House of War

14 April 2011 | Permalink
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"Vous prenez un taxi et vous descendez à Dammour." the hotel owner told us, "Là, il y a des militaires, et vous pouvez leur demander la route pour Saida." M. made a face. The owner hastened to reassure her. "Non, non, les militaires sont gentils", she insisted.

The soldiers of the Lebanese army may indeed be polite and well-behaved, but they are everywhere. Visiting the country as a tourist, it's hard not to be struck by the sheer extent of the military presence. The soldiers are unthreatening - for the Lebanese, they may even be reassuring - but it sometimes seems as if half the country is wearing camouflage, with a checkpoint at every corner and intersection. I have never visited another country where soldiers were present in quite such quantity.

Walking around Beirut, you can get an idea of why this might be the case. Amidst all the new construction thrown up in the last couple of decades, there are also older buildings. Those whose size or location - the corner of a street, for example - might have made them strategically interesting tend to bear visible scars from the civil war. Walls are still pitted by the marks of bullets or shells in testimony to the intensity of the fighting. Behind the glossy new Phoenicia Hotel, the gaunt shell of the Holiday Inn still looms up like a mausoleum, its windows empty and its end wall pockmarked by rounds of every size. Neat divots mark the impact points of rifle or machine-gun fire; ragged holes show where larger artillery was brought to bear.

The civil war ended more than twenty years ago, but the sheer ubiquity of the military gives the impression that someone thinks it might start again at a moment's notice. Every major road between cities has at least one checkpoint (even if the soldiers manning it rarely do more than glance at vehicles before waving them on). In Beirut, red-and-white barriers guarded by heterogeneously-equipped soldiers or police (AK47s and M-16s, half a dozen varieties of camouflage, from old NATO forest pattern to new US-style digitals to gray-and-white tiger stripes, topped off with berets in a dozen different colors) deny access to public buildings or pedestrian streets. Impromptu guard posts with sandbags and oil drums (painted red-and-white, again) sprout at street corners, sometimes with an elderly M113 APC squatting nearby for extra protection. Soldiers going on or off leave criss-cross the country by bus (every minibus we rode on seemed to carry at least one man in camouflage, usually seated in the position of honor next to the driver).

South of the Litani River, another force is present, defending against a different threat. Just beyond the Lebanese army checkpoint at Qamiye, a sign warns solemnly against photographing or videotaping the white-painted UN vehicles in the UNIFIL compound or the stocky Nigerians in blue berets standing sentry by the side of the road. Further south, in Sour, white-painted APCs with fore-and-aft machine gunners circled slowly on the main road, while a series of heavy detonations that continued through most of the day (with a break for lunch) suggested that someone nearby was getting in some artillery practice with fairly heavy ordnance. The UN presence is not merely symbolic: while we were in Sour, a stand-off took place between two Israeli Merkava tanks and a unit of the Lebanese army in the village of Adaysseh not far away, until the local UNIFIL commander negotiated the withdrawal of the Merkavas from the disputed border region.

Yet for all the military presence, there are no outward signs of an imminent crisis that a visitor can distinguish. The soldiers at the checkpoints seem relaxed, and the locals pay no more attention to them than to any other piece of street furniture. Military hardware and visible signs of sectarianism exist side-by-side with equally overt evidence of stability and prosperity, creating some odd juxtapositions: as our bus crawled through south Beirut, down a road lined with portraits of Nasrallah and life-size models of Qassim rockets, we were overtaken by a gleaming white Hummer the size of a small tank, threading its way unconcernedly among the pushcarts and the battered Mercedes taxis. No one except me seemed to think it remarkable or gave it as much as a second glance.