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Last Updated: Friday, 18 August 2006, 11:56 GMT 12:56 UK
Lebanon's devastation sightseers
By Martin Asser
BBC News, Beirut

With the conflict on hold, and possibly over, Lebanese people are coming out to inspect the aftermath of Israel's bombing campaign against Hezbollah, which began on 12 July and ended earlier this week after 33 days of attacks.

The Mdeirij bridge, Lebanon
Part of the Mdeirij bridge was made impassable by Israeli bombing
It's a ritual established over many years of conflict in this country - and Hezbollah is poised to elicit the maximum propaganda value from people's reaction to the massive destruction.

However, one of the most popular "attractions" - drawing dozens of curious onlookers every hour - has yet to be decked with Hezbollah slogans or the Shia Muslim militant group's distinctive yellow and green flag.

It is the Mdeirij bridge, apparently the highest such structure in the Middle East, and a once-proud monument to Lebanon's post-war reconstruction.

Now half the westbound carriageway lies shattered at the bottom of the 73m-deep gorge it once spanned, while the other carriageway has been rendered impassable.

A bomb crater in the tarmac of eastbound lane allows you to see the ground far below, and there are rocket impacts near the base of one of the huge concrete supports.

Depressing scene

There's no doubt the bombed bridge is an arresting sight for those like us arriving on the newly opened route between Damascus and Beirut.

But why have ordinary people made the trip up into the mountains to witness what must be for them a depressing and distressing scene of destruction?

View a 360-degree panorama taken in Beirut

Many Lebanese express disbelief that the $44m (23m) bridge should have been a target for Israeli bombing.

Samir Saifedin, who has come with his wife and young daughter from their village in the Bekaa valley, is staring up at the tangle of steel and concrete from the valley bottom.

"I feel very bad to see what Israel has done here - ever since 1948 they have done evil to civilians on our side," he says.

As a member of Lebanon's Druze minority, he is not a supporter of Hezbollah - but he says Hezbollah is not to blame for this damage, as claimed by Israel and its backers in the West.

"Hezbollah may have kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, but Israel kidnaps Lebanese and Palestinians when it likes," he says.

"No-one comes to bomb essential roads and bridges in Israel."

Homes destroyed

In Beirut's southern Harat Hreik district - a Hezbollah stronghold where Israeli air raids have destroyed up to 200 buildings and badly damaged some 200 others - one of the movement's top spin doctors is hard at work.

Hezbollah is not just about rockets and fighting, otherwise people would have left us long ago. We will be victorious in the reconstruction, just as we have been victorious against Israel's army
Ghassan Darwish

Ghassan Darwish is supervising the erection of dozens of red banners, in English and Arabic over the huge piles of debris left by the air raids.

They carry sardonic messages like "Made in the US", "The New Middle East", "Smart bombs for stupid minds" and "Extremely precise target".

The message Hezbollah wants to get over is that this is a civilian area deliberately bombed to rubble by Israel - people's homes, businesses and social centres buried under thousands of tons of crumpled concrete.

The extraordinary thing is that hundreds of people - from the whole Lebanese political and confessional spectrum - are walking through this dusty scene of devastation.

Bulldozers supplied by Hezbollah have cleared safe walkways through the wreckage and yellow tape prevents visitors from entering unsafe buildings or areas not yet cleared of unexploded munitions.

Rebuilding victory

Young men in red baseball caps saying "Ja'a Nasr Allah" (literally, "God's victory has come", but also a pun on the name of Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah) are moving through the crowds.

Devastation in southern Beirut

They hand out copies of a letter from the local Hezbollah leadership giving details of how people can receive money for temporary accommodation from the movement and promising "the return of our people whose homes have been damaged by the Israeli aggression".

"We will rebuild this whole area," Mr Darwish proudly tells me.

"Hezbollah is not just about rockets and fighting, otherwise people would have left us long ago.

"We will be victorious in the reconstruction, just as we have been victorious against Israel's army."

It seems a tall order, given the enormous scale of the damage, but already people are gathering in Mr Darwish's volunteers' tent and being given shovels and brooms to start the clear-up.

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