Heavily bombed south Beirut tries to clean up

BEIRUT — The bitter smell of burned plastic is carried on the wind with the choking dust churned up by a noisy backhoe that rattles and scrapes at a small mountain of rubble.

Residents of the southern Beirut district of Haret Hreik are cleaning up, salvaging what they can from apartments and shops damaged by Israeli bombings during a 34-day war that ended with a ceasefire almost two weeks ago. “That is my building, and my factory. It’s called Rotex,” Issam Wahid says of the collapsed jumble of small concrete lumps and larger slabs mixed with steel rods. The backhoe picks away at the three-metre-high mess on the neighbourhood’s main street.

His building was one of many hit in this district of tightly packed apartment blocks. Those not blasted into pieces had their windows blown in by the explosions.

The corners of other buildings have been sliced off, like the edge of a cake. About a block away from the remains of Wahid’s factory, just the top floor of one building has been crushed.

Backhoes work throughout the area, dumping debris into trucks in a clean-up effort that residents say is funded by Hizbollah.

Wahid, who says the destruction cost him $3 million, watches from a chair across the road from the rubble.

A few salvaged possessions lie at his feet — a cracked and dirty mini-stereo system, soggy books, a dusty camera, and a crumpled picture of Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose Shiite fought the war with Israel.

Nasrallah himself lived in Haret Hreik, which also housed the Hizbollah political headquarters and associated agencies, including the television station Al Manar — all of which became Israeli targets.

Wahid’s two nephews climb onto the debris and scavenge what they can. One of the young men brings him some photographs and documents.

“That’s my store in Paris,” Wahid says, flipping through the pictures.

That store is still open, but his shirt and pants factory in Haret Hreik is finished.

“There were 84 people working there. We sold merchandise to France, America, Europe,” says Wahid. “There is no work for them now.” He lived in the same building, in an apartment taking up the entire 10th floor.

“My brother was on the ninth,” he says, his black slacks spotted with dust. None of his family was killed or wounded, Wahid says while a pot-bellied man in civilian clothes and a pistol on his hip operates a makeshift checkpoint leading towards even worse damage down the road.

Like others who suffered losses in the area, Wahid says Hizbollah gave him some financial compensation.

“We received money but that’s for renting a place to live — 10,000 dollars,” says Wahid, who is now living in a hotel.

A survey by Hizbollah engineers logged 6,000 damaged or destroyed apartments in the area.

While Hizbollah began doling out cash compensation more than a week ago, the government has said it plans to begin a multibillion-dollar reconstruction of Lebanon’s damaged housing and other infrastructure next week.

“What government?” asks Hussein Mojed, 17, helping a friend prepare a small food store for reopening across the street from where Wahid sits. Mojed says Hizbollah’s compensation money is funding their renovations.

“We want to open tomorrow,” Mojed says. “We are the first… Everyone wants to eat here.” The food store is on the ground floor of a building which survived with only slight damage from a blast that destroyed another structure next door. There is no longer any sign of the clothing boutique that Ghazwa, a well-dressed woman in a green headscarf, says she operated for two years.

Behind the lot strewn with garbage, cables, concrete, and a giant concrete slab perched curiously atop the other debris, is a scorched apartment building where Sabah Baidoon lived.

“We had a fire,” she says, recounting the aftermath of a bomb strike on the adjacent building.

Baidoon said she is using $5,000 compensation money from Hizbollah to repair her unit.

“We’re happy because we defeated Israel,” she says, and then gestures towards the grey landscape of damaged concrete stretching before her. “All this will come back.”

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