she said. They are miles from the bombing sites, but the house shudders with every attack.

"My parents don't speak about the war," she said, "but they often say, 'You weren't here. You don't understand.' "

Skeletons of the civil war still clutter the country: The old, abandoned buildings with their walls laced by decades-old bullet holes, the dead family members, and the things that aren't said.

Still, many Lebanese youth were accustomed to speaking of war as a strange and dark national memory. Now they wonder whether they, too, are destined to watch Lebanon buckle in war.

"It isn't so much that we are scared, but that we are scared for the future," said Maya Boutros, a 21-year-old education student who sat on a cement bench, staring over the empty streets. "I'm studying now, but for what? We don't have a future."

In Beirut's southern suburbs, mainly Shiite neighborhoods controlled by Hezbollah, a spirit of fatalism reigns as people gird for more violence. In streets that had borne the brunt of the attacks, the acrid odors of smoke and garbage hung in the air.

Craters had been blasted into intersections; highway overpasses had snapped in two; broken glass glittered on the pavement.

Behind the fresh wreckage and rubble rose the buildings damaged in bygone wars, their sides peeling off like old wallpaper, their floors collapsed on one another.

"They still haven't been fixed because the government was supposed to compensate us, and they didn't," said Ali Zeatar, a 34-year-old car salesman and Hezbollah supporter.

"These are financial losses, and we can handle it," he said of the fresh round of bombings. "As long as our dignity isn't lost."

In the midst of the bombing in Beirut's southern suburbs, when the streets were empty of civilians, a pair of sisters hauled plastic chairs to their front door and settled in with a tub of garlic between them. A songbird whistled in a nearby tree. The women bent their veiled heads together, one sister peeling the bulbs, the other mincing them with a small knife.

It was a portrait of equanimity under fire, long a Lebanese trademark. But when they spoke, the women were tense. The bombings had gone on all night, shattering the windows along their street. Living in the shadow of Hezbollah's radio station, a likely target for Israeli missiles, they expected more to come.

"We are really afraid," said Fatma Hajima, 40. "We hope there's a resolution, because it's not easy to live here and hear the Israeli jets." As she spoke, the warplanes roared overhead.

Back in his car rental agency downtown, Younis mulled a life spent fighting. He fought in the civil war, and then he fought to establish his agency. He drove the same road from his village to Beirut for years, and watched the faces and uniforms on the soldiers change — all the different armies that have sent their young men into Lebanon.

His car service was the best, he boasted. He gave his customers a CD to listen to, snacks and road maps. "Who else does that?" He blinked away tears.

"It seems everything we've worked for has been destroyed," he said. "I feel betrayed."

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