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Lebanon’s Renewal Is Dashed in Weeks

Times Staff Writer

When Lebanon breaks, Fadl Chalak 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 month-long bombing campaign.

“I’ve never seen so much destruction in such a very short time,” Chalak, president of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, said last week as the government calculated infrastructure damage at more than $2.5 billion.

Overall losses to housing and small business are likely to exceed the total for the country’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, the government says. A quarter of Lebanon’s population has been forced out of their homes, and as many as 200,000 of the estimated 1 million evacuees may have no home to return to when the war is over, the Economy and Trade Ministry says.

“I have seen all the wars,” said Chalak, who was instrumental in 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.”

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The government review shows that Israel has largely avoided some types of 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.

Although 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 Abed and Hrat 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 say their early estimates of the damage extend only 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 last week in his office at the handsome Ottoman-era building that is the seat of Lebanon’s government, only a 15-minute drive from city blocks that are in ruins, Chalak was trying to summon the energy to start over -- finding the bank loans, manpower, construction materials and the will to turn another generation of rubble back into buildings.

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“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?” Chalak said.

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 with blueprints and reports peered in. His secretary worriedly carried in messages from the half a dozen men camped outside his door. Mostly, he waved them away, staring without expression 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.”

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

Among the bridges destroyed was the well-known Mdeirij Bridge connecting Mt. Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley on the road to Damascus, the Syrian capital.

“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 Chalak. “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.

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

Power plants also were spared, although a large fuel tank serving the Jiye generating plant south of Beirut was hit, sending 20,000 tons of fuel pouring into the sea and causing about $80 million in damage. 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 Groupe Danone, and a large tissue-producing factory owned by a Palestinian Christian who lives in Jordan.

“What connection could these factories have to Hezbollah?” Sami Haddad, Lebanon’s Economy and Trade minister, said in an interview.

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Haddad said Lebanon’s recovering tourism industry is a shambles, along with the agricultural sector and most other businesses that depend on open roads and freely available fuel.

Lines at gas stations in Beirut stretch three blocks 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.”

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

Eight hospitals, including three in the southern suburbs of Beirut, have closed because of daily bombings nearby. 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 the remaining staffers 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 or there is a cease-fire, hospital director Wasim Wazzan said he was worried about handling a crush of seriously injured people from southern Lebanon.

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“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 the 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,” Wazzan 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?”

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

Planners see new possibilities: Why not draw people out of the hot, dense suburbs that have been bombed into rubble and build new apartments for them in more pleasant parts of the city? How about making a park in Bir Abed, where Hezbollah’s offices used to be?

Chalak, one of the moderates who President Bush hopes will be the architects of a new Middle East, floats these ideas, and then laughs at himself.

“I’m not washing my hands. I’m still fighting because I think there’s a job to do.” he said. “It was Immanuel Kant who said the definition of ethics is to do what you have to do, because you have to do it.”

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But then he thought about what he had just said. It seemed too optimistic.

He recalled that his father, a poet, tended to be more pessimistic. “He would say, ‘What is man? Man is a failed project of a stupid God.’ We used to argue with him. Now, of course, I think he was right,” Chalak said.

“You see, watching TV every day, I get so angry, I just give up,” he said. “Make no mistake. Every Arab now, every Muslim, has a little bit of 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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Murphy was recently on assignment in Lebanon.


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