Thousands of Shiite Muslims packed into the Master of the Martyrs hall in Dahieh, South Beirut, earlier this year for the climax of the Achoura festival – their most important religious date. It is incredible to see thousands packed into the Wembley Arena sized venue for the solemn ceremony. More amazing still is the fact that less than five months ago this hall was a burned out shell after being destroyed by dozens of Israeli missiles.
Dr Bilal Naim who is overseeing the reconstruction of Dahieh gives me some mind boggling statistics in his portakabin office. Some 5,000 homes completely destroyed, over 17,000 partially destroyed or uninhabitable.
The Beirut suburb was bombed almost every day of last year's war leaving tens of thousands homeless. They were given the choice of waiting for reconstruction or enough money to set up elsewhere. Around 80 percent remain in the area renting or staying with family as they wait for their new homes. Some 400 homes have been built already, as have several local schools and other infrastructure.
From the day of the ceasefire to the present around 6,000 Lebanese engineers and construction workers have answered a call made by Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to come back to their country and help with the initial reconstruction. Now most of the workforce are local and full time employees. Some 10,000 workers are expected to be employed by the next phase of the reconstruction.
Dr Naim expects the entire project to be complete within 18 months to two years. Usually such a claim would seem absurd but looking at what has been done already it seems that they are well on their way to hitting that target. They also plan to improve on the original. Dahieh was an area that sprung up very quickly with the rise of Hizbollah. New apartments will have better kitchens more appealing exteriors and underground car parking to ease the previously congested streets. There will be more green spaces and the water, electricity and sanitation infrastructure will be improved to meet the needs of the returning population.
The government have handed the cash that they pledged for reconstruction directly to Hizbollah, taking little interest in the reconstruction of the suburb or the planning process. The gulf between Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Sinoura and the people of south Beirut – who heckled him and the then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the very spot just four months ago – seems wider than ever.
When Socialist Worker last visited Aita al-Shaab it was in ruins. Exhausted locals celebrated their victory over the Israeli invaders who had failed to capture the village despite three fierce assaults over the course of the war. Over 80 percent of the villages buildings were destroyed in the fighting. Nine Hizbollah fighters and many civilians died during the 33 day siege. Here the reconstruction is again being led by Hizbollah who are working at a furious pace to meet the needs of the villagers who are returning after spending the winter with relatives.
Also involved are the radical activist network Samidoun network who initially came here with much needed aid after the ceasefire. Local volunteer Amr Saededdine gives me the details. Samidoun was at the forefront of solidarity work during the war. Since the end of the hostilities they have established an office in the village and are involved in a number of projects.
The construction project is composed of volunteers is hoping to preserve some of the villages historic core that was torn apart by Israeli bulldozers. The group hope to reconstruct many of the historic stone buildings that the village was known for. All this is being done in partnership with the locals through regular consultations.
Other projects being undertaken largely by the village’s women include a new library, a public exhibition space, a business making laurel soap and creating a number of social spaces based on the villagers needs. The women are also putting together an oral history project for the village and are involved in a documentary film making project. Many of the skills required for these tasks are coming directly from the Samidoun volunteers.