Apart from ubiquitous shrapnel scars, it is not easy to see any new destruction in Beirut, despite a deliberate attempt to find evidence. A senior official of the Beirut municipality confirmed that only 3% to 5% of the buildings have been destroyed.
There are areas in ruins--the former hotel area, the old commercial center and along the Green Line--where the jungle has taken over, but these are the legacies of ground fighting in 1975, which has not been repeated. Ruins along the seafront and the airport boulevard are the result of Israel's air and naval bombardment in 1982.
If there is little recent destruction visible, it is because modern, multistoried, reinforced-concrete structures can absorb a lot of punishment without falling down. Also, with years of experience, the Beirutis are very good at removing shattered glass and debris within hours: "We are like ants," one of them said.
Before it is possible to get a clear picture of the current state of affairs in Beirut, alarmist myths have to be eliminated. Heavy artillery barrages during Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun's six-month "war of liberation"--actually a campaign, from March to September, within the 14 1/2-year civil war--are supposed to have added greatly to an already high death toll. Another myth holds that this barrage increased the unpopularity and isolation of Aoun, the Maronite leader, thereby reducing the chances of Lebanon repairing its shattered economy.
The numbers of Lebanese dead reported in the world media are dismayingly large, taking into account the small size of Lebanon and its population. Estimates have ranged from 140,000 to 200,000 fatalities over the years of civil war. But this is absurd--at the outside, it would mean that every year an average of nearly 14,000 Lebanese died, or close to 1,200 every month. Nothing like that has happened.
More realistic are figures provided by the hospital of the American University of Beirut--between 36,000-48,000 dead, or about a fourth or a fifth of the numbers currently used in the world media.
The inflated casualty figures have gone unchallenged because, among other reasons, there have been reports that in recent months 10,000-12,000 projectiles, at the rate of 10-20 a minute, rained on Beirut every day. Those figures appear to be gross exaggerations, too--would anyone, under such bombardment, have competently worked a stopwatch?
The figures have political significance, for the higher the death total and the deeper the river of blood, the more difficult is it for the world and the Lebanese themselves to believe they can come together again.
Probably because there has not been as much killing and destruction as reported, a visitor can see a quick bounce back in Beirut toward normality--quick even for the unusually resilient Lebanese. On Sept. 23, when the cease-fire went into effect, Beirut was an eerily silent city, emptied of 80% to 90% of its population. Within three weeks it is once again its horribly noisy and crowded self. Armed men do appear in the streets--not militiamen but scruffy-looking Syrian soldiers and smartly uniformed Lebanese soldiers and policemen. Cinemas are functioning--only one early evening show--and restaurants are open (make reservations three days in advance).
The sharpest reminder of the war is a lack of electricity, supplied two hours a day on average, resulting in an absence of street lighting and a desperate shortage of water because electric pumps are not working. Families go without water for two or three weeks at a time and then only receive it for a few hours. This unnecessary suffering is caused by the Syrians or the Muslim militiamen, or both, who refuse to supply oil, available in the west zone, needed to fuel the power stations in the east.
The best proof that the average Lebanese, heartily sick of the violence, wants to get back to living a normal life, is that only 17 days after the cease-fire the schools and universities reopened. There are also tens of thousands of Lebanese going back and forth every day across the Christian-Muslim Green Line. Surely this is proof that Christians and Muslims can, must and do want to live together, when not only people but every sort of product is crossing zones. I saw bouquets of red roses going from west to east and a truckload of potted plants moving from east to west.
This level of normality exerts an enormous pressure for peace and for continuation of the cease-fire. No one expects the heavy shelling to be resumed; any side restarting the barrage would be hated by everyone, regardless of political coloration.
There is one other factor on which people of all communities, on both sides of the Green Line, seem to agree: Dispelling the third myth, they in fact like and respect Gen. Aoun. The main personal reason is that he is "clean"--he does not make money from his job and he lives a simple, unostentatious life. The more important, impersonal political reason is that he wants to rid Lebanon of the Syrian presence and has done something to achieve it, through bombardment-- although without results so far and at the cost of too many lives.
The Lebanese also know that Aoun has been written off as a nuisance by the United States, Britain, France and the United Nations. They know he has become a part of the Lebanese problem because he is obstinate and inconsistent and authoritarian--that as a tin-pot dictator, "the man on horseback," he is building a cult of personality about him. Yet he remains popular, especially in that dangerous layer of society, the lower middle-class, that loves "strong" leaders. And the lower middle-class is large in Lebanon. Only a fair and comprehensive political settlement and a Syrian withdrawal could rob Aoun of his raison d'etre.
With the groundswell toward peace and normalization, the next item on the Lebanese agenda is restoration of the economy. The governor of the Central Bank, Edmond Naim, a presidential hopeful, recently estimated that it would cost $8 billion to rebuild the infrastructure and public services. While this figure has been mentioned before, Naim's recent announcement was startling, because he went on to say that Lebanon could pay for its own basic rebuilding within two years. He estimated that the Central Bank holds gold and foreign currency to the value of $5 billion and that the government owes the bank $1.52 billion.
When we eliminate the myths, the future of Lebanon is not so terribly depressing. On one night, dinner in my hotel was punctuated with long rippling bursts of automatic fire from around the corner. The waiter consoled me: "Don't be scared, sir. Is happy shooting. One person going marrying."
There is just a chance that, in the future, all Lebanon's shootings will be celebratory.