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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 September 2006, 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK
Beirut's anger over lasting damage
By Chris Morris
BBC News, Beirut

A fisherman struggles to leave a small port in Beirut covered with a thick layer of oil
Several million gallons of oil flooded the coastline near Beirut

The port of Beirut has welcomed its first big cargo ships since Israel lifted its eight-week blockade of Lebanese territorial waters and air space on Friday imposed after the capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah militants.

While the lifting of the embargo is clearly a significant step for Lebanon, Chris Morris has been finding out that the repercussions of the conflict are still keenly felt, even outside those areas most badly damaged in Israel's military offensive.

Abu Ali is 49-years-old. In a small open boat, he has been fishing off the coast of Beirut for a quarter of a century. It is a familiar routine - make money in the summer when the fish are plentiful and the seas are calm. It helps tide you through the winter.

But there has been nothing familiar about the summer of 2006.

The small port of Dalieh is a tiny inlet, little more than a stone's throw from the posh sea-front apartment blocks of West Beirut. About 100 fishermen usually set out from here, Abu Ali among them, to ply their trade in the Mediterranean.

But Dalieh has died, it has been smothered.

Everything is covered in a thick slick of heavy fuel oil. The smell sticks in the throat, the oil sloshes against blackened boats and rocks, polluting everything it touches. It is filthy, it is toxic, and it is right in the heart of the city.

A few men in oil-stained overalls are trying to clean the surface of the water. But their pump has broken down and there is so much garbage stuck in the oil that it becomes a thankless, demoralising task.

The fishermen look on, disconsolate, and wonder when they will get their port back.

Massive setback

Abu Ali has eight children to feed. He has already had to sell his car to make a little money.

"Even if we wanted to go out to sea," he says, "we cannot sell the fish. Why did the Israelis have to ruin our shoreline? And why haven't our leaders done more to help?"

It is more or less eight weeks now since Israeli air strikes sent several million gallons of oil flooding into the sea from a power plant south of Beirut.

A cat with its legs covered in oil walks near a small port in Beirut
This is heavy fuel oil, and some of it has sunk to the sea bed, poisoning delicate ecosystems

Since then delays caused first by the war, then by bureaucratic incompetence, have allowed it to spread along the coast.

On Beirut's famous beaches oil has seeped up to half a metre into the sand. Hotels and fish restaurants are closed. And marine life is under threat as well. This is heavy fuel oil, and some of it has sunk to the sea bed, poisoning delicate ecosystems.

For a country so dependent on trade and tourism, it is a massive setback. This has always been an outward-looking sea-faring nation, a place which traces its history back to the Phoenicians and their ancient ports at Biblos, Sidon and Tyre.

Lebanon is already simmering with anger about the Israeli bombardment. To lose the sea is an added blow.

Most of the oil will eventually be cleaned up, and Beirut will re-emerge from this. So will the rest of Lebanon - it has done it before.

But much of the damage has already been done. Every conflict leaves it mark, and this one is no different.

Brutal reality

In the neighbourhood around the Place de l'Etoile, near the BBC office, just down the road from the 19th-Century Ottoman palace which houses the prime minister's offices, the bars and cafes are full once again - late into the night, and into the early morning.

Many of the buildings around here are new - reconstructed on the ruins of the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. Symbols of a resurgent Beirut.

But the clock tower which stands sentinel where all the roads converge has been draped with expensively produced banners.

A destroyed shop in Beirut
Designer boutiques and dead bodies. It is an awkward juxtaposition, deliberately so

"Blood and Tears," says one.

"Two Israeli soldiers abducted," reads another, "hundreds of Lebanese children killed. Is it right?".

Around the clocktower Lebanese flags flutter amid graphic photographs of the recent war. Children's bodies. Bits of children's bodies.

Images of the brutal reality of violent conflict which rarely appear in the Western media.

Some people stop and stare and shake their heads. Others wander past, clutching bags from expensive local stores.

Designer boutiques and dead bodies. It is an awkward juxtaposition, deliberately so. But even those who have come out to party here have not forgotten their fury.

Most of it is directed at Israel. Some of it at the international community which failed to stop the bombardment for five weeks.

A few blame Hezbollah for crossing the border and capturing the soldiers in the first place, provoking Israel in the summer heat of July.

That is not, though, a sentiment you will hear in the southern suburbs of this city - the Shia strongholds where entire streets have been flattened by Israeli missiles.

The destruction there is intense. So, too, is the determination to rebuild.

But normal life? Well, on the surface, yes, it is returning to many parts of Beirut. This is a resilient city. The lifting of the Israeli blockade is another step on the road to recovery.

But the events of the past two months have been an unexpected, unwanted shock.

"Normal?" says Abu Ali, in the stinking, oil-soaked port of Dalieh. "I've almost forgotten what that is."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 9 September, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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