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Beirut Dispatch


Four stories below the earth, in an abandoned parking garage, the families sprawled on blankets and on straw mats, with diapers and rumpled clothes ranged around them. Enormous generators circulated the stinking air. It reeked of staleness, human waste, and the recycled exhalations of thousands of refugees, most of whom had been there for days. To get in and out, or to move between levels, lines of people squeezed simultaneously up and down a staircase only wide enough for one.

Rowina Abdullah, a pretty 23-year-old with red-rimmed eyes, had left her house in the Shia neighborhood of Haret Hreik three days ago, just before it was bombed. She had been sitting underground ever since. "You are the third person who has come to see us," she said, holding on to her seven-year-old sister, Fatima. The first person to descend to the refugees was from Hezbollah; the second was from Amal, the other main Shia political party.

I asked her why she didn't go upstairs, why so many families stayed down here. Wasn't the air much better above ground? "Yes, but when we go upstairs, the bombings might come," she replied. I didn't tell her that, if the parking garage was bombed, they'd all be buried alive.

In the space of four days, the war in Lebanon had smashed the country's infrastructure, devastated its economy, and set back 16 years' worth of postwar reconstruction. Worse, the war is accelerating the failure of what President Bush has called Lebanon's "fragile democracy"--the bombed-out bridges and roads literally dividing the country into sectarian cantons. But, so far, the biggest losers in this war are the very people who are being blamed for starting it: the Shia. And the only group that seems willing to help them--their only protector and defender--is the one that actually started it, Hezbollah.

YOU CAN'T CALL yourself a journalist in this town until you've had a run-in with Hezbollah. I had mine in Haret Hreik on the night of July 13, about eight hours before a large swath of the neighborhood, including Abdullah's house, was bombed.

I had gone there, naively, to ask ordinary Shia what they thought of their brand-new war. The Israeli army's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, had just announced that he would target Haret Hreik that night, so it seemed like a good time to get some comment. The streets were empty except for shebab-- young guys--whizzing past on mopeds with yellow Hezbollah flags fluttering off the backs. A few older men hurried home with hastily purchased groceries, battening down for a siege. They all said they supported Hezbollah wholeheartedly.

Minutes later, a battered Toyota pulled up, mounted with giant loudspeakers and full of Hezbollah members. After a brief argument, they relieved my translator and I of our cell phones, taking out the SIM cards first in case we were using them as tracking devices. Around the corner, they quizzed us hastily in the hallway of an apartment building, asking who we were and what we were doing. A man in his late thirties who spoke excellent English--clearly the boss- -asked us to wait for a few minutes while a pudgy young man stood guard. Families filed out the elevator--mostly elderly couples fleeing the neighborhood, clutching overnight bags--and politely avoided staring at the foreign captives in their vestibule.

After a few minutes, the boss returned with three other men and gave us back our cell phones, apologizing to each of us in turn. I asked if he had anything to tell the American public. "Do not believe everything that your government says," he said, his voice almost pleading, devoid of the usual Hezbollah bluster. "The reality is that Israel is killing the people of Palestine and Lebanon. Small children are dead! The Lebanese resistance has the right to defend itself against any nation. This is our right, to be resistance, so that our captives in the jail of Israel get out, because our captives remain. And they don't think of them--only if Hezbollah makes some resistance."

But why now? The bravado returned: "We chose the right time," he said haughtily. "We don't care about politics." But then he smiled as he thought of a way to make us understand: "To be or not to be," he concluded, throwing his arms open wide. "That is the question."

Did he want to give a name? Or perhaps a kunya, the reverse patronymic that Arab leaders sometimes use as a nom de guerre, such as Abu Nidal, "Father of the Struggle"?

"No, no, no, no name!" he cried. "Just"--he raised a clenched fist-- "resistance!"

"Resistance!" they all cried, laughing, touching each other on the shoulders. They looked terrified.

WHEN HE KIDNAPPED two of Israel's soldiers from its own territory, without the blessing or the knowledge of the Lebanese government, Hezbollah's leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, effectively declared war on Israel. When he appeared that night on Hezbollah's Al Manar TV station--a news outlet that the United States classifies, like Hezbollah, as a terrorist group--the bearded, baby- faced Nasrallah was essentially saying, l'etat, c'est moi.

Until that moment, Hezbollah still had the option--in theory, at least--of disarming and participating more fully in Lebanon's government, becoming one of the country's most powerful sectarian political parties. It could have bargained its weapons to get better political representation for its constituents, the Shia, who have historically been the poorest and most disenfranchised Lebanese. But that would have meant giving up "the resistance," the ideology so central to Hezbollah that it functions as a national founding myth.

The resistance is many things. It is, first and foremost, an ongoing guerrilla war against Israel, which occupied southern Lebanon until its withdrawal in 2000. It is a metonym for the weapons--rockets, Iranian-made missiles, and drones--that give Hezbollah its power. It is the source of fierce pride for Hezbollah, the only Arab force to succeed in ousting Israel from its land. But, before anything else, the resistance was a political movement, born decades ago, of empowerment for Lebanon's eternally despised Shia.

In Hezbollah's collective mind, the Shia have finally emerged on top after being put down for so long, and now they want to prove that they can do what no other Arab country has done: defeat Israel. "You do not know today who you are fighting," declared Nasrallah on July 14. "You are fighting a people who possess a strength of faith that no one else has on the face of this Earth."

Nasrallah's war could not have happened without the failure of the Lebanese state, a constellation of religious groups, with its logic that the Shia's problems are for the Shia to solve. Born out of the neglect of this state, baptized in the 1983 truck bombings of the American Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks, Hezbollah arose because no one else was willing, or able, to handle the Shia. Today, held captive by the myth of resistance--that they can defeat Israel with nothing but Arab steadfastness and willingness to die--the Shia are by turns defensive and defiant, angry, isolated, and more despised now than ever; these are exactly the conditions, in fact, that created Hezbollah in the first place.

IN SANAYEH GARDEN, Beirut's only public park, the fragile democracy Bush had nervously praised was nowhere to be found. Instead, there was a handful of students, a couple of flak-jacketed TV cameramen, and several hundred Shia who had fled the bombing in southern Lebanon. By July 18, at least 500,000 Lebanese had been displaced. One family had camped out under a tree, hanging a birdcage with a canary from its branches and setting up a small gas stove. A young man with greasy, shoulder-length curls walked up to me and asked, in French, if I was a journalist. "Yes, I am," I told him. "Are you?" "No," he replied. "I am king here."

The king led me to a tired young student wearing the insignia of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a small, pro-Syrian nationalist group. Wissam Abou Sleiman, a 24-year-old college grad, was in charge of the relief operations for the entire park. There was nobody, not a single official, from the Lebanese government. None of Lebanon's powerful political parties had showed up; some had donated money, but no manpower. "Future helped a bit, but we want more from them," said Sleiman, his face tight with frustration.

The Future Movement is the Saudi-backed party of Saad Hariri, leading light of Beirut's Sunni establishment and son of billionaire former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The elder Hariri, who was assassinated by a car bomb last year, helped rebuild the city's downtown into an international tourist magnet. When Hezbollah launched its war against Israel, the collateral damage included Lebanon's thriving tourist economy, which was poised to have a banner year this summer. Sunnis, to whom the rebuilt Lebanon was a source of endless pride, are extremely angry. Now, to make matters worse, hordes of Shia are flooding middle- class Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut, some of which are still trying to get rid of Shia squatters from Lebanon's last war.

There's also the sectarian subtext of the current war, in which an Iranian- backed militia essentially assumed the prerogative of the state. Two days after Hezbollah kidnapped the soldiers, the Saudi Press Agency issued a statement declaring the war a "miscalculated adventure" carried out by "elements inside the state and those behind them"--a clear reference to Iran. Over the past year, Sunni support for "the resistance" has dropped considerably, thanks to Shia support for Syria. Tensions between Sunnis and Shia, already simmering, are now explosive.

For all these reasons, the Sunnis, along with the rest of Lebanon's sectarian leaders, are not inclined to help the almost exclusively Shia refugees. "Deep down inside, in the psyche of Sunni politicians, and certainly the Christians, they think: `They started this, let them fix it. They caused this mass exodus. Why should we clean their shit?'" says Charles Adwan, the former director of the Lebanese Transparency Association. "Those people are Shia, and they are there because of Shia actions. Let the Shia help them."

UNDERGROUND, IN THE fluorescent half-light of the parking garage, tensions were rising. Men started shouting and pushing one another. Clearly, the presence of a foreigner was not helping, so I left. As I walked out of the reeking garage, Hezbollah shebab wheeled five shopping carts full of groceries down the long, winding ramp, and announced over loudspeakers, "Allah karim"-- God is generous.

Above ground, a Hezbollah functionary listening to an earpiece plugged into his cell phone asked me to move away from the entrance. Israeli drones and satellites were floating invisibly overhead, he said, and if they saw people gathering outside the parking garage, they might pinpoint this location and bomb it. I told him I was just leaving. "OK, but hurry up, because the Sayyid's about to speak," he said. "Just in case, God forbid, they attack during his speech."

Suddenly, I realized why the refugees were huddled four stories down, breathing the rotten air instead of emerging from underground: The Hezbollah officials weren't letting them upstairs. They were keeping them down there, bringing them just enough food and information to survive, keeping them safe from the enemy.

This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2006, issue of the magazine.