Beirut’s youth seek exit strategy with dim hopes for future

BEIRUT — As Lebanon turns another page in its turbulent history, with Israeli firepower giving way to peacekeepers from around the world, the summer war has left young Beirutis seeking an exit strategy of their own.

“There is a hopelessness in this country. Even if the war is over, there is no stability,” said Sara Haddad, 20, a management student and part-time shop assistant at a modern mall in the Christian district of Ashrafiyeh.

“You can’t build your future in such a country. You could wake up tomorrow and war will have come back,” she said. “I want to go to any European country, any civilised country.” She is by no means alone in her bleak assessment. A brain drain which started well before the devastating July-August war between Israel and Hizbollah continues to sap Lebanon of much of its educated youth.

“Every time we move forward, something happens to set us back again. I believe we will have another war… That’s the cycle,” said business student Tareq Ghosn, who doubles as a waiter at a student hangout in west Beirut.

“Every political party here wants to make Lebanon his Lebanon,” he said. “Eight out of 10 of my colleagues plan to emigrate once we graduate” to escape the insecurity and a tight job market which offers paltry salaries.

Huge “Keep Walking” billboards advertising a famous brand of whisky pay tribute to the legendary resilience of Beirutis, showing the figure having crossed a bridge like the ones which were favourite targets for Israeli pilots.

Battling the odds, Beirut’s international film festival opens its doors next week, while young artists in the capital managed to found a new organisation in the back room of a popular restaurant even while the war still raged.

But the list of Lebanon’s “martyrs” and heroes from its mosaic of sects and differing loyalties only grows longer, with their posters vying for space on walls and lamp posts.

As Lebanon fades from the radar of world attention, Beirutis are taking comfort from the roar of passenger planes flying over the centre of the city, while the main runway from the sea awaits repairs from a July 13 air strike.

It means a return to normal links with the outside world, even if it also reminds older residents of the 1975-1990 civil war years before the main runway was built. In place of screaming Israeli warplanes and the pounding of the Shiite southern suburbs, a bastion of the Syrian-backed Hizbollah, the air has been filled with music, balloons and flags for rival rallies.

An obsession with numbers has been rampant on Lebanon’s sorely divided political scene, as supporters of the anti-Syrian “March 14” group play down the turnout figures for Hizbollah’s huge “victory” celebration on September 22.

A rival demonstration was held two days later by Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces (LF) and member of the March 14 group, at which the war of words continued with the pro-Syrian “March 8” group.

“They say Hizbollah does not have Lebanese blood on its hands from the civil war but they are catching up,” said a resident of a mountain village in the Christian heartland, north of Beirut, near where the LF rally was held.

More than 1,200 people died in Lebanon during the July-August war triggered by Hizbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers on the border.

“Lebanon will have no peace, no future, no security, so long as the regime in Damascus does not fall so that we can breathe,” the Christian villager said, asking not to be named for security reasons.

Reflecting a general mistrust of rival communities or even in their own camp’s politicians, Elsie Obeid, a mother of two young children shopping for the war-delayed return to school, was clearly frustrated.

“There is no work and the political situation is very bad. All the politicians have to be changed. We need people who create jobs, and who create some security because we don’t feel safe in this country,” she said.

Foreign UN troops are pouring into south Lebanon, adding complexity to a political scene that remains paralysed amid the potentially explosive international probe into former premier Rafiq Hariri’s assassination.

“There is a feeling of anxiety in the air again. Everyone is wondering who is next,” after a series of deadly attacks that followed Hariri’s murder in February 2005, said Beirut television producer Philip Bajjaly.

A post-war survey published in the latest edition of a business magazine, Le Commerce Du Levant, found that an alarming 48 per cent of Lebanese planned to emigrate for professional reasons.

“Middle-class families with young children are also planning to up sticks” and leave, said a Western diplomat.

“I’ve asked politicians why they are not encouraging young people to get more involved in politics… but there seems to be a general air of hopelessness,” the diplomat said.

Whatever lies in store for Lebanon, it still provides rich pickings for the French author of the spicy and popular SAS spy series, Gerard de Villiers, who was at the Hizbollah rally and visited its chief Hassan Nasrallah’s village.

“I’ve also been several times to Baghdad, but there’s not much interest in Iraq any more. The situation there is not going anywhere — it’s just more of the same,” said de Villiers who is also a journalist.

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