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Guns are silent, but still felt

The Syrian soldiers get edgy when the light starts to fail. They stand next to their tin shack in the middle of the road that divides East and West Beirut, the road that separates Muslims and Christians. They wave traffic into single file and, with worried faces, they peer into each car as it stops.

BEIRUT – The Syrian soldiers get edgy when the light starts to fail.

They stand next to their tin shack in the middle of the road that divides East and West Beirut, the road that separates Muslims and Christians. They wave traffic into single file and, with worried faces, they peer into each car as it stops.

Sunshine still lights up Beit Mery, the mountain that towers at the end of the road. But dusk is settling on the city below and that means it is time to start checking, time to send drivers scurrying home, time to be wary in Beirut.

A year has passed since the big guns stopped ripping scars across this city. But the cannons, rockets, mortars and bombs are still here, locked up in cellars as tightly as hatred is locked up in hearts.

It is such an ugly time in such a beautiful place. The snowy caps of the mountains give way in folds of forest to a soft green valley that ends at the blue Mediterranean Sea. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, French – all were drawn here to rule and build. Libyans, Kuwaitis, Iraqis, Egyptians, Saudis, English, Germans, Americans – all came to exchange goods and thoughts.

Now the Syrians are here, not in search of territory or trade but as a peace-keeping force watching over a Beirut that is having difficulty picking its way through the rubble of a once-rich past.

In East Beirut, stronghold of the right-wing Christians, a car has been thrown onto its roof. It lies like a dead bug atop a low platform of cement. Children play atop the car and shinny down some pipes that jut crazily out of the cement.

The pipes used to be the plumbing of a house, the house where one of the children lived. But the house is gone now.

From a burned-out shell next door to a companion piece across the street, wires are strung to hold a giant portrait of Pierre Gemayel, leader of the Phalangists. With an iron-jawed calm, the face seems to be surveying the wreckage of his party members' homes and the next generation of followers as they play amid the rubble.

A pile of cement, plasterboard and tile is all that remains of the eight-story apartment building that used to stand near the corner. A block away, Michel Karam, 25, whose family owned the building, tinkers under the hood of his car.

Along with an auto-parts business downtown that was looted and bombed in the two years of bitter civil war that preceded the last year of sullen peace, the apartment building represented the family fortune. At this point, there is no thought of rebuilding.

"We have the land still, but now we have no money," Karam says.

And what has he done since he laid down his weapons?

Michel Karam thought for a minute, then shrugged.


In West Beirut, the center of left-wing Muslim strength, shacks of corrugated tin and plywood huddle along the Korniche – the coastal drive – blocking the view of the Mediterranean.

This is a new "shopping center" in Beirut, new "stores" for merchants bombed and shelled out of the downtown.

Farther along the beach are similar shacks that house some of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who were ejected from East Beirut.

In the half-light that hangs over the sand and the sea, Mahmoud Khalidi, 32, sits on an orange crate in front of his shack, stolidly chewing up seeds and spitting them onto the beach.

His big, rough hands suggest that he is a laborer, but Khalidi says he needn't have been. "I was starting my own business. I had started," he says, and he chews and spits, and resumes. "I had maybe 300,000 Lebanese pounds ($100,000) of building materials next to my house. Then the Kataib (Phalangists) came and destroyed it."

And the house?

"Of course, the house," he says, and glances over his shoulder at the shack. "You think this is the house of my dreams?"

Now, by day, he works construction, when there is work to be had. In the evenings there is his crate and the seeds and the gathering gloom on the sea.

"I thought before than one night I would just put myself out there and die, and then it's finished. But then, my family would have nothing," he says. "So, I stay here, for them."

Downtown is saddest of all, perhaps because it was the most beautiful.

Big hotels that looked out over the harbor were used as citadels by the rightist and lefist militia. A couple of them, punctured by cannon fire and burned within, still stand.

The Holiday Inn can be identified by the half of a sign still affixed to its wall. A rusting tank is wedged into the first floor, where the lobby used to be.

Other hotels and the shops and stores that lined the streets here before 1975, cannot be detected without a guide.

Jusuf Hasham drove a cab here for 20 years and knew every building inside and out.

"This was the best restaurant, Lebanese food," he says, pointing to a pile of bricks and garbage.

"Here was the gold market, 500 shops, a bazaar – Turkish," he says. A path through a couple of peaked arches leads to heaps of rubble pushed back from the street. The regular corners of the stones testify to the craftsmanship of the 18th and 19th-Century masons.

In a square where three theaters once vied for the night crowd, the front wall and marquee of the Rivoli are all that are left. The letters hanging on the smashed glass of the marquee still advertise "Les Divorcees."

"This was beautiful, beautiful," says Jusuf Hasham, as if he can still see all that stood here before.

"Stupid Lebanese. This war should have been some other place. This war came from outside, like the Palestinians. There was never any trouble before the Palestinians came. They are too many for Lebanon."

This war came from outside. This war was not ours. The refrain is everywhere.

After a civil war more vicious than any Mideast war, it has come to be an article of faith among Lebanese that their problems came not from themselves, but from the regional war in which they were unfortunately caught.

They cheered their caretaker president, Elias Sarkis, when he said that Lebanon could not and would not absorb the 450,000 Palestinian refugees who live here.

"It is as the president said," Redwan Mawlawi, who works for the Ministry of Information, says. "We know that what happened here was as a result of the Palestinians. So, once the main problem in the Middle East is solved, the Lebanese problem will be solved."

But they do not mark when a Christian Lebanese says: "We are not Arabs, we are the Phoenicians, the builders of this country. The Arabs have nothing here without us."

And they do not choose to hear when a young Muslim says that his brother, a doctor, left Lebanon because he could not get acceptance from the Christian medical establishment. "It was because he was Muslim," he says, "and here, the Maronite (Christians) hate anything that is Arab."

On either side, there is a theory not just to prove that the war came from the outside but to explain from whom and why.

The right-wing Christians say it was the work of the Arab governments that supported the Palestinians and the Muslim left-wing parties, subsidized their radical newspapers and stocked their commandos with Soviet arms.

"The Saudis and the Iraqis and (Gen. Moammar) Khadafy in Libya cannot afford to let us have peace," says a Phalangist sympathizer in the suburb of Ain El Rumanneh, "because we would put out the Palestinians and then the Palestinians would be their problem."

The Muslim left and the Palestinians say that the war was the work of Israelis and Americans who supported the militant Christian right and sent in American arms.

"The game like they did in Vietnam – the U.S. Vietnamized that war. Here in the Middle East, they Arabized the war," says a Palestinian official at headquarters in West Beirut. "And they succeeded, for two years; they pushed the Christians to keep the Arabs fighting with themselves instead of with Israel."

It is always safe to conclude that Lebanon's problems are not all of her own making.

This is the way it has been here since Lebanon gained independence after World War II. Beirut was not only the economic hub but the political sounding board for every tremor and thump that the Arab world produced.

In 1948, two years after the French pulled out, the war that established Israel sent more than 100,000 Palestinians streaming into Lebanon.

In 1958, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser unified Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic and then turned to Lebanon. The resulting conflict here, between Nasserites and anti-Nasserites, took on dangerous Muslim – versus – Christian overtones until the United States, reacting to its own Mideast interests, sent in the Marines to stop the fighting.

In 1961, Syria seceded from her union with Egypt. A coup d'etat rocked Lebanon.

In 1964, the Arab League in Cairo created the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO0. This meant the establishment in Lebanon of a well- armed and increasingly radical minority equal to 15 percent of Lebanon's population but under leadership independent from and often antagonistic to the Lebanese government.

In 1967, the Six Day War, in which Lebanon had no part, sent another wave of Palestinians into the country.

In 1970, reportedly with the backing of the Nixon administration, King Hussein of Jordan launched a war against the Palestinian commando units in his country. After a year, Hussein triumphed – and once again Lebanon bore the brunt of actions in which it had no part.

By that time, the Palestinians numbered 400,000, about 20 percent of the population in Lebanon, the only country from which they could operate freely.

In this decade, a stab anywhere in the Middle East made Lebanon writhe in pain.

After two years of war and a year of occupation by Arab League troops, Lebanon is still on the end of a dozen strings that lead to all parts of the Mideast.

When Egypt and Libya have a falling out, the bombs go off in Beirut.

When Iraq and Syria trade propaganda blasts, the killing takes place in Beirut.

Last month, a Muslim former premier, Saeb Salam, spoke out in support of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's moves toward peace with the Israelis. Salam's house has since been bombed four times.

In the end, it is too easy to say that this was not Lebanon's war, because in the end, Lebanese were fighting Lebanese.

In the town of Damur, a 15-year-old Palestinian, who moved here with his parents when they were driven from their camp, cradles a Bulgarian machine gun as he sits on a stoop with his friends.

He is asked why he has the gun. He stands as if to recite in school. "To kill the Kataib (right-wing Christians)," he says.

Why?  "Because they are fascists."

What are fascists?  "Kataib."

In Ayn El Rumbannen, a teenage Christian says he will fight until all the Palestinians are gone. I will fight for my brother who was killed by the Fedayin (Palestinian commandos)," he says.

"I never fought, because he told me it was wrong. He was going to leave. I would have gone with him. Then, most of the fighting stopped and we stayed. And one morning, they found him over there, in the road, with his testicles stuffed in his mouth."

These are the Lebanese, a sophisticated people, who in ancient times taught the world writing, who in modern times taught the Arab world what was best from Europe and America, who made the universities, trained the doctors, translated the literature, organized the business and took care of the banking for nearly all the Mideast.

At a dinner party in Asherafiya, the music is 18th-century German, the carpets are 19th-century Persian and the wine is 1970 French.

The host is a man whose conversation ranges easily from American pop culture to Phoenician shipping routes.

Then the conversation turns to war and the host produces, in a mottled plastic bag, a severed, staring, female head.

So Lebanon suffers from events without and within. Even peace, to those who seem unwilling to abandon faction, is a matter for dispute.

All factions say they want it.

While machine guns are being assembled outside Phalangist headquarters, Bashir Gemayel, military commander of the Phalangists and the righist National Front, says, "We are ready to make a national accord but the Muslims cannot speak for themselves because the Palestinians now control them."

And beneath a poster of an Arab soldier smashing the butt of his rifle into a hotel, Abu Sola, a leader of the Nasserite Arab Socialists, says "the accord depends on the Christians now. (They) still say we do not represent the Muslim, and if they do not recognize what is existing on the Muslim side, there will be no accord."

And as Palestinian and Communist commandos, holding their machine guns, lounge nearby, Mahmoud Labaday, spokesman for the PLO, says, "If they want an accord between Christians and Muslims here, why not?  Let them do it. We are even in favor."

Only rarely will someone break ranks and shout across the battle lines to the other side.

One who did was Abdel Hamed Ahdab, 37, a lawyer and a Muslim who crossed the lines to write in newspapers – Muslim and Christian – on the future of Lebanon.

"It was for the entente, I was insisting on only one thing," he recalls. "We are all Lebanese and the interest of all of us must come before. The interest of all Lebanon."

Last month, ten kilos of explosives were detonated at his apartment door. A series of operations in Paris saved the life of his wife. Ahbad himself will soon be off crutches. One more operation may be required to save his sight. But his daughter, Jumana, 9, could not be saved.

Last week, he returned from the hospital in Paris and checked into a hotel high atop Beit Mery.

He is more wary now, and more bitter. "What has my wife done?" he says. "What did my baby girl do to them?"

He has no immediate plans for writing.

"Perhaps in a couple of months," he says. "Perhaps when I am stronger."