Ghosts Of The Past Still Echo In Beirut's Fragmented Neighborhoods Lebanon's civil war ended 25 years ago, but the sectarian divisions that sliced its capital into different enclaves still hold today. Everyone coexists relatively peacefully — most of the time.

Ghosts Of The Past Still Echo In Beirut's Fragmented Neighborhoods

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Now the NPR Cities Project takes us to one of the most magical and tragic cities in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have to make sure that our cities are safe.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: How are we going to maintain a city?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Location, location, location.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If other cities can do it, we can do it.


We're going to Beirut and we're reporting on how the places we live influence the way we live.

INSKEEP: Beirut spreads out along the Mediterranean and climbs hillsides by the sea. Its narrow streets are filled with life.

CORNISH: But Beirut has a troubled past so we'll explore how the ghost of a city's past affects its neighborhoods.

INSKEEP: They effect who lives where, who interacts with whom. Beirut's ghosts are from a civil war in the 1970s and '80s, a war that still divides the city.

NPR's Alice Fordham reports.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: So I'm standing right in the heart of downtown Beirut. It's an elegant area. It's fringed with expensive buildings. It's a beautiful sunny day but there's no one here with me. There's no cafe here, no park no place for people to hang out. The heart of Beirut is empty.

To understand why, let's drive West first to the Hamra area and meet architecture professor Mona Harb. She's my neighbor and like me, she likes Hamra because it's mixed in terms of sect, class, education levels; but she says that's rare and that much of Beirut is divided.

MONA HARB: It is a fragmented city made of more or less, self-sufficient neighborhoods or sets of neighborhoods with clear segregated lines.

FORDHAM: Back in 1975, a civil war began here which would create militias from of all Lebanon factions - Palestinian, Christian, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, minorities. Harb says people who lived in mixed neighborhoods fled in fear to be with their own people. Today, the city's still divided into mostly Muslim West, mostly Christian East, with many subdivisions and empty in the center, where the worst of the fighting was. Harb says there was never a real postwar attempt to bring people back together. After the fighting ended there was a lot of talk about unity and a state-backed reconstruction campaign. So they built this town center, but it was too expensive. And people mostly stayed where they were.

HARB: At no point, you know, urban policies that were developed by the state attempted to remedy the situation on the ground and started to think like, OK, let's think about ways of making people interact more, of encouraging people to live in each other's neighborhood. The idea of the West of Beirut and the East of Beirut was still very, very strong.

FORDHAM: To see what she means about the city's patchy reintegration, let's go see some places where folks mix and where they don't. We can start here in the West, at the site of one of the civil war's bloodiest battlefields. And a highly ghettoized neighborhood, the Shatila Palestinian camp. So in a way, a camp isn't the right word for what I see around me here. There's no tents, it's a neighborhood, really and it's grown up over decades and there's narrow streets, houses clustered on top of each other, but you can get the feeling that you're not in Beirut here; that you've stepped into another place with its own politics, its own ideals.

These winding streets are too narrow for cars so people use scooters or horses and carts to get around. There are pictures of Palestinian leaders everywhere. And here they remember one of the worst atrocities of the war - a massacre of mostly Palestinian civilians by Christian militias helped by Israeli forces, in 1982. I run into Hassan, who was a teenage fighter at the time. He says the issues are still so sensitive, he won't give his last name.

HASSAN: (Through translator) It was killing and massacres of children. I was little, living in the same area where the massacre took place. I was at home but I got out after the massacre finished. We found the martyrs in the streets, all bodies piled on top of each other.

FORDHAM: He says these memories make it hard for Christian, Lebanese and Palestinians to live alongside each other. Plus, it doesn't help that most Palestinians are poor and can't afford to move. But it has been 25 years since the end of the war. Some of those painful memories are fading so there is some mixing.

Hassan Ahmed makes kitchen furniture in a little workshop in the camp.

HASSAN AHMED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He says people come from nearby suburbs as well as the camp to buy his work. Some people think this strong entrepreneurial spirit in Lebanon does more to bring people into other neighborhoods than any policy by the relatively weak state. Until recently, you could see this in action all over the place.

Let's go south to a market in a suburb known as Dahiyeh. The population is overwhelmingly Shiite, but the shopping's great and over the years, people of all sects started to shop here. However, lately as a sectarian war has raged next-door in Syria, Sunnis and Christians have started to avoid the area, says young journalist Maytham Kassir. Driving around, he points out the flags of the dominant Shiite factions.

MAYTHAM KASSIR: The green one is for Haraket Amal and the Nabih Berri party and the one you're going to see after that, the yellow ones, which means you're in the territory of Hezbollah supporters.

FORDHAM: Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group, is the most powerful one here. In the last couple years they've joined the highly sectarian fighting in Syria. So now relations between the Sunni and Shiite communities in Lebanon are more strained than they've been in years. And yet, there are some places not defined by sect. Let's finish up in East Beirut. We're on Gouraud Street. It's close to the center of town. It's full of pretty old houses and the bars are the best. There are plenty of people in Beirut - Muslims, Christians and others who aren't really all that religious and choose to dress in the latest fashions - yes, showing plenty of tan skin and head here for a riotous night out.

Architecture professor Yaser Abunnasr walks among the bars nestled in the old houses.

YASER ABUNNASR: You can call it a neutral ground in a way, you know, within this very contentious and you know, polarized type of situation.

FORDHAM: Some houses have sprays of bullet marks on their carved balconies. One has gorgeous street art of the great singer Fairuz. Several sell cocktails muddled with the herb za'atar, a Lebanese favorite.

Is this a place to escape?

ABUNNASR: I would imagine, yes. You know, people would actually leave their context and their background and come here and do what they want to do.

FORDHAM: To get home from here, I usually walk west, jump into one of those shiny old taxis and head through the noisy traffic - through the bright, empty heart of the city, on the way back to my neighborhood, my own little sliver of lovely, fragmented Beirut.

In a Beirut taxi, I'm Alice Fordham for the NPR Cities Project.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

INSKEEP: [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: In the audio of this report, it is said that Israeli forces "helped" Christian militias during the massacres of mostly Palestinian civilians at two Lebanese camps in 1982. An earlier Web version of this report said the same. The massacres were at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, which at the time were surrounded by Israeli forces. A commission established by Israel's government later concluded that the massacres were "perpetrated" by the militias. The commission also concluded that Israel bore "indirect responsibility" because it allowed the militias to enter the camps "without consideration of the danger" and because "no energetic and immediate actions were taken to restrain" the militias or stop the massacres.]

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