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After Years of Conflict, Lebanon Is Rebuilding Itself

TV Report Transcript

Since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, the country has been engaged in an ambitious rebuilding program. The capital, Beirut, has a new city center and wealthy people from other parts of the Middle East are investing in luxury apartments. Some critics say this construction boom has ignored the poor and middle class Lebanese. VOA’s Laurie Kassman and Craig Fitzpatrick recently spent time in Lebanon. Laurie narrates their story.

The second annual Beirut Marathon symbolizes the progress the Lebanese have made since their civil war ended in 1990. For 15 years Christians and Muslims were engaged in pitched battles in the streets of Beirut. The fighting also involved outside forces from Syria, Israel and Palestine Liberation Organization. Today Christians and Muslims are walking and running side-by-side. There are 18 factions that make up this culturally rich country. A country that still wears the battle scars of that protracted conflict. But many of these bullet-ridden buildings are quickly disappearing, and so too it seems are the animosities. This rising from the ashes has been a long and difficult ordeal says Lebanon's Deputy Prime Minister Issam Fares:

"We have come out of a shattering war. For 15 to 20 years, the whole country was shattered completely. We have depended totally on our own selves to rebuild."

Lebanon is one of the smallest countries in the Middle East, with a history dating back a thousand years before Christ. It's a country of quaint mountain villages, bustling cities, and a climate that's perfect for growing grapes and making wine. For most of its history it's been known as a unique part of the world - famous as a place where almost anything goes. There are no religious police, women are not required to wear the veil, and alcoholic beverages are served openly. An American who has seen the dramatic changes in Beirut over the past few years is Leotie Scheiderman, who came here for a one semester course during college and has returned numerous times since.

"It has energy, it's coming back to life. The downtown here is beautiful. Every two weeks something new opens, something new happens. The people are very friendly and welcoming and the nightlife is just incredible, the best in the world as far as I'm concerned."

This liberal attitude, and the fact that since September 11th it's been difficult for Arabs to obtain visas for travel to the United States and Europe, has caused many of them to come here and build expensive apartments along the Mediterranean. All this investment is generally good for the Lebanese economy but Parliament member Nayla Moawad, whose husband was assassinated 17 days after being elected president of Lebanon after the civil war, says that the investors and the government have forgotten the needs of the lower and middle classes.

"You should build the human being before the stones. Of course, you have to do both but we shouldn't have neglected the building of the human being, first of all in the education programs. Schools have been given a very, very tiny part of the reconstruction."

And students graduating from Lebanese American University say it's hard finding a job that will pay them a wage commensurate with their degree and skill level. Some surveys show that as many as 60 percent of the graduates are leaving Lebanon for other countries to find jobs.

"If there's work available, and the salary is good, I'll stay, I'll work here. If not, I'll work outside."

Despite the grumblings, political analysts say the physical reconstruction of central Beirut has provided an important symbol for the war-torn nation. Pierre Asmar, who was born in France and is now an American citizen likes to come here, to the city center, when he's in Beirut visiting relatives.

"Lebanon used to be like Switzerland. It was a gem. It's getting back to that now, very slowly though."

And wealthy Arabs are betting that Lebanon, with its temperate climate, trendy café's and liberal lifestyle will once again be the Switzerland of the Middle East.

Video reportage by Craig Fitzpatrick