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Lebanon Again Laid To Waste

Having rebuilt their country once, the latest destruction frustrates those in charge

By Kim Murphy - Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT, Lebanon - When Lebanon breaks, Fadl Shalaq gets called to fix it. Over the years, he's seen it all: the destroyed roads and bridges, the displaced families, the blown-up buildings. Still, he says, nothing in three decades of war and recovery prepared him for the ferocity of Israel's monthlong bombing campaign.

"I've never seen so much destruction in such a very short time," Shalaq, president of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, said as the government calculated infrastructure damage so far in excess of $2.5 billion.

Overall losses to housing and small business are likely to exceed the total for the entire 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, the government says. A quarter of Lebanon's population has now been forced out of their homes, and up to 200,000 of the estimated 1 million refugees may have no home to go back to when the war is over, the Economy Ministry says.

"I have seen all the wars," said Shalaq, who was one of the architects of the recently completed reconstruction of downtown Beirut. "I'm supposed to have some experience in these catastrophes. But I've never seen a war like this in intensity."

The government review shows that Israel has largely avoided some targets: Major power plants, water treatment facilities, telephone systems, central government buildings and most factories. The bombing has focused on Shiite areas of southern Lebanon and the Beirut suburbs.

While roads and bridges have been hit all over the capital, most of the damage in Beirut has been limited to a single square mile of the southern suburbs: The neighborhoods of Bir al-Abed and Harek Hreik. An almost daily barrage of missiles, bombs and gunship artillery has systematically removed Hezbollah's headquarters, its schools, clinics, sports centers and homes, along with the homes of thousands of civilians who live nearby.

Lebanese officials caution that their early estimates of the damage only go through Aug. 1 and do not fully take into account what is likely to be catastrophic damage to houses, hospitals, schools, water and sewage systems and power lines in southern Lebanon and parts of the Bekaa Valley, an area largely inaccessible to inspectors from Beirut.

Sitting in his office at the gorgeously restored Ottoman-era seat of Lebanon's government, only a 15-minute drive from entire city blocks that are in ruins, Shalaq was trying to summon the energy to start over once more - finding the bank loans, manpower, construction materials and sheer will to turn another generation of rubble back into buildings.

"Do you want me to be optimistic, after spending my whole life building and rebuilding grand buildings, and we thought a country came out of it?" said Shalaq.

Dressed in an elegant gray suit that looked as if it hadn't been changed in several days, he sat motionless on a sofa as a parade of engineers peered in with blueprints and reports. His secretary worriedly placed messages in front of him from the half a dozen men camped outside his door. Mostly, he waved them away, staring expressionlessly at the coffee table in front of him.

 

"We have spent our whole lives doing this reconstruction. On a personal level, I can't tell you how many houses I have lost," he said.

"We rebuilt the country so many times, I'm sick of it. I sit on my balcony every night and the bombs start falling, and sometimes I just don't give a damn."

A survey compiled by his organization, based on on-site inspections in central and northern Lebanon and telephone calls to engineers and municipal officials in the ravaged south, showed the worst damage to the road network, with more than 120 bridges destroyed and another $83 million in damage to roads.

Among the bridges destroyed was the well-known Mdairege Bridge connecting Mount Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley above the Sulfi River on the road to Damascus, Syria.

"A beautiful bridge, its columns 70 meters, it's one of a kind in the whole Middle East. Why would they destroy such a bridge?" said Shalaq. "They could have bombed the beginning and the end and stopped the traffic. But they made a point to bomb this bridge several times."

Replacing it will cost $65 million, engineers estimate.

All three airports in Lebanon sustained damage totaling $55 million, but terminal buildings were spared and the main repairs will be to runways and fuel storage reservoirs, authorities said.

Power plants also were spared, although a large fuel tank serving the Jiyyeh generating plant south of Beirut was hit, sending 20,000 tons of fuel pouring into the sea and causing damage estimated at $80 million. Repairing electrical substations and transmission lines will cost about $128 million.

Among about a dozen factories bombed was the country's largest dairy plant, Liban Lait, which produces yogurt and cheese under license from France's Danone Group, and also a large tissue-producing factory owned by a Palestinian Christian residing in Jordan.

"What connection could these factories have to Hezbollah?" Sami Haddad, minister of economy and trade, said in an interview.

Haddad said Lebanon's recovering tourism industry is in shambles, along with the agricultural sector and the vast majority of other businesses that depend on open roads and freely available fuel.

Lines at gas stations in Beirut stretch three blocks long for much of the day; authorities have warned that power plants have only about a week's worth of fuel left, after which hospitals and other electricity-dependent facilities will have to begin shutting down.

"Very few businesses are in decent shape, and we're already hearing of people being laid off," Haddad said. "It's pretty catastrophic in many sectors."

Hospitals are among the most jeopardized, and parts of southern Lebanon are already running out of food, water and drugs. In Beirut, medical facilities face medicine shortages and the threat of imminent electrical failure.

Eight hospitals, including three in the southern suburbs of Beirut, have closed because bombs were falling around them daily. A fourth, the Hezbollah-run Rasul al-Azzam hospital, is in danger of closing for lack of supplies.

Beirut's largest hospital, the Hariri State University Hospital, is operating only 120 of its 250 beds because so many doctors and nurses have fled the country or can't get to work. Many of those remaining have moved into dorms at the hospital to be on call 24 hours a day. The hospital gets electricity from the city only 12 hours a day and must generate the rest with its own declining stock of diesel fuel.

Even if authorities succeed in delivering more fuel and even if there is a cease-fire, hospital director Wasim Wazzan wonders what will happen when badly injured people from southern Lebanon are finally able to be transported north for help.

"We expect a mass influx of patients once things calm down," he said. "They have been under bombing pressure for the past month, and once the roads open, they will have access here."

Wazzan said Lebanese found it absurd that world powers would allow the fighting to continue, only to use their taxpayers' money to rebuild the country later.

"This is not Katrina. This is not a natural catastrophe," he said. "It's a man-made catastrophe. And you can stop it. I just cannot believe that people are saying, 'OK, go ahead, continue with this war, and we will send help later.' Come on! For what?"

Mohammed Kassem, chief doctor at the Al Hayat Hospital, who had been working for 29 straight days, sat for a moment in sweaty green scrubs, his eyes ringed with fatigue.

"I want to send a message to all the doctors all over the world who have sworn to help people. All the Israeli doctors: Please stop this war. This is enough for Lebanon. Enough," he said.

The Council for Development and Reconstruction already is drawing up reconstruction plans. With the government awash in debt from the last reconstruction effort, much of the financing for the estimated $785 million in public infrastructure repairs will have to come from donors, they estimate.

"You see, watching TV every day, I get so angry, I just give up," said Shalaq, one of the moderates President Bush hopes will be the architects of a new Middle East. "Make no mistake. Every Arab now, every Muslim, has a little bit of (Osama) bin Laden in himself. We're not religious fanatics, we're a bunch of atheists, after all! But we just feel we have nowhere to go."

"We get together, and one of us will raise the glass, 'Here's to bin Laden.' And everybody will raise the glass."

 

 

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