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Postwar Beirut Debates How Much to Remember

"Nobody will talk about it," said Jihad Pakradouni, whose father, Karim, helped lead the Phalange militia during the war. The father is now a minister in parliament and the son is his aide, driving an Alfa Romeo with a pistol tucked under a tissue box between the front seats. Indeed, some fighters refused to talk, saying they were afraid of liability for war crimes.

Elie, for example, was not convinced that he wanted to remember or discuss this particular building and would do so only without giving his full name.

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)

After the war ended, Elie sometimes drove by the gutted, blasted Barakat building, but he never stopped. War rules were off. New, uncertain rules were on. Were people angry? Elie asked himself. Would they want revenge? Did they blame him for their damaged homes, stolen cars, missing children? He retreated to his wartime comrades and his Christian neighborhood of Ashrafieh -- next to Sodeco Square -- and did not often get out.

But now, he was inside the building he had known only by a code name, sure-footedly crossing dust and rubble. He showed off a line of concrete-encased sandbags he had once installed to protect a sniper's nest. He pointed out a ceiling of reinforced concrete he had ordered molded, to prevent rockets from penetrating from above. He did not venture toward the rooms at the front of the building that the fighters had always avoided.

Rushing through the building, Elie, 48, was moved to tell war lore: the time he mistook a parrot for the enemy in the dark, the time someone launched a weapon at him while he was eating a sandwich. Back then, he said, the enemy was so close. The fight was so tricky. At night, opposing militiamen would yell curses across the street, Elie said.

After a thorough survey, Elie quickened his pace to leave and walk outside on Monot Street, where rows of folding, partially destroyed buildings have been rebuilt into chic, stylized bars and restaurants serving sushi and tapas. Elie saw someone he knew.

Grinning, the two men pinched each other's cheeks. "Wasn't it better then?" Elie asked. Many fighters say the same thing: During wartime, you had jobs and enough to eat. More foreign money came in to buy guns than ever did after the war to pay for reconstruction. Elie's chocolate business is failing, he said later, and it turns a profit only at Christmas and Easter.

Elie asked for news all up and down the street, and some of it was bad. Abu Jihad died. The fat guy died. All the women died.

Still, he was ever more excited as he walked confidently into the backyards of his former territory. "You don't know me?" he called up, waving his arms, to a man in his undershirt on a second-floor balcony.

The man called down: "May we remember so that it doesn't repeat itself."

"May it repeat itself!" called Elie.

Later, he said the war was the best time of his life, when he felt closest to his friends, when he felt most alive, when he was fighting for something he believed in -- Christian rights. Driving along the narrow streets of Ashrafieh, Elie said the most important reason to keep the Barakat building intact was to show his children that their father had fought, in case they needed to fight someday, too. Elie's reason for remembering is the same reason many Lebanese say they must forget: They don't want to repeat the past. But others say that absorbing the past will prevent its recurrence.

In 1996, Mona Hallak, an architect, discovered the Barakat building and began to lobby for its preservation. Restoring the building, she said, would be an important step toward healing Lebanon's divisions. "We're a very fragile country," Hallak said. "We never faced our differences."

The following year, the Barakat family decided to tear the building down and sell the land, which today is worth about $5 million, according to Paul Barakat, Victor's nephew. For six days, the brilliantly colored tiles and iron railings from balconies and stairs were carted out, according to Paul, until the mayor, urged on by Hallak and a campaign in the An Nahar newspaper that she helped launch, revoked the demolition permit.

Though the city finally agreed in 2002 to acquire the building, the process has been slow because of disagreement over how to renovate it.

Some want to leave untouched some of the damage -- such as the artillery-scarred stone and evidence of the snipers' nests -- as a grim monument. But others have a vision of a building restored to its 1920s glory to house a museum recording 7,000 years of Beirut history.

The Barakat family has no interest in preserving memories.

"Why do they want to make a museum? There's nothing remaining but broken stone," said Victor Barakat. "I don't like to look at it. I don't have the heart. Memories of the past can't stop people from killing each other if they want to."

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