When I met Antanos Hasrouni at the height of the conflict in Lebanon, the bitter irony of his life hung like a cloud about him. Chased by the war to a rented room in East Beirut, Hasrouni was readying a tiny apartment for the nine other members of his family who would join him. He had previously spent more than two decades abroad to escape Lebanon’s civil war; now he faced the prospect of losing everything he had come back to Lebanon to rebuild. I had a nice house, Hasrouni said of his home in the village of Ain-Ebel, just two miles from the Israeli border. But now we can forget about that.
I traveled to Lebanon through my work with Catholic Relief Services, which is working to provide assistance to tens of thousands of the 980,000 people displaced by the conflict. While some, like Hasrouni, rented homes in Beirut during the war or in the mountains north of the capital, the majority of the people displaced stayed with friends and family members in areas less affected by the fighting. An estimated 160,000 people crowded into schools and other public buildings, where aid agencies and local volunteers worked nonstop to provide them with food, water and other essentials.
For many, displacement was an all too familiar experience. Since 1978, three years into a 15-year civil war that turned the capital, Beirut, into a warren of bloody violence and kidnappings, Lebanon has endured three Israeli invasions. The most recent conflict erupted on July 12, when Hezbollah fighters abducted two Israeli soldiers from a border outpost. In 34 days more than 1,200 people were killed on both sides, the vast majority of them Lebanese civilians.
This latest spasm of violence has been made more heartbreaking by its timing. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, which devastated Lebanon’s once thriving economy, wealthy Middle Eastern tourists have slowly been returning to Lebanon’s sandy beaches and mountain resorts, providing an annual infusion of cash upon which hundreds of local hotels and restaurants depend. In recent years, the number of European tourists has also been on the rise, and figures from June indicated that 2006 was on pace to be a record year for Lebanon’s tourist industry. Though the Lebanese government has been funding reconstruction largely by tapping foreign exchange reserves and additional borrowingwhich has increased the national debt to more than $38 billionthe country has been slowly climbing back from the economic abyss.
After more than a month of Israeli air and naval bombardment, Lebanon’s infrastructure lay in tatters. Across the country, bridges, roads, gas stations and factories were reduced to rubbletargeted, Israel said, to disrupt the flow of weapons and other support to Hezbollah. The damage is estimated at $3.5 billion for direct repairs. When the loss of tourist and other revenue is factored in, the cost soars to as high as $9.5 billion. According to some government figures, this sets Lebanon’s development back 20 years.
While pledges of support from the international community have now reached into the billions of dollars, decades of war and a weak government have left many in Lebanon bitterly skeptical about the prospects of rebuilding. Lebanon is a country sharply divided within itself. The nation has 17 officially recognized sects and a network of cultural, religious and political fault lines that bred cynicism among many here long before the outbreak of this latest round of violence.
We don’t believe what they are saying, Hasrouni said from his rented apartment in East Beirut. No one is looking after humans; they are looking after politics.
Even if government pledges of massive reconstruction and development do materialize, there is little doubt that the effects of the war will be long-lasting. One international nongovernmental organization estimates that 85 percent of Lebanon’s 195,000 farmers lost some or all of their crops during the war. Orchards throughout the southsome of them used as launch sites by Hezbollah fighters firing Katushka rocketswere scorched by Israeli air raids. Residents in many affected areas report that their wells were contaminated by dead livestock; and most were without power or water for weeks after the end of hostilities, their crops left unwatered in the late summer sun.
An oil spill caused by an Israeli air strike on the Jieh power plant south of Beirut also dumped an estimated 15,000 tons of fuel oil into the sea, contaminating more than 85 miles of Lebanon’s coast and wreaking havoc on the country’s coastal fisheries. In the quaint resort town of Byblos, just north of Beirut, thick waves of black oil now lap at the ancient walls of Roman ruins that line the coast. On a sunny Sunday after the cease-fire, only three patrons sat awaiting lunch at a usually crowded seaside restaurant. Having lost the summer tourism dollars that sustain them, businesses such as these face financial hardships that will extend deep into next season.
Unexploded ordnance remains a serious threat as well. In the first three weeks of the cease-fire, 61 people were killed or injured by unexploded ordnancea number almost equal to the total number of injuries caused by unexploded ordnance from 2003 to 2005. The United Nations claims that across Lebanon are strewn as many as 1.2 million unexploded cluster munitions, small anti-personnel explosives heavily used by Israeli forces in the last 72 hours of the war. U.N. demining teams estimate that it will take until December 2007 to clear the 578 known cluster-bomb sites across the country. An additional 500,000 mines from previous conflicts still lie buried along the southern border as well. With so many hazards still hidden among the fields and rubble of the south, it is certain that this war will claim more victims in the months and years ahead.
As the long-term form of Lebanon’s reconstruction begins to take shape, many questions remain unanswered for people like Antanos Hasrouni, caught up in a war not of their choosing and angry at the rhetoric surrounding the situation in Lebanon. In the days before the cease-fire, when Hasrouni was asked what people outside of Lebanon should understand most about the crisis in which he and hundreds of thousands of others were caught up, he replied: I don’t know how anyone will hear our voice. We have nothing, and we have done nothing.