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Years Of Turmoil Weigh On Beirut As Syria Strains Lebanon

Lebanese security forces and firefighters inspect the scene of a car bomb explosion that rocked central Beirut on Friday.
AFP/Getty Images
Lebanese security forces and firefighters inspect the scene of a car bomb explosion that rocked central Beirut on Friday.

As satellite trucks were pulling up to the site of a massive car bomb in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, on Friday, Jihad Kalaajii was quietly salvaging what he could from his antique shop, loading 300-year-old framed calligraphy and volumes of Islamic poetry into the back seat of his car.

"These things show what we were before," he says, gesturing to one of the 100-year-old manuscripts. "And imagine where we are now; imagine the degradation."

While Kalaajii's car, parked on the far side of Starco Center, was untouched by the blast, his shop was not so lucky. The force of the explosion blew out all his windows, shattered display cases and knocked pictures from their frames.

Friday's car bomb killed Mohamad Chatah, a former minister and ambassador to the U.S., and at least six others.

It was the latest sign that the Syrian civil war is spreading to neighboring Lebanon. It's been seeping in for months: In November, twin car bombings struck the Iranian embassy in Beirut; over the summer, bombings hit a Hezbollah stronghold south of the city. In the northern city of Tripoli, clashes have been almost commonplace.

A New Flood Of Refugees

While the violence has trickled across the border, the accompanying flow of refugees has been a flood. Every day, thousands of Syrians come to Lebanon seeking shelter and safety. Many wind up living in informal settlements, often homemade tents on previously vacant land.

Lebanon, still haunted by the influx of Palestinian refugees in the 1940s, '50s and '60s that many blame for contributing to the outbreak of the 1975-90 civil war, does not allow the construction of formal camps.

Refugees can build tents, but cannot construct foundations or install plumbing. The United Nation's refugee agency estimates that Lebanon is hosting more than 800,000 Syrian refugees, making 1 out of every 5 people in Lebanon a Syrian refugee.

Kalaajii, the antique dealer, has lived in Beirut all his life. He weathered the civil war and the unrest that followed Prime Minister Rafic Hariri's assassination in 2005. But now, he says, it might be time for him to leave the region.

"This is a new civilization," he says. "There are no humans left in the Middle East — it's just ants in the street."

'We Have To Fight'

Just a day after the blast, downtown Beirut was a bit sleepier than usual, but a smattering of people were sitting in cafes sipping cappuccinos. Cafe Metropole, just three blocks from the blast, lost a few windows but was otherwise unscathed.

Juggling phone calls, manager Danny Chewan said he'd already lost more than 100 reservations this weekend.

"I'm angry," he said, "but at the end, you can't surrender." Chewan says he's neither fearful for the future, nor haunted by the past.

"This is Lebanon, this is the Middle East. We have to fight," he says, joking, "otherwise, we go to California."

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Susannah George