In Beirut, building boom brings hope after years of civil war But skeptics warn instability could spark new round of conflict


BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Until a few months ago, crossing between East and West Beirut near the waterfront at night meant threading through a labyrinth of empty streets and past ghostly buildings, the abandoned silhouettes of destruction that served as reminders of civil war.

That quintessential Beirut experience is no more.

Now traffic flies along recently built overpasses and through newly opened tunnels. And from the bridge at Fouad Chehab Avenue, one looks down on a shining cube of light -- the new, 18-story regional headquarters of the United Nations, the first building to be opened in Beirut's central district since the 1975-1990 conflict.

Journalist Tewfik Mishlawi said it gives him a boost whenever he sees the lights from the U.N. building burning brightly, a harbinger of renewed life after so many years of darkness in the old heart of the city. The new highways are welcome too, helping to knit together the war-sundered sectarian communities of Beirut.

"This will have a very big psychological effect," he said. "This has removed the barrier between Muslim West Beirut and Christian East Beirut."

Beirut has always been an emblematic city. For years, it was known as the crossroads of the Middle East, a paradise where East met West, where the jet set played, where spies spied and bank accounts were kept even more secret than in Switzerland.

Then, during the civil war, it was the heart of darkness, a city whose name meant kidnapping, killing and chaos. More than 85,000 people are thought to have died in Beirut alone, among them the 241 U.S. Marines blown up by a suicide bomber in 1983, in the worst U.S. military tragedy since Vietnam.

Now the city is evolving into a symbol of reconciliation and rebirth. Where once echoed the thud of mortars and the rattle of machine guns, today there are the roar of compressors and the grinding gears of construction machinery, merged in an almost joyful din. Where once stood buildings that looked like Swiss cheese, perforated by thousands upon thousands of rounds of ammunition, there are now smooth facades and painstakingly restored Art Deco flourishes.

The U.S. decision last summer to end the longtime ban on Americans traveling to Lebanon was a message to the world that Beirut was open again for business. Now the progress in construction and restoration has become undeniable. The Herculean work of Solidere, the private consortium in charge of rebuilding and marketing the ruined district, is starting to pay off.

"The city will have a bit of Hong Kong, a bit of Paris, a small part of everything," promises Lebanon's peripatetic prime minister, Rafik Hariri, a billionaire builder who has been the driving force behind the regeneration of the capital.

"When you live in Beirut," he said in an interview, "you feel that you can have anything."

Despite Hariri's ebullience, many Lebanese still eye the future with apprehension. The city has been rebuilding as if peace in the region were an accomplished fact, but these Lebanese fear that any untoward move by Syria or Israel, or a breakdown in authority inside Lebanon itself, could easily plunge the country into another devastating round of conflict.

Undeterred by such doubts, Solidere has plunged ahead with its work at a breakneck pace. For four years, it has been clearing rubble, reclaiming new land from the sea, removing refuse and installing sewers, electricity and phone lines.

By summer's end, the streets in the central business district will be reopened to the public, complete with newly planted trees, street furniture and ornamental lamps, said Nasser Chammaa, Solidere's chairman.

Solidere officials say work on basic infrastructure is nearing completion, as is the refurbishment of about 265 war-damaged structures that were deemed worthy of saving for their cultural, historic or architectural significance.

Now all decks are cleared for new construction, including the rebuilding, in traditional style, of Beirut's famed open-air marketplaces -- its souks -- by the end of next year.

Meanwhile, runways are being extended at Beirut International Airport to accommodate a hoped-for surge in tourists and business travelers. Along the seaside corniche and in the shopping district of Hamra in West Beirut, new luxury hotels, boutiques and restaurants are opening nearly every week, residents say.

"It's coming. But I wouldn't say it's back," said Walid Daou, manager of the Hard Rock Cafe, situated on the four-mile corniche that snakes along the turquoise-blue Mediterranean and is now the haunt of joggers, skaters and bicyclists.

Yet skeptics abound, those who believe that Lebanon remains hostage to the whims of its stronger neighbors. Such people are still "voting with their feet" and moving abroad, observed one longtime diplomat in the city.

"We are still living in a tense situation," said Edmond Hajjar, 25, an electrical contractor. "You don't know which day you are going to have a war. We really don't trust that we won't endure a war again."

Pub Date: 5/02/98

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