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Development over heritage: Lebanon's destructive war legacy lingers on

Bombarded back into history

Published on 10 July 2010

Author(s): Amnesty UK/Pieter Stockmans

Type:  Blog

After having endured two destructive civil wars since the end of the Second World War, and numerous bombardments by the Syrian and Israeli armies, Lebanon seems to have become expert in reconstruction

Lebanon knows about destruction and reconstruction. A shaky balance between a Maronite Christian minority and Sunni and Shii Muslim majorities turned Lebanon into the ideal Middle East battlefield. Syria, Iran, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Israel, the United States, France and the United Kingdom have all waged its proxy wars through the several Lebanese militias. After having endured two destructive civil wars since the end of the Second World War, and numerous bombardments by the Syrian and Israeli armies, the country seems to have become expert in reconstruction. Being turned to rubble and rising from the ashes twice as strong, has become Lebanon’s trademark. This is not unambiguously good. It has given free way to a blind development without limits. I have seen, to the detriment of Lebanon’s magnificent cultural heritage.

This is most obvious in Beirut, capital city and front line of the civil war for 15 years. It made the city’s name synonymous to war. Today, it seems to have become synonymous to building and construction, as if it was a compensation for years of destruction. After the end of the civil war it was a wealthy business man who took on the reconstruction effort with Solidere, a company in which he was the largest shareholder. That man, Rafic Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, became prime minister one year later, in 1992. Walking the streets of Beirut in 2010, the dominating sounds are the buzzing of cars everywhere and the drilling of construction sites around every corner.

Bombarded back into history

Four years ago Beirut, anxious to regain its status as “the Paris of the Orient”, was forced beyond its will once again, to be a battlefield of death and destruction, when Israel ruthlessly bombarded its southern quarters with full force. The destruction and death toll among civilians were enormous.

Amnesty International reports the following on the start of the war: “On the morning of 12 July 2006, Hizbullah fighters crossed the border into Israel and attacked an Israeli patrol. They returned to Lebanon with two captured Israeli soldiers. Eight other soldiers were killed. At the same time Hizbullah carried out diversionary attacks along the border. Hizbullah officials told Amnesty International that no civilian was targeted on 12 July, although according to press accounts a number were injured in these other attacks. Hizbullah named its ‘Operation True Promise’ after a ‘promise’ by its Secretary General, Hasan Nasrallah, to capture Israeli soldiers in order to exchange them for Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared Hizbullah’s attack an ‘act of war’ and promised Lebanon a ‘very painful and far-reaching response’.

That’s effectively what happened. Until 14 August 2006 a confrontation took place between Hizbullah and Israel. Israel attacked civilian infrastructure and killed some 1,000 civilians. Whole families were killed, neighborhoods wiped off the map. In a country of fewer than four million inhabitants, more than 25 per cent of them took to the roads as displaced persons. Some 500,000 people sought shelter in Beirut alone, many of them in parks and public spaces, without water or washing facilities.

Hizbullah launched thousands of Katyusha and other rockets on northern Israel, killing 43 civilians. Most of Lebanon’s bridges were destroyed in a sophisticated and coordinated bombing round by the Israeli air force. A few seconds were enough to paralyze Lebanon’s growing economy. In the meantime, hundreds of apartment blocks in Beirut’s southern neighborhoods – Hizbullah’s headquarters are located there – were reduced to rubble. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert later admitted in front of the Winograd Commission that the Israeli government was planning the attack on Lebanon for a while. Hizbullah gave the Israeli’s the ideal casus belli to bomb growing Lebanon back into history. All too familiar for Beirutis, but adding to the trauma was the last thing they were looking for.

Renowned British journalist and Lebanon-expert Robert Fisk sees Syria behind the Hizbullah capturing of Israeli soldiers. According to him Syria was ‘using’ Israel as an instrument to punish Lebanon for the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon after Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri’s assassination in 2005. Israel indeed left its trademark in Lebanon: the mass punishment of a whole people to influence support levels for militias that it considers a threat. The Gaza blockade and the Gaza military operation in 2008-2009 are to be understood in this way. As is the 2006 bombing of Lebanon. Hizbollah remains one of the last Lebanese thorns in Israel’s eyes. Israel aims to punish the Lebanese for their support for Hizbullah, or the Lebanese government for not disarming Hizbullah. After the Lebanese civil war, Hizbullah refused to disarm because it aspired to continue to wage the armed struggle against “Israeli aggression on Lebanese territory”. Obviously, behind the refusal were Syria and Iran – respectively the political and military supporters of Hizbullah – who need Hizbullah as an armed proxy to wage the frontline battle with Israel.

But behind the refusal is also the widespread support Hizbullah still enjoys among the Lebanese population, not only from its own Shii Muslim constituency. Zeina, a Beiruti artist, part of the Christian community, tells me: “It was 33 days of hell. It was murder, it was horrible. Everyone was running around like crazy, calling friends to hear if everything was OK. Even the moderate people started to speak of their hatred for Israeli’s and respect for Hizbullah. I have to say I respect Hizbullah, because they are the only ones in this country that fight Israeli aggression against our country. Everything you will say in defense of the Israeli’s, even if you’re right, will fall on deaf ears now.”

Rising from the ashes

Four years after the “hot summer” of 2006, little is left of the destruction. Lebanon has become expert in reconstruction. The bridges and southern suburbs of Beirut were reconstructed within one year. The seemingly endless cycle of destruction and reconstruction has plunged Lebanon into blind growth madness, a continuous great leap forward, a kind of development that obeys only the laws of money and short term profit. Other factors, such as long term consequences of development projects, esthetic considerations, threats to Lebanese cultural heritage, are being considered obstacles to be ignored or shuffled under the table.

Old Lebanese house on the Green Line.jpg
Old Lebanese house on the Green Line

‘What is the use in having a car if you can’t drive it in the streets of your city’ I ask in amazement. The priest puts everything in perspective: “You have to understand that the Lebanese people’s only concern for decades was surviving. A country at war for so long, does not know the luxury to develop policies on spatial planning, heritage protection, regulations on traffic, etcetera. What is happening today is the consequence of that vacuum and we are still crawling out of it today. On top of that comes a weak government controlled by foreign powers. During the war, there were few functioning institutions, laws and regulations. At the end of the war, when it tumbled into the other extreme of blind reconstruction, the country was still without functioning institutions and regulations. You can guess the consequence: it was a paradise for project developers who wanted to make quick fortunes to the detriment of Lebanon’s rich historical heritage.”

Beneath the skyscrapers of Beirut lies an archeological riches. A city so frequently destroyed and rebuilt throughout history, Beirut has 6 layers underground. Every time digging starts to lay the deep foundations for a new skyscraper, the construction companies stumble upon archeological finds. Then some kind of procedure is set into motion. Archeologists come and make an index. The next morning the archeological finds have disappeared under a layer of concrete. No one is held accountable for this crime. “Only today, we see the government is making a start of some more regulation. But it might already be too late” adds the priest.

Driving on the Jounieh-Beirut seaside highway, Mathieu shares his memory of what once was: “This highway used to be beautiful, lined with trees and the sea right next to you. It was a joy driving here. In just 30 years, everything changed. The sea has been pushed out of sight by advertisement panels and apartment blocks. The trees have all been cut to enlarge the highway, to accommodate the growing numbers of cars. What once was a beautiful enjoyable ride along the coast, has become the sum of ugliness.”

Mathieu’s father Joseph takes me on a ride through once beautiful hillside villages along the coast. He explains: “The streets we are driving through right now used to be part of the most picturesque village on the slopes of these mountains.” I try to imagine the paradise of old stone houses and green hill slopes it used to be, but it’s hard. The only buildings I see are concrete apartments that reach at least 15-storeys high. Not a single house constructed in old stones. “The concrete monster is swallowing more and more of the green hill slopes. It’s hard to accept. I can no longer breathe in these streets. The sky is gone, the sea is gone, the green is gone, the paradise Lebanon I know from when I was younger, is gone” says Joseph. When it comes to Lebanese development, Joseph is a cynical man. He counters my naive cries ‘can’t we stop this horrible evolution?’ with hard realism: “It is unstoppable. I no longer waste my energy in winding myself up over this. I have come to accept it. Instead we are doing what we can in our own world, to protect ourselves against this hell. We try to preserve our own connection with nature. That is why we built our little paradise in Ghazir.”

Arriving at Mathieu’s and Joseph’s house in Ghazir, just east of Jounieh’s chaos, the dimensions of their sadness dawn to me. They have indeed built their own little paradise, an oasis of respiration amid the suffocating and unstoppable Monster of Modern Development pushing the ugliest apartment blocks up from the ground like mushrooms. I see a centuries old Lebanese house restored according to Mathieu’s philosophy of integrating nature into the house’s architecture. It is their way of resistance. “We are holding on. Numerous times I have been offered tons of money to leave our house in Jounieh, so it could be demolished. Indeed, only then the neighborhood’s metamorphosis could be complete. Our house is the only old stone building left here. High, concrete buildings have risen up around us. As if it was our house that was later built in the middle of this concrete jungle.” Standing on the balcony of the house Joseph lingers a bit melancholically: “I have seen all this change in just 25 years. Mathieu used to play in the orange fields just across the street.” No fields to be seen across the street today. Joseph continues: “During the civil war in the 80’s Syrian bombs used to fall in my garden. A lot of old stone houses were damaged. Instead of being restored to its former glory, they were demolished.”

Mathieu shares the cynicism of his father: “In Ghazir we have built our fortress against the assault of ugliness. We built it to be able to retreat. My father raised us among nature. I have suffered a lot from the coming of ugliness to Lebanon. Every time I return home from work I used to get sad. But there is no way back. The power of money is too strong. The Lebanese government is corrupt. Some administrators in the Ministry of Culture are of good will, but corruption is also in the authorities who are supposed to protect heritage. There is no hope for Lebanon. Beirut, for example, will be a city of skyscrapers and concrete buildings, with isolated spots of heritage lost in a concrete jungle.” Mathieu seems to be genuinely hurt. His frustration goes deep: “I feel I don’t belong to this land anymore. I don’t want to raise my children here.”

Lebanon, as countless other fast developing countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, is following the example of the west before a mentality of heritage protection has been able to take root, and before functioning heritage-protecting institutions have been able to develop. It is hostage to a blind belief in progress; progress defined along the image of western cities. Lebanese politicians see opportunities to turn Beirut into the capital of the Middle East. These politicians forget that capitals draw moral power from its rich past and heritage, its architecture. And so the Lebanese continue the work started by the war. So it is that destruction and construction can actually do the same thing: contribute to the disappearance of Lebanon’s rich cultural and architectural heritage.

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