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Postwar Beirut Debates How Much to Remember

City Acquires Symbol of Its Culture, Its Warfare

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 23, 2004; Page A14

BEIRUT -- In the drumming heat and humidity, Elie approached the building in central Beirut. More than a decade after the end of Lebanon's civil war, the stone structure's outside walls were diaphanous, hit by countless artillery shells. Some of those shells had been aimed at Elie.

From inside the building, Elie commanded Christian militiamen from 1989 to the last days of the war, during the last gasps of the war. Now he makes specialty chocolates and directs the Ashrafieh neighborhood office of his political party. And until this hot day in late summer, he had never gone back to the building.

Elie visits the Barakat building in Beirut. He commanded Christian militiamen there from 1989 to the end of the war, and was not convinced he wanted to recall the place. (Hassan Ammar For The Washington Post)

As he stepped over the threshold, he chewed his little finger nervously.

"Life takes you back, and you forget the time of war," Elie said.

In the 80 years since it was built, the elaborately designed Barakat building has been a symbol of Beirut's culture and tolerance and of its hellish urban warfare. Now, a group of preservationists wants to restore the building as a museum of Beirut but cannot agree on whether to pay tribute to the good times or the bad.

About 13 years after the war's end, Lebanon still does not know how to deal with its memories of a 15-year period of devastation in which about 7 percent of the population was killed, 10 percent seriously injured and up to 25 percent forced to move.

The war is still too tender a topic for politicians, many of them former factional fighters given positions of power under a makeshift political settlement. In Lebanese schools, most history books make no mention of the civil war. Architecture that aims to erase the past is one of the few professions to boom in a crippled postwar economy, and a city of high-rise glitz has risen from the ashes.

The Barakat building stands as a ravaged, gaunt memorial in a rebuilt commercial district known as Sodeco Square. Its owners say they want to tear it down, sell the land and leave what happened there behind.

It was constructed in 1924, in what was then the outskirts of Beirut, by Nicolas and Victoria Barakat. "It was a jewel of a building," said their son Victor Barakat, now 83, who lived in the building from age 5 until his mid-fifties.

Marble tiles in art deco patterns, hand-painted ceilings and fantastic ironwork gave it a style equaled by only a few buildings in Lebanon. It was designed by Yousef Bay Aftinos, the architect who created Beirut's city hall.

The war that the Barakat family calls "the events" began on April 13, 1975, with the killing of four members of the Phalange, a Maronite Christian group, during an attempt to assassinate their leader, Pierre Gemayel, and the retaliatory killing of 26 Palestinians on a bus. "All night in our neighborhood, there were firefights everywhere," Victor Barakat said. "My nephew Paul got married the next day. We walked down the street under rockets to reach the church."

Barakat and his wife, Agni, decided to wait out the violence at their summer house in the mountain village of Beit Mery. Soon after they left, members of a Christian militia phoned them. Agni Barakat, 75, recalled a man's voice: "Madame Barakat, the militia is in your apartment. If you want to retrieve anything, go to militia headquarters."

The fighters exploited the very architectural feature that made the Barakat building so special: Every room has a view of the street. As a result, snipers could hit their targets from back rooms, according to fighters once stationed in the building.

Killing spread up and down the street, which soon became part of the Green Line dividing Beirut's Christian east and Muslim west. A succession of Christian militias made the Barakat building their heavily fortified base of operations, maintaining what militia members recall as a few dozen fighters inside and snipers and rocket launchers positioned on buildings nearby.

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