In Lebanon, Neighbor’s War Feels Like Its Own


wedding in Dhahia at scene of explosionWorkmen are laying fresh bricks on balconies shattered by last week’s car bomb in a Hezbollah stronghold here, and there are frequent rallies at the site to keep residents’ spirits up. A bride and groom in their wedding finery dropped by the other night to reinforce the message that life must go on.

But some local residents do not fully share the public optimism of Hezbollah, the militant group and political party whose support for Damascus in Syria’s civil war is believed to have motivated the bombers. Many expect more attacks.

“When I leave the house, I say goodbye to my whole family, and when I leave work, I say goodbye to my colleagues,” said Farida Yacoub, 27, an engineer who lives nearby. “I might come back and I might not.”

The bombing, the deadliest in Lebanon in decades, killed 27 people, ravaged a neighborhood south of Beirut and served as a new and powerful reminder of how vulnerable the country is to spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria. The fighting is so close, and the social and political ties between the two countries so strong, that echoes of the war resonate through many aspects of Lebanese life.

More than a half million Syrian refugees have flooded Lebanese towns and villages, and fear of violence has scared away tourists. Bitter divisions among competing political factions over the war — many Sunnis support the mostly Sunni rebels, while Hezbollah has sent fighters to back President Bashar al-Assad — have contributed to their failure to form a government to address the country’s most pressing problems.

Always looming in the background for older Lebanese are memories of the country’s own civil war, which raged on and off between 1975 and 1990, destroying communities and deeply scarring the society. “There is a general neurosis in the country because this reminds us of a period of the Lebanese civil war when every car was a potential bomb,” said Bassel Salloukh, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. “This has a lot of psychological costs and impacts.”

Recent news has not helped raise spirits. Militants still hold two Turkish pilots kidnapped near Beirut’s international airport this month. And within days of last week’s attack, security forces found another vehicle they described as a car bomb in the making.

“We don’t know who brought that car or who it was meant to target,” said Zahir Mezhir, a member of the City Council in Naimeh, where the car was found. “We don’t understand anything, so everyone is scared.”

The discovery of such a threat shocked residents of Naimeh, a quiet city on a hillside along the Mediterranean coast 12 miles south of Beirut.

The authorities found the car, a silver Audi sedan with counterfeit license plates, parked in a garage under an apartment building next to the local council headquarters. Its trunk held more than 500 pounds of explosives, along with detonators and small metal pellets and nails, security officials said.

Although the police have arrested a number of men they say were part of a group that was plotting to detonate more car bombs, fear still reigns. Some residents have left to live with family elsewhere, while others remain vigilant, flooding the local police station with calls about suspicious activity.

“Now, every citizen considers himself a policeman,” Mr. Mezhir said. “If he sees something strange, he makes a call. If he sees a strange car, he makes a call.”

Others said that long familiarity with conflict has given the Lebanese their storied ability to get along with life, and particularly night life, in difficult times.

“There are explosions and everyone cries, but then soon after the wife starts asking her husband: ‘Where are you going to take me out? What about that dress you were going to buy for me?’ ” said Hassan Ghizawi, 60, who runs a dry cleaning shop in Naimeh.

Fueling Lebanon’s instability are the strong links between parts of Lebanese society and the warring parties in Syria. Most suspect that Sunni extremists angry with Hezbollah’s role in Syria carried out the recent bombing and a similar one five weeks earlier, though no one knows if these will prove to be isolated attacks or the start of a series.

That remains to be seen, but the attack has undeniably altered life in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where many of Lebanon’s Shiites live in a virtual state-within-a-state run by Hezbollah.

Since the bombing, the group has set up checkpoints along all entrances to the area, where men with armbands and walkie-talkies check identification, question drivers and search cars, causing huge traffic jams.

The group has fully claimed the bombing site, where the bearded face of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, peers down from huge photographs hung on tall apartment buildings alongside banners declaring Hezbollah’s commitment to “resistance” — the catchall term for its fight with Iran and Syria against their enemies, which include Israel and Syria’s rebels.

A few hundred Hezbollah supporters held a candlelight vigil between the burned-out shells of the two most damaged buildings, then marched back and forth, carrying photos of the “martyrs” killed in the blast and chanting, “We are here for you, Nasrallah!”

Nearby, a dozen men in yellow hard hats, from a Hezbollah rebuilding group known as “construction jihad,” worked on plans to repair the damage. A banner on one storefront declared: “With God’s help, Matouq’s first-rate falafel shop will return more beautiful than it was before.”

In his men’s clothing store, Ahmed Faour, 43, said he had been thrown to the floor and showered with flying glass by the blast. A few days later, he had returned to clean up and assess the damage, which he estimated at about $4,000.

He guessed that extremists had targeted the area because of Hezbollah’s decision to stand with Mr. Assad, but said the group would not change its position, even if that raised the threat of future attacks.

“The war is still going, so of course we expect more explosions,” he said with a shrug. “We’ll be careful, but no matter how much security there is, someone can always get through.”

NY Times

Photo: A Lebanese bride and groom posed for photographs at the site of a car bombing in Beirut that killed 27 people last week. Many people fear more attacks.