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Beirut's Suburbs Take New Precautions As Syrian Unrest Expands

Feb 15, 2014
Originally published on February 16, 2014 9:45 pm

Riding the bus to Beirut's southern suburbs used to be a bumpy, crowded but fun experience. Everyone crammed in next to each other, bouncing around on the way to the area they call the Dahiyeh, the Arabic word for "suburb."

This sprawling southern district of Lebanon's capital is the place where the Shiite militant group Hezbollah enjoys its strongest support. But it is also a bustling, residential area. There are garages and vegetable stalls. And in the center of the neighborhood, there are juice bars and cafes.

But after a series of bombings in the Dahiyeh and another one in a bus just outside Beirut, few people take the bus south. The ones that do say they're afraid.

"Safety is one of the major problems," says Farah Fala, a teacher reluctantly riding the bus to class. "Definitely precautions are necessary." She says she checks people as they get on to make sure they're not carrying bombs.

A War At Their Doorstep

The war in Syria has had major repercussions in neighboring states. Millions have fled across Syria's borders into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. And sectarian tensions are rising throughout the region.

That has brought increasing violence, especially in Lebanon. Gunmen from Hezbollah are fighting alongside Syrian government forces. In the last week, fighters from the group have taken the lead in battles to retake strategic towns in western Syria.

This has prompted revenge attacks by Sunni militants allied to the rebels in Syria. The fundamentalist group Jabhat al-Nusra's Lebanese affiliate has vowed to strike Shiite civilian areas.

As violence has risen in the Dahiyeh, both the Lebanese army and Hezbollah have set up extra security on the edge of the district.

On the bus ride, an army checkpoint stops vehicles. They examine the papers of the passengers, pat them down and search their shopping bags.

The bus moves on, but not for long.

Two minutes farther down the road, another checkpoint is stopping cars. This time there are no Lebanese flags painted on the sentry boxes, nor uniforms. This is a Hezbollah checkpoint. The man stopping the bus has a distinctive yellow band on his arm. On finding foreign reporters, he has them wait while he makes calls and checks credentials.

"You can wander all over Lebanon," he says, before letting them go. "But in the Dahiyeh, you need permission."

Residents Vow To Stay

Along the main shopping street of the Dahiyeh, many of the shops and cafes now have sandbags piled up outside. Two workmen are filling more on a street corner. The market for the bags picked up, they say, after January's second car bombing. In both attacks, shops and cafes were targeted.

"You can't describe how you feel in this moment," says Uday Hussein. His cafe, Alwan, had been open for just six days when a bomb struck right outside. A teenage girl was killed as she walked to the bathroom, and a young man died as he sat by the window, waiting for a friend.

"I don't know what to say," he murmurs. "It's very hard to see what you have been working for and doing and putting all your money in it, and in a second you see it trash."

Although he expects more attacks, Hussein is busy painting and plastering and getting ready to reopen. "No matter what happened," he says, "we will carry on normally."

Although people are afraid, there is a spirit of defiance here. Outside, a young man is painting a vast mural next to the bomb site. In sky blue and sunset reds, are the words, "Patience is beautiful."

"I think it reflects a very good image to the people passing here," says a young woman in a crowd watching the painting on the way home from college. "We need to see something nicer, something other than destruction."

And just a little farther down the street, a man piles up sandbags behind the window display of his clothing store. He vows he will never close his shop.

"Never!" he says. "We'll stay here 'til we die."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We turn now to the civil war in Syria and repercussions it's having on neighboring countries. Millions of people have fled across Syria's borders into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. In some cases, the fighting has followed them. Gunmen from the militant Shiite movement Hezbollah are fighting alongside Syrian government forces. Sunni militants in Lebanon allied to Syrian rebels are launching revenge attacks. And the results has been a string of suicide bombings in Beirut's southern suburbs that have dramatically changed public life. NPR's Alice Fordham takes us there.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: To understand how life has changed in the Hezbollah stronghold, hop on a bus in central Beirut and head south.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

FORDHAM: Riding the bus to Beirut's southern suburbs used to be a bumpy, crowded but pretty fun experience. You pay about a dollar and everyone crams in next to each other bouncing around on the way to the area they call the Dahiyeh. On the way, you pass garages and vegetable stalls, and when you arrived there were juice bars and cafes. But after a series of bombings in the Dahiyeh and another one in a bus just like this little one outside Beirut, few people take the bus and the ones that do, say they're afraid.

FARAH: The majority of the people are preferring to not to take buses. You know, either they go to places that are near to their homes or for example by driving a taxi or by walking.

FORDHAM: That's Farah, who says she now checks out passengers to make sure they're not carrying bombs. As violence has risen in the Dahiyeh, the Lebanese army has set up a check point on the edge of the district. We're now pulling up to a checkpoint, one of several that dot South Beirut these days. They're checking the IDs of the guys on the bus and giving them a body search.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAGS RUSTLING)

FORDHAM: Going through a bag of shopping. They check our passports and we go on our way. But not for long. About 100 meters further down the road, we get stopped at another checkpoint. This time, there are no Lebanese flags painted on the sentry boxes, there's no uniforms. This is a Hezbollah checkpoint. The guy stopping us has got a distinctive yellow band on his arm. The local commander has a bushy beard and straddles a motorbike. These guys are polite but do not let us go right away. You can wander around all over Lebanon, they say, but in the Dahiyeh, you need permission. Eventually, we move on. We arrive at the main shopping street in the Dahiyeh a little while later. There were two car bombs here last month. Maytham, a journalist friend, says it changed the neighborhood.

MAYTHAM: People come here either to buy their clothes or have something to eat or go to the shop. But after these two bombs in the same street, people just you can see it's empty.

FORDHAM: It's striking how many of these shops have some kind of protective barrier.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING)

FORDHAM: Like sandbags. These two guys are standing on the corner of the street, they're filling a huge pile of sandbags.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) We have started this a week ago, from the first, second bomb happened people started to sell and buy these sandbags.

FORDHAM: Just round the corner is a café. It was blown to smithereens six days after it opened, in January's second car bomb. Two people died.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLASTERING)

FORDHAM: Now, they're re-plastering, re-painting. The owner, Uday, recalls the bombing.

UDAY: It's like a warzone when you come here.

FORDHAM: People are cautious in the Dahiyeh now but there's also an air of defiance here. Just walking a little bit further down the same street, there's a row of gents' clothing stores and there's one guy who's got some pretty smart outfits in the window, but he's obscuring them with a big pile of sandbags that he's making.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAND PACKING SANDBAG)

SIMON: I ask Brahim, the owner, if anyone has closed their shops because of the violence.

BRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken)

FORDHAM: No, no, never, he says. We're going to stay here till we die. Alice Fordham, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.