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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 August 2007, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Beirut discovers depression
Julie Flint returns home to Beirut and reports that, despite a love of life, the Lebanese are suffering from terrible uncertainty and insecurity.

The city of Beirut
Much of Lebanon's 3.8 million population is concentrated in Beirut

Something strange happens to me whenever I fly into Beirut airport, which I have been doing many times a year for the past 26 years. My heart beats a little faster and I get butterflies in my stomach.

It could, I suppose, be a subconscious reaction to the memory of my first arrival in Beirut in December 1982 when our plane was seized by armed men who threatened to kill one of us every five minutes unless their demands were met.

But I do not think that is it.

It is more of an expectation, like a first date, a reunion with a partner unseen for some time.

That, plus worry about how I will find my house, my friends, and my cats - especially Captain Flint, the three-legged ginger who jumps like a bean from the highest places he can find, still not understanding that he is one limb short.

Old friends

I love Lebanon and have from the minute I stepped up to the immigration desk when the hostage-taking was over and the officer behind the glass divider grinned at me and said "Welcome to Lebanon!"

Map of Lebanon

On this last visit, the officer looked at my passport and said: "Not married? Why? You are very beautiful."

You do not get that kind of personal touch at Heathrow, especially at 59. It is probably illegal, come to think of it.

The Lebanese are so upbeat, with such a love of life. But they are a disastrous lot politically, even taking into consideration the troublesome, meddlesome neighbours they have.

The same faces fill the papers today as they did in 1981. Then they were militia leaders - today they are political leaders.

They sit in parliament and their underlings have exchanged AK47s for mobile phones and Hugo Boss suits.

Do not get me wrong. Many are my friends. They have been good sources and, more importantly, good friends over the years.

But I would not vote for them if I were Lebanese.

A new concept

Once through immigration, it is the airport mafia, run by Hassan, a Shia from the southern suburbs of Beirut. They rush upon you, arguing about prices.

But in my case not for the highest fare - for the lowest.

The ride home should be $30 (15). Last month one driver was rash enough to propose $20.

Hassan pounced on him. "She is our friend," he said. "It is $10." And then, to me: "Not a penny more, mind you!"

But Lebanon today is not like it was yesterday.

On the surface, little has changed. High-rise buildings are mushrooming everywhere, blocking the sun and killing the jasmine, and the old red-roofed houses that made Beirut are coming down, bulldozed by rapacious developers.

Abu Hassan, the old man who served in the British police in Palestine 60 years ago and who now works at Sporting Club, the beach where I swim, still offers me a coffee when I buy my ticket.

My housekeeper, Clody, still fills my house with flowers before I come and removes the cat hairs from the furniture.

But my Lebanese friends have a new word in their vocabulary. It is "depressed". They do not act "depressed" - they never do - but they are.

Sectarian menace

The mood at Sporting Club, in whose cabins we used to shelter during the Israeli invasion of 1982, is unusually gloomy.

Partially destroyed and empty buildings
Some of Beirut's war-damaged buildings remain unrepaired

The car bomb that killed MP Walid Eido and nine others detonated less than 100 metres (yards) away. The damage is a constant reminder of the terrible uncertainty and insecurity today.

You can hear Israeli warplanes but you cannot hear the car bombs - until it is far too late.

Lebanon had a long period of tranquillity, with the odd spike of extreme violence, between 1990 and 2006.

Last year's summer war was catastrophic. Not just because of the hundreds of people killed by Israeli rockets, the homes, businesses, and bridges destroyed, and the lethal, wicked cluster bombs that still carpet South Lebanon.

But also because of the effect it had on a young generation that grew up in peacetime and on a tired, older generation that had dared hope that peace had come and believed it might last.

Today, many of my young friends are leaving Lebanon, not wanting to be minced on their way to the beach and looking for work opportunities that are shrinking as the violence blows back on the economy.

They are concerned too by the sporadic Sunni-on-Shia civil conflict - the first in Lebanon's modern history - that has taken almost a dozen lives this year.

The taxi driver who took me to the airport when I left this time was Sunni.

He pointed to the Shia southern suburbs where Hassan lives as we drove past and drew his finger across his throat. "They are the cause of all our problems," he said.

"I will fight them myself if I have to."

He was not joking.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 11 August, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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