Hezbollah rises from ruins of its Beirut home

Its political resurgence traces to the Israeli destruction of Dahiyeh, which it aims to remake.

By Megan K. Stack

Los Angeles Times

December 27, 2006

BEIRUT — Mohammed Haidar watches yellow machines chew smashed kitchen appliances like hungry beasts, crumpling the stoves and refrigerators, compressing them into tight-packed wads. Neighbors in the bomb-wrecked streets are glad to scavenge the mangled guts of domesticity; they buy the balls of metal cheap.

"It's deformed and weak. People take it and remold it," Haidar says. He snorts, the smoke of his Marlboro hanging like vapor in his mouth. "They should recycle the whole city."

To stroll through the Dahiyeh, the predominantly Shiite Muslim slums of south Beirut, is to take a tour through the ruins of Hezbollah's past — and prospects for its future. Nearly six months after Israeli airstrikes laid waste to these streets, teams of Hezbollah designers are drawing up grand plans for the area's rebirth.

This is more than terra sancta for the powerful Shiite political party and militia. In a real sense, the Dahiyeh and its people are Hezbollah: a district and a movement defined by each other.

Against this tumbledown backdrop, Haidar has lived out his tumultuous 18 years: His father, a Hezbollah official, was assassinated here when Haidar was a child. Haidar drove an ambulance through these streets during last summer's war with Israel, sleeping on sidewalks while explosions shook the earth. He lost the apartment where he lived with his mother and sister, and rented a new one with a cash handout from Hezbollah.

Thousands of stories like Haidar's, chronicles of displacement, hope and fighting, crisscross the streets of the Dahiyeh. It was in these slums that Hezbollah first began to use the deprivation of Lebanon's Shiites as an instrument of defiance, and to turn generations of neglect into political capital.

In spite of, and in part because of, the destruction of its de facto capital and southern heartland, Hezbollah emerged from the war with heavy political ambitions. No longer willing to remain largely independent of state power, Hezbollah called massive street demonstrations to demand a larger share in the government.

"The Dahiyeh is the history of the Shiites, the transformation from quietism to activism," says Ibrahim Moussawi, editor of Hezbollah's newspaper and a Dahiyeh native. "When you talk about the Dahiyeh, you talk about the grimmest face of Lebanon."

Home to war refugees

The Dahiyeh was still a swath of sleepy villages and fruit orchards when the creation of Israel sent droves of Palestinian refugees into makeshift refugee camps here. For decades after, the neighborhoods kept on growing. The population swelled in waves with every war as Shiites from southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley in the east flocked to the city's edge to escape violence and economic ruin.

At the eve of last summer's war, nearly half a million people were packed into its crazy maze of apartment houses — about an eighth of Lebanon's total population. They lived in perpetual neglect, many of the buildings still pockmarked from previous bursts of fighting.

The neighborhoods here are improvised, careless, as if the chaotic lives of war refugees had hardened into a tangle of concrete, dented cars and electrical wires. There have never been enough bridges, traffic circles or tunnels. The electricity would shudder to a stop for hours at a time. There was nowhere to park a car, no place for children to play, no fresh air to breathe.

"The people were left to their fate," Moussawi says. "They started to look after themselves."

In the heart of the Dahiyeh stands Hrat Hreik, a half-crushed neighborhood of shabby shops and apartment blocks that Hezbollah claimed as its self-administered governorate.

Hezbollah's top officials are believed to live and work in Hrat Hreik. Until bombs brought the walls down, the political headquarters were here, studded within apartment buildings plastered with icons of Iranian ayatollahs. Hezbollah's radio station, satellite television channel and newspaper operated from well-known offices here.

From Hrat Hreik, Hezbollah thrived and grew into a popular political party, winning the fierce loyalty of Shiites by building hospitals and schools, organizing social security programs for the elderly, caring for orphans and widows.

As the son of a Hezbollah "martyr," Haidar was raised on charity from Hezbollah and the party's main backer, Iran. He was 1 1/2 years old when his father was killed in a bombing attack; he believes Israel plotted the assassination, working through Lebanese proxies. He doesn't let himself speculate about the collaborators.

"I don't really want to know. I could guess about some parties," he says. "I don't seek revenge. If I knew, I'd seek revenge."

As he prowls the wrecked streets of his neighborhood, Haidar cracks corny jokes, calls out greetings to workers in the bakery where he had his first job, stops to chat with a young woman who is also the child of a Hezbollah "martyr." During the war, he says suddenly, he washed the bodies of two dead friends, preparing them for burial according to Muslim rite.

"Sometimes I envy them," he says, peering out into jostling cars. "Why? I don't know. Let us cross." And with that, he steps off the curb.

From its foundation in 1982, Hezbollah's message to the Shiites was revolutionary: Forget the discrimination and neglect you have faced. Never mind the government. We can take care of ourselves.

"With the arrival of Hezbollah, there was the creation of Shiite territory," says Mona Fawaz, a professor of urban planning at the American University of Beirut. The Dahiyeh, she said, "became sanctified."

The Dahiyeh's destruction

And then it was destroyed. The bombs that crashed down on the Dahiyeh last summer left behind a bewildering, postmodern wilderness of shattered buildings. In 34 agonizing days, thousands of apartments were lost.

Empty sockets gape where apartment buildings once rose. Pits so deep they induce vertigo yawn in the earth. Snapped columns crop up like crazy tree trunks. Buildings list like fallen layer cakes.

"See that yellow Caterpillar? That's where my house used to be," Haidar says. Then he points to a deep hole in the ground; a little boy has clambered down and is struggling to wrest an old blanket from the wreckage.

"Now we have a swimming pool," Haidar says. "It's good to have a sense of humor when you see your house like this. Otherwise, you'd have a stroke." He lost his father's beloved Polaroid camera in the bombing, the one he had used to document his village in the south. He lost the love letters his father wrote to his mother.

Haidar spent the war working as a paramedic for Hezbollah's Islamic Health Society. Because he is his mother's only son, Hezbollah offered to let Haidar spend the war out of harm's way. He refused. "I said, never," he says now. When the fighting finally ended, thousands of people poured back into the neighborhood, exhausted, only to find their homes crushed.

To collect compensation from the government, people need to produce papers proving they owned something. But the mayor of Hrat Hreik, Samir Dekache, says that only about half of the displaced have valid documents.

On this morning, Dekache sits behind his enormous desk, a tiny cup of coffee between his fingers and a harassed look on his face. Outside his door, the offices are crammed with people demanding files from a frazzled secretary. All are hoping the municipal archives might contain some piece of evidence of their ownership. The secretary shouts into the crowd in frustration. "I don't care who it is, I won't answer!"

"The government did not help us at all. The government did not even ask us what we needed," says Mohammed Zein, a 33-year-old grocer and father of two who lost his home and his shop in the bombing. "There is no municipality working here. Look at the streets, how dirty they are. Where is the state? They haven't done anything."

Many people believe the government is deliberately starving the southern suburbs of aid, he says, in hopes that desperation will sour popular sentiment toward Hezbollah. But instead, he said, the reverse is happening. The Shiite party didn't bother with promises or sticky bureaucracy. It just showed up with stacks of cash.

Throughout Lebanon, members of rival sects are mired in dread and anxiety about Hezbollah's goals. The most extreme opponents fret that Iran is working slowly through Lebanon's Shiites in hopes of eventually establishing another Islamic Republic. They worry that Shiites will seize power and push them aside.

Hezbollah says it's not so. Officials insist the party is simply looking for a share of power proportionate to its political support, that Hezbollah understands the roles of the other religions and would not seek to disenfranchise anybody.

Among neighbors, the most acute discussions of their place in Lebanon tend to center on money, not religion. People point bitterly to the opulence enjoyed by other Lebanese and gripe about corruption. They complain that the army did not defend them from Israel, and that the government did not care about them after the damage was done.

Dekache, the mayor, is a Christian and hasn't lived in the southern suburbs for years, not since the religious bloodletting of the civil war drove Muslims and Christians to segregate. Still, he says, "Hrat Hreik is all Hezbollah, Christians and Muslims."

"When I became mayor, they insisted on rebuilding a church that was burned in the war," he said. "We hold Mass there every day."

Envisioning the future

So far, serious reconstruction has not begun in the Dahiyeh. In a culture of martyrdom and suffering, the rubble stands as a constant reminder to the Shiite neighbors of the wars they have suffered, and the party that defended them.

But as the bulldozers scrape through the rubble, Hezbollah is considering landmarks: Designers dream of a huge central mosque surrounded by a sprawling, traditional market. An area for the Shiite holiday rites of Ashura. An arena for political speeches.

Engineer Mohammed Mezmieh uses his finger to trace ideas on a piece of paper, his ring flashing in the morning light: "This would resemble Andalucia, with arches and very traditional architecture," he mumbles, referring to the region of southern Spain. "We need parking, green areas, restaurants."

Hezbollah has already turned Lebanon's most scorned and neglected religious group into a daunting political and military power; now, it is as if it wants to repeat the experiment with the district itself.

"We have this vision of changing the image of the Dahiyeh," says Nawar Sahili, a Hezbollah lawmaker. "If you just rebuild it like it was before, it will be sad."

Haidar and his family used the money from Hezbollah to rent another apartment in the Dahiyeh. Haidar likes it so much he talks about buying it once he finishes nursing school and gets married.

Haidar is eager to participate in the demonstrations, and tells his girlfriend he is prepared for clashes with government troops.

"She said, 'Why?' " he says. "I said, 'Because I want to build a country for you and for me, where we can hold our heads up because we are Shia.' "