BEIRUT, Lebanon -- This city is gradually shedding its war clothes, sloughing off the tattered battle uniform of shell-pocked buildings and ruined streets.
It wants to erase the telltale ruins that became a worldwide symbol of senseless war, of a society drawn to self-destruction in a frenzy of neighbor killing neighbor.
Building blocks now are stacked between the piles of rubble. The shriek of artillery has given way to the rumble of cement mixers. Construction cranes knit a new Beirut skyline from one made ragged by 16 years of war.
"If you look at how the country was three years ago and now, you will find a big difference," said Rafiq al-Hariri, the billionaire builder appointed prime minister in 1992 to spearhead the reconstruction.
Telephone service will be reliable by the end of next year, he said. Roads are being rebuilt, water and sewer lines laid, the airport and ports reconstructed.
The public stock market reopened last month. Mr. Hariri says he has stabilized the country's currency and increased per-capita income, and has toured the world to drum up business to revive the ancient trading tradition of Lebanon.
A soccer stadium is going up on the outskirts of Beirut to serve as a venue for an Arab sports tournament next year, he notes. And the $50 million Casino du Liban will open next spring with hopes of again making Lebanon a playground for the rich.
Yet the people of Beirut are healing more slowly than their city.
Even as reconstruction reshapes Lebanon's capital, many Beirut residents speak with an unexpected ambivalence. They talk almost wistfully of the civil war that ended in 1991.
"You know, it's strange to say, but people are happier during the war," said Mohammed Salam, a Lebanese who saw the worst of fighting as a reporter for the Associated Press. "You are glad just to be alive. You love your families and your neighbors more. You don't care about the little things.
'Everyone feels worse'
"And actually, you have more money because there is nothing to spend it on. Now the bills are coming in. Everyone feels worse," said Mr. Salam, who now publishes a hunting magazine and runs an office for a Kuwaiti news agency.
No one wants to return to the killing, the Lebanese hasten to stress. From 1975 to 1991, what began as a fight between the Christians and the Palestinians dragged the country into a civil war including Lebanese Muslims and Druze, and led to Syrian occupation and Israeli invasion and more civil war.
Beirut was dissected by gunfire, vicious shelling that left strips of the city in ruins. No one is sure how many died: Estimates range from 150,000 to 300,000, with many more wounded and 750,000 who lost their homes.
Now firmly under Syrian control, Lebanon has embarked on a massive rebuilding that includes the world's largest urban public works project in this decade and ambitious private projects.
Much of it is the effort of Mr. Hariri. He has heard the complaints -- that the work is going too slowly, that public services still don't work, that big business, including his own construction company, is profiting at the expense of small landowners.
"The work hasn't gone as fast as I expected. But I'm not discouraged," Mr. Hariri said in an interview last month. But the delays, he noted, are due to the enduring political feuds in the country.
"The problem we have in this country is there are lots of politicians and very limited number of statesmen," he said. "The political situation played an important role in delaying. My
opponents do not want me to succeed."
His opponents include Nabbi Berri, the Shiite Muslim speaker of the parliament, who blames Mr. Hariri's building plans for creating new social rifts.
"It is indecent to talk of progress in the reconstruction program when the situation on the social front is deteriorating," Mr. Berri said in a speech recently.
The work is benefiting builders, but prices have risen sharply, while jobs and salaries have not kept pace, Mr. Berri said. Increases in the fuel tax have caused demonstrations, and worker unions are fighting with the government for pay increases. New luxury apartments await wealthy tenants while thousands of families remain homeless.
A study prepared for the United Nations this year said 82 percent of Lebanese families live on $600 a month, the upper poverty line for a family of five.
There is money in Beirut. The discos are full and trendy bars, and restaurants have waiting lists for reservations. Boutiques meet the demand for Paris fashions. Businessmen in Mercedes cars make deals on their satellite telephones.
But the speculative frenzy of buying and selling real estate and building skyscrapers is helping only the richest, critics say, and driving up prices for the rest. This financial squeeze is contributing to the nostalgia for the war.
"During the war, everybody had more. The middle class still had money from before the war, and it took awhile for that to go," said Zeidane Amin, a retired linguistics professor. "Now the middle class has nothing. There is nothing left."
"It was better in the war," said Zouheir Abboub, an architect. "Then, I had lots of business. People were building, even as the bombs fell. They had money."
Now, he complains, the reconstruction is dominated by the government and Solidere, the private development company set last year to rebuild 400 acres of central Beirut.
The return to social order makes the liberty of chaos seem appealing, noted Rima Tarabay, a psychologist and former militia member now working for Mr. Hariri.
"You remember only the time when there was no traffic, when you could do whatever you wanted, when there was anarchy and no law," she said. "Now, you are supposed to stop when a policeman says stop. You have a government. You have to pay your bills. You have obligations."
Dr. Elie Karam, a Beirut psychiatrist, is worried by this postwar malaise.
In a sample of 648 people studied in 1990 and again last year, Dr. Karam found that 50 percent had recent depressions traceable to their exposure to the war.
War not noble enough?
"It's crazy. Normally the rate of depression is about 8 percent," Dr. Karam said. "Logic says that people ought to be getting better. Instead, the war seems to be like a machine that set all this in motion. People are getting worse instead of better."
Perhaps the war was not noble enough, not conclusive enough, suggested Jihad Zouhairi, a former Druze militiaman. During the war, he had no such doubts. He was sure enough to plant bombs, and throw grenades, and shoot to kill. "But the end result was not enough. Not everything changed for the good," he said.
Mr. Zouhairi was a chief lieutenant of Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt, and was involved in street-to-street fighting in Beirut. Now 40, he imports the raw materials for the cement used to rebuild the city.
He would like to be enthusiastic about his new profession, about how the killing is finally over, and about how Lebanon is finally getting on with the business of life. But he cannot.
"I don't believe it. Nothing is really solved," he said. "Lebanon is just a volcano. It's dormant now, but in another 10, 20, 40 years, it will erupt again.
There is a sadness among former soldiers who come to doubt their past, who see that the causes for which they were ready to kill -- or die -- are no longer quite so clear. Mr. Zouhairi stumbled, started again, and wavered in his explanation for the war.
"We thought we were doing our Arab and national duty to fight," he said. "We didn't really have time to think, to analyze. It's not like now, sitting and contemplating. Things happened too quickly. We lived on the run. Difficult. Exciting. Dirty.
"I wish those days would never return. But if they did, they would have to promise me in the beginning that the end result would be worth it before I would fight again," he said.
Mr. Hariri said the days of fighting will not return. He acknowledged that the splits between religions and clans remain, but he said "no one is angry enough to go to war."
"The war is over," he said flatly.
The United States is gradually accepting this guarantee. The State Department last month slightly loosened its 10-year-long restriction on travel by U.S. citizens to Lebanon, imposed when kidnapping and hijacking became hallmarks of the country.
"All the restrictions should be lifted," said Mr. Hariri. "Lebanon is now more secure than many countries in the world where Americans travel freely," he said. "It's very normal now."