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Tuesday, 26 March, 2002, 11:22 GMT
Bright Beirut offers template for peace
New UN building in Beirut - War torn Beirut in the 1980s
Shiny new buildings contrast with Beirut's old image
This is the first in a series of despatches from the BBC's Roger Hearing, who is in the Lebanese capital for the Arab League summit meeting:

There was a point in the car on the way to see Hezbollah when I think both I and my producer wondered whether what we were doing was wholly wise.

Beirut is a city of associations - like perhaps Saigon or Sarajevo, the name itself starts a kind of newsreel in the brain, images of war and drama and danger.

For my generation, Beirut is forever shrouded in gun smoke, armed and angry men crouching in its rubble-strewn streets, and hostages chained for long years to radiators in its cellars.

Beirut was known as a dangerous and violent place
Of course that's all unfair and out of date, but I couldn't help reflecting that before it helped to push the Israelis out of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah was chiefly known for kidnapping Westerners, and that Lebanon is still not a country where you are quite sure who is in charge.

On the way back from our appointment, we passed a bored-looking soldier sitting on a barrel outside an empty theme park called Fantasy World.

It's a useful point to be made to visitors... this land too once had a conflict that seemed unending and beyond hope

There were plenty of flags with two stars rather than the Lebanese cedar motif.

This we were told was part of the Syrian military presence, that keeps the peace around here.

But I'm jumping the gun - the fact that we were on our way home at all means, obviously, that we had passed through Hezbollah territory safely.

In fact we could not have been shown more courtesy and kindness by bright young men who staff Hezbollah's information centre, helpfully signposted just above a popular bakery among the dingy apartment blocks of west Beirut.

New image

There is something faintly surreal about an organisation with such a tough and uncompromising image, occupying a suite of offices, with a reception desk and a bank of telephones.

Hezbollah military parade
Hezbollah remains an influential force
But Hezbollah, under its current leader, Shaikh Nasrullah, is a group of great influence and no little power in this part of the world, and its officials - at least the ones we met - would not seem out of place in the boardroom of a major oil company.

They fit in with a Beirut that has taken a decade to dust off the debris of the civil war, but is now busy adjusting its tie and polishing its shoes as it puts on an Arab League summit.

It's on display and it's taking every opportunity to impress - enthusiastic students are everywhere, guiding delegates through the shiny new airport and sitting cross-legged filling press packs for journalists.

And it's a useful point to be made to visitors, especially those gathering this week to discuss the seemingly interminable and insoluble descent into violence between Israelis and Palestinians - this land too once had a conflict that seemed unending and beyond hope.

And though much of the old world - Syrian troops, Hezbollah, Palestinian refugee camps - remains, Lebanon has found it is possible to live in peace.

See also:

24 Mar 02 | Middle East
Arafat's travel dilemma
25 Mar 02 | Middle East
Beirut given summit facelift
25 Mar 02 | Media reports
Great expectations from Beirut summit
27 Feb 02 | Middle East
What is in the Saudi peace initiative?
21 Sep 01 | Country profiles
Quick guide: Arab League
04 Jan 02 | Country profiles
Timeline: Arab League
23 Jan 02 | Middle East
Profile: Amr Moussa
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