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Bombs and tears fall on Lebanon.

Byline: Tad Shannon For The Register-Guard

As conditions in Lebanon deteriorate, I feel like someone who is witnessing the slow death of a dear friend.

As of this writing, more than 900 Lebanese have been killed or are missing since the war between Israel and Hezbollah broke out July 12. One out of four Lebanese are now homeless. About 100 Israeli civilians and soldiers have died.

The disaster is particularly appalling because Lebanon was on the mend after years of civil war and occupation by Israel and Syria. I witnessed that progress last November, when with my father and two sisters I returned to Beirut for the first time in 37 years. Our trip was both sobering and uplifting - a reminder of bitter past conflicts, but also a testament to the determination of the Lebanese to rebuild their country.

The impetus for the 10-day trip was business on the part of my older sister, Pam, a staff attorney for the Wisconsin Legislature. She was part of a delegation invited to Lebanon to advise the government on legal and public policy matters.

The trip was also an opportunity for my 88-year-old father to make one more visit to relatives still living in the village where his parents were born.

And for us kids, it was a homecoming as well. We had lived in Beirut in the late 1960s, when my father was an education consultant to the Ford Foundation.

As our British Airways flight from London began its descent into Beirut's airport and the city lights unfolded below, I unexpectedly began to tear up. I remembered living in a vibrant, happy and prosperous city - "the Paris of the Middle East' - and then recalled how Beirut was virtually destroyed by decades of bloody political, military and religious conflict after I left.

The bright lights of the city also were a testament to Rafik Hariri, the popular prime minister and self-made billionaire who led a massive reconstruction effort following the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990. Hariri was assassinated by a roadside bomb in February of 2005 after resigning in protest over Syria's domination of Lebanon.

Hariri's assassination sparked a wave of demonstrations and international pressure, which resulted in the removal of Syrian troops from the country.

We were nevertheless nervous as we landed in Beirut. The U.S. State Department warned Americans to stay away from Beirut's southern Shiite suburbs and other parts of the country that were strongholds of Hezbollah, which is now locked in armed conflict against Israel. The group has its roots in Lebanon's Shiite community and was formed as a resistance movement to Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon.

But from the moment we stepped off the plane until we left, we never felt unsafe. In part that was thanks to our Lebanese government-provided driver and de facto bodyguard, Hadi. Built like an Oregon Duck linebacker and sporting a heavy five-o'clock shadow, his initial presentation was a bit intimidating. But that impression was quickly dispelled by the 23-year-old's boyish charm and mellow temperament.

`Welcome to Lebanon!' he said, grabbing our bags upon our arrival at Rafik Hariri International Airport.

The next thing we knew, we were racing - nobody bothers with speed limits in Beirut - down a wide boulevard leading from the airport into the heart of the capital. Much of the city was unrecognizable for all the new construction and shiny office and apartment complexes.

Our hotel - the Radisson - was a block off West Beirut's corniche, a palm-tree-lined promenade along the Mediterranean. From our hotel balcony, we could see the 9,000-foot, snow-capped ridge of Mount Sannine rising dramatically above the city's port.

However, virtually all the older buildings downtown bore the pockmarked scars of machine gun and mortar fire, stark reminders of the civil war. A couple of blocks east loomed the concrete shell of the former Holiday Inn hotel, which had been a target of competing militias fighting pitched battles along Beirut's notorious Green Line that divided Christian East Beirut from predominantly Muslim West Beirut.

We never got a full explanation for why the building hadn't been torn down. Perhaps it was left standing as a symbolic warning against future sectarian violence. Gazing at the building, I was struck by how quickly Lebanese society fell apart after we left the country in 1968.

The civil war began in 1975, as Christian, Sunni, Shiite, Palestinian and Druze militias battled against one another in complicated and shifting alliances. Israel invaded in 1982, and President Ronald Reagan sent in U.S. Marines in an effort to stabilize the country. The Marines pulled out after a suicide bomber blew up the soldiers' barracks in 1983, killing 241 Americans. Christian militiamen massacred more than 700 people in the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian refugee camps - as Israeli soldiers did nothing to stop it.

It was a sad chapter in Lebanon's history, and one that may repeat itself if the current conflict is not halted.

But on our trip last year, we found that the city we once called home was rebounding. We revisited old haunts and explored an impressive array of new buildings, restaurants and shops bringing life back to the heart of the city.

We strolled through the forested grounds of the American University of Beirut, perched on a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean. It was on these grounds that my family and hundreds of other Americans spent a tense night sleeping on the grass in June 1967 while waiting to be evacuated during the Six Day Arab-Israeli War.

One morning we visited our old school, the American Community School of Beirut, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. The school now has been closed, but hopes to reopen this fall.

We spent hours strolling the Corniche district. Next door to a Starbucks, we stopped in at the Andalus Cafe, a hip club featuring scented water pipes and a magnificent view of the setting sun over the Mediterranean. The patrons were young and seemingly nonsectarian. Some women wore Parisian designer jeans. Others were more modestly dressed, but wore colorful Muslim headscarves, or hijabs, and matching outfits.

The furthest we ventured from the capital was 50 miles east to the ancient city of Baalbeck, site of a remarkably well-preserved Roman temple. Located in the heart of the Bekaa Valley, the temple was to be the site of the 50th annual Baalbeck International Festival, which in more peaceful times attracted the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Joan Baez. The festival - like all scheduled arts events - has been canceled because of the current fighting.

As we drove through the streets of the Baalbeck, signs of Hezbollah were everywhere. Banners with pictures of the group's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, hung from shops and were plastered on the sides of buildings.

The most emotional part of the journey came at the reunion with my father's family in Beit Meri, a Maronite Christian village perched on a mountain overlooking Beirut. We hadn't seen them since the civil war. Several generations of the family turned out for the tearful greeting at the home of one of my father's cousins.

In typical Lebanese fashion, the table was already laid out with platters of hummus, tabouli, lamb kibbi and roasted chicken with garlic. We drank Lebanese wine and sipped arak, a potent drink distilled from anise seeds.

After dinner we visited a room in an adjacent stone house where my grandmother was born more than 100 years ago. My father's cousin explained that during the civil war up to 20 family members would sleep there on mattresses, taking refuge behind the foot-thick limestone walls.

As our visit with the relatives came to an end, we stepped out on a veranda overlooking Beirut. With the sun sinking into the Mediterranean, it was hard to imagine a more tranquil tableau.

This week my father received a call from his cousin with news that Beit Meri had been spared Israeli bombing, but was now home to 100,000 refugees. Another cousin e-mailed last week that he was leaving Lebanon because his employer was moving the firm to Dubai.

The current violence has made my recent trip back seem like only a dream. I hope I don't have to wait another 40 years to make it seem real again.
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Title Annotation:Commentary; The nation was on the mend, only to be ripped apart again
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Aug 13, 2006
Previous Article:Dust Devils return the favor.

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