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Vision of Rebuilding Lebanon Wanes

By HASSAN M. FATTAH
Friday 2 February 2007



BINT JBAIL, Lebanon, Jan. 16 — In August, Mohammed al-Seyed watched with some pride as tractors driven by Hezbollah men rolled in to begin scooping away the rubble and debris of a month of war with Israel, while engineers and others set to work.

This Hezbollah stronghold would soon rise again, the leaders of both the town and the militant group’s building arm, Construction Jihad, said defiantly.

More than five months later, however, with winter here and Lebanon’s government enmeshed in political crisis, the tractors are gone, the army of men has disappeared and Bint Jbail’s town center still resembles Dresden after World War II.

“They told us everything was going to be rebuilt soon,” Mr. Seyed said Tuesday, speaking of town leaders. “They’re not doing anything now. We want to build but they won’t let us. They promise to pay us, but they don’t. All we want is our homes back and they won’t even let us have them!”

There may be as many excuses for the slowdown in rebuilding in the south as there are political factions in this nation. Some people blame the weather; some say residents living abroad are just taking their time; some officials cite disagreements over the amounts paid to those who have lost their homes. In one rare admission, a senior Construction Jihad official said his group was overwhelmed by the destruction.

“Our goal initially was to work with our own hands, but we soon realized we weren’t enough, so we decided to begin reimbursing people,” said Abou Ali Bayloun, regional director for Construction Jihad in the southern port town of Tyre. “It is natural that the workers in the area will not be enough in the area. It needs a lot of workers to do this.”

But politics is at the heart of the problem. Hezbollah and its supporters point fingers at the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora; the government reflects the accusation back at Hezbollah. Residents now blame both sides.

Ultimately, some analysts say, neither side wants to take responsibility for the task of reconstruction. The government avoids direct involvement on the ground, trying to avoid blame for inefficiency, while Hezbollah has also reduced its activities and is capitalizing on residents’ frustrations for the lack of action.

“One side doesn’t want to be accused of slowing things down,” said Habib Debs, professor of urban planning at the American University of Beirut. “The other side wants to blame the government for not doing anything. So nothing is being done and both are happy that that neither is doing anything.”

Certainly, the two sides lack coordination and cooperation, which alone is a serious barrier to reconstruction. Fear, too, plays a role: residents who could begin building have hesitated, fearing further conflict with Israel or, worse, civil war.

“People are terrified,” said Ali Eid, deputy mayor of the town of Srifa, one of the few southern towns witnessing major construction. “They know that if there’s problem in Beirut, it will spread and spread south. We’ve started because we had to. But Bint Jbail is closer to any war that may happen.”

The political wrangling unleashed in the war’s aftermath, culminating in the walkout by six Hezbollah-aligned ministers in November and six weeks of unbroken demonstrations in Beirut by Hezbollah and its new allies — including Christian and Druse groups that were once its mortal enemies — has raised sectarian tensions, especially between Sunnis and Shiites.

Officials of the Siniora government insist that they have done what they could for the Shiite-dominated and Hezbollah-friendly south, but that the political crisis has prevented major decisions from being made.

“Hezbollah has been part of all the committees,” said Mohammad Safadi, minister of public works and transportation. “They are part of the decision-making process so they are as much to blame.” Mr. Safadi said that up to 40,000 households had received government payments of up to $40,000 each to rebuild their homes and could proceed at will.

But officials in Bint Jbail and other southern towns accuse the government of adding red tape and withholding aid to punish them. Bint Jbail’s leaders say that electricity service worsened after Mohammad Fneish, the minister of electricity and water resources, resigned with the other Shiite-aligned ministers. They say that telephone service is still spotty because the minister of telecommunications is Marwan Hamadeh, an ally of the Druse leader Walid Jumblat, an outspoken critic of Hezbollah.

“The whole south is in the same situation as us,” said Haitham Bazzi, who heads a committee on reconstruction for the old section of Bint Jbail. “They have forgotten us, despite the war and everything we went through. That’s why many people here are fed up and want the government out even before the politicians do.”

The town — which has 6,000 full-time residents and almost 30,000 living abroad, most in the United States — was adopted by the government of Qatar, which promised to finance the reconstruction. But many villagers feared that residents would take the payments and abandon the village, so Ali Bazzi, the mayor, lobbied to get the Qataris to hire a construction company to rebuild the whole area and preserve its historic nature.

He outlined big dreams for his decimated town in August. It was to become a model city in the south, with new apartment blocks, wider streets and modern infrastructure. A group of local residents and college professors stepped in with its own competing plan, which would rebuild the historic homes, preserving the town’s character while leaving the high rises at the town’s periphery. The debate, local residents say, continues.

Now the reconstruction plan is moving in stages, said Hussein Saad, a member of the city council. The first stage, now complete, entailed reimbursements of up to several thousand dollars for reparable damage to homes. The second will pay up to $40,000 for rebuilding demolished homes. And finally a third will rebuild homes in the historic older district. The foundations of a temporary market are in place, to house stores and stalls until the bombed-out market is rebuilt.

But city officials say that much of the process has been stalled as they wait for approvals from the Department of City Planning, a branch of the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation in Beirut. Mr. Safadi, the minister, acknowledged the delay but said he had found a way to work around the problems.

The cabinet has drafted new legislation allowing all residents of the south to expedite construction, but said the legislation would normally have to be passed by Parliament. Instead, the cabinet has encouraged city governments to move ahead.

“We simply can’t wait for Mr. Berri to hold a session of Parliament any more,” Mr. Safadi said, speaking of Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Parliament who has backed the opposition and has refused to convene Parliament. “We can no longer hold the people ransom.”

In the rubble of Bint Jbail on Tuesday, Mr. Seyed’s voice continued to rise. “I am going to pitch my tent in the center of town and stage my own protest,” he said. “We’ll bring down the city government. We’ll bring down the whole damn show.”

Nada Bakri contributed reporting from Beirut.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/22/w...


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