For Many Lebanese, War Is New Reality: But Will They Stay?

AMMAN, JORDAN—By now, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is winding down his latest Middle East trip, a grueling 11-day tour that has had him hop-scotching from Beirut to Tel Aviv to Tehran to Damascus to Ankara. The trip was organized in order to shore up regional support for a Security Council resolution that ended the month-long conflict between Israel and the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, and to discuss Lebanon’s reconstruction. So far, the most concrete result of all this diplomacy appears to be a plan, still not yet firm, to lift Israel’s naval blockade on Lebanon later this week.

But even if Mr. Annan succeeds and the Israeli blockade is lifted, it will still come too late for Jack Yacoubian, a Lebanese Armenian goldsmith that I met in Amman yesterday. Mr. Yacoubian, who is in his early 30’s, has spent his entire life in Bourj Hammoud, Beirut’s Armenian enclave. He recently lost his job with a large Lebanese jewelry company because the Israeli blockade has made it impossible for his employers to ship their products to overseas customers, mainly in the Persian Gulf countries; about 170 employees were laid off, he said.

“I have lost my work; I have lost everything,” Mr. Yacoubian said. “Many of us Armenians are jewelers, and our business has been ruined. Our boss tried to help us; he paid all of us out of his own pocket for a whole month, even though he couldn’t sell anything. But after that it was all over. He finally had to let us go.”

When I met him in Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport early yesterday morning, Mr. Yacoubian was on his way to seek his fortune in Bogotá, Colombia, where he has friends that he believes may be able to help him to find a new job. He doubts that he will be coming back to Beirut any time very soon.

“I will give it two months, three months, in Colombia, and then I will see what is the situation in Beirut again,” Mr. Yacoubian said. “But I do not feel very hopeful now. I think that Lebanon has many difficulties still ahead.”

Whatever promises to aid Lebanon or to support its troops near the Israeli border that Mr. Annan succeeds in extracting from Arab leaders this week, rebuilding Lebanon’s economy will take a very long time. Many highly educated or specially skilled Lebanese like Mr. Yacoubian, even including some of those who stayed throughout the war, are now making very painful and personal choices: about whether to stay in their country, or to seek greater stability and better opportunities overseas.

Many Lebanese who fled during their country’s long civil war had returned in recent years, and thanks in large part to their skills, energies and investments, Beirut had once again become a thriving Mediterranean capital. But many middle and upper-class Lebanese have dual passports, and extended families abroad. They have ambitions for themselves and their families that are not necessarily rooted in Lebanon, and they have options.

“How many times in your life can you rebuild everything?” a middle-aged Lebanese woman asked me the other week in Damascus. “Two times, three times maybe? You rebuild your home, your business two or three times. And after that maybe you say, that’s enough, and you find a home someplace else.”

A extraordinarily cosmopolitan people, many Lebanese, particularly the educated elite, are asking similarly agonized questions these days, trying to figure out whether the ceasefire will last, trying to decide whether they can bear to start all over again in the midst of such a tenuous peace. Loving your country is all very well, they say, but what good is patriotism in the face of domestic factionalism and the constant threat of Israeli attack? What sort of crazy devotion would make an educated, ambitious young person forsake other opportunities in order to stay in such a place?

In Beirut last week, and among the groups of Lebanese who remain in Damascus and Amman in recent days, I’ve heard these questions asked constantly. How the majority will eventually decide to answer them will have a huge effect on Lebanon’s prospects for a speedy recovery.

Among those Lebanese who have already resolved to stay, there is naturally some resentment of those who are on the fence. A young university professor that I met in Beirut last week spoke witheringly of his privileged students, most of whom had fled to Europe or the United States with the onset of Israeli air strikes, and some of whom have said that they don’t plan to return.

“These kids are rich,” the professor told me bitterly. “That means they have the chance to decide whether or not they are Lebanese.”

For parents, the questions are even more difficult. It is impossible to spend much time in Lebanon these days without hearing a great deal about the effects that the war has had on Lebanese children, about the unusual tearfulness and aggression shown by even normally even-tempered young children. A Lebanese friend, Patrick, spoke of his decision to send his 10-year-old daughter to stay with relatives in Europe during the worst of the fighting, and then his eventual decision to bring her home again, despite some relatives’ urgings that he educate her abroad.

“These children, this generation, knew nothing of war,” Patrick said. “When I was a teenager, we used to go out dancing, and we’d hear explosions. We’d leave the club for a few minutes, pull people out of the rubble and take them to the hospital, and then go right back to drink and dance. We didn’t think anything of it. This was normal life for us.

“I had really thought that for my daughter it would be different,” Patrick continued. “I felt angry when the fighting began, and I decided to send her abroad, so that she wouldn’t see this. But I’ve decided to bring her home. She will start the school year here, whatever happens. She is Lebanese, and this fighting, these bombings, are her heritage. She is 10 years old; she is old enough to understand.”