An American in Beirut: What Kind of Home Will Many Lebanese Return To?

This is the 18th installment of an ongoing blog written by American Spencer Witte, a native or New York who is studying and living in Beirut, Lebanon.

Aug. 18, 2006

A Place to Call Home

For a little more than a month, residents of West Beirut's Garden View Apartments took in an unusual scene from their luxury-style balconies.

Sanayeh Gardens, located below, had taken on a different appearance. No longer could one expect to find young couples strolling arm-in-arm through manicured lawns and small kids running wild on playgrounds. Since the first few days of the war, Sanayeh had ceased to be a place for romance, and it was tough to find adequate space for play. Instead, just as it had been during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Sanayeh Gardens was being used as a refugee camp.

By some estimates, as many as 1,700 Lebanese were taking shelter there just prior to the cease-fire. But when I walked through the gardens Wednesday morning, only about 50 people were left. Five children were playing on a seesaw — an odd number, so one child was being made to wait his turn. A group of older men sat around a plastic table that was shaded by a palm tree. They were playing a sluggish game of cards. Others milled about, passing time and making small talk.

This open-aired park — about the size of a football field — had been a home for many people for an entire month. No privacy and no certainty. As I made my way around on Wednesday morning, 3-inch-thick foam mattresses were piled along the park's perimeters. Many were torn in half or in thirds, evidence that they had been shared. They were dirty, but they probably had been coveted in desperate moments. And now they were discarded.

Next to the garden's iron gates, two taxis were parked with their engines off. Their doors and trunks were open, waiting to be filled with people and their few possessions. Many of Lebanon's 900,000 displaced people hadn't hesitated a bit in trying to return home. With the announcement of Monday's cease-fire, they flooded the roads that led South, wanting to shed not only the title of displaced but, moreover, the feeling of displacement, as soon as possible. The few who lingered in Sanayeh Gardens Wednesday had waited longer to make the trip. What kind of home was waiting for them? Was there still a home waiting for them?

This morning, I set out trying to give myself a better understanding of that very basic question, even if its answer is far more complicated. I spent the morning in Dahiyeh, the southern suburb that was on the receiving end of hundreds of Israeli air raids and is now on the receiving end of thousands of returning residents. If you've seen recent pictures of war-torn Beirut, chances are you've been looking at Dahiyeh.

I was walking the streets on my own, talking to very few people, wanting to use my own eyes and my own ears as my guide.

On the main road into Dahiyeh, I spotted an amusement park called "Sweets Land." Among other things, it offers park goers a chance to ride a Ferris wheel, a carousel outfitted with pink and blue elephants and one of those swinging pirate ships that always looks like more fun than it actually is. Just 50 feet farther along the road, a billboard put up by Hezbollah was advertising the recent war and calling it a "Divine Victory."

My cab dropped me off on the fringes of the Haret Hreik district of Dahiyeh, and I proceeded on foot. There were city blocks on which every single apartment building showed clear signs of being hit by an airstrike. Many buildings had been destroyed, each floor folded on top another and collapsing under the heavy weight of concrete, furniture, perhaps even people. Areas of Dahiyeh are still on fire, with smoke rising from the rubble.

Several bulldozers push around the chunks of concrete and twisted remnants of buildings as well as shells of entire cars. Together, they form large piles on the side of the road, like snow banks. Some workers are sweeping the streets, and custom-made yellow tape cordons off the cleanup zones. The black lettering on the tape references the "Divine Victory" and further advises people to "keep back."

But people don't heed the advice. It sometimes becomes necessary to climb over rubble piled 6 or 7 feet high just to get from one street to the next. Others stay in the debris, uninterested in moving on to the next street. This was their street, and they are looking to salvage what's left of their belongings.

And everywhere there is yellow and green, the colors of Hezbollah. Dahiyeh was a Hezbollah stronghold before the war, and it still is today. Hezbollah is an organization born out of the 18-year Israeli occupation of South Lebanon, and it draws much of its support from people who experienced the Israeli presence firsthand. Many in Daniyeh see the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers as a provocative act in the middle rounds of a long fight, and not the reason for the fight in the first place.

At one point, I passed a 5-year-old boy wearing a freshly printed t-shirt with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's face on it. I couldn't help but ask his mother why a child was wearing such a thing. I thought back to when I was 5, when I wore Mets jerseys because they had won the World Series the year before. My older brother assured me it was cool. Ali's mother had a different explanation. The boy's father had been killed in an airstrike.

As I left Dahiyeh, the sounds of bulldozers and heavy machinery competed with Hezbollah-produced martial music blaring from stereos. The question of what kind of home many displaced Lebanese would be returning to had been partially answered.


If you've been reading these reports, I'd like to hear from you. Send your comments, suggestions and questions to

Part I: "An American in Beirut: As War Approaches"

Part II: "Much Has Changed Since That Family Photo"

Part III: "The New Beirut Nightlife, Airstrikes as a Snooze Button"

Part IV: "People Leaving War-Torn South Ask, 'Which Way is Safety?'"

Park V: "How I Got Here and Why I Haven't Left Yet"

Part VI: "Lebanon on a 'Helpless Walk Through Time'"

Part VII: "War Doesn't Stop For the Weekend"

Part VIII: "We Hurt Each Other, Then We Do it Again"

Part IX: "No 'Human Predisposition to Craziness' Found Here"

Part X: "Lebanon Readies to Run Out of Fuel"

Part XI: "Normal Moments Possible in Wartime, Normalcy is Not"

Part XII: "Trying to Be a Good Neighbor in a Time of Need"

Part XIII: "'No War' and 'Summer Sale' Posters Are Signs of the Times"

Part XIV: "The Cost of a Trip Out of Beirut Gets a Little Pricey"

Part XV: "Tour Books for War-Torn Beirut May Need Some Updating"

Part XVI: "What Effect Will the War Have on Lebanese and Israeli Children?"

Part XVII: "There's a Lot of Distance Between Misadventure and Victory"