BEIRUT, Lebanon _Youmna and Ziad Ghaziri looked for solace in prayers Friday at the sand-colored mosque in Beirut where they were married two months ago.
The same cleric who presided over that happy day was still there, again speaking of unity as a gift from God. This time, however, it was an urgent plea to keep Lebanon intact as a barrage of missiles threatens to unravel the delicate tapestry pieced together after a vicious 15-year civil war.
The Ghaziris are too young to remember those days of bloodshed, but they're terrified at what they see in their country now. Besieged Shiite Muslims from territories controlled by Hezbollah militants have fled to safer Christian areas, to the dismay of residents there. Sunni Muslims consider Israel an enemy, but they're just as wary of Shiite guerrillas with close ties to Iran.
Lebanon's deep factional rifts, papered over and called national reconciliation, are raw once more as thousands are uprooted and panicked.
Segregation, many here believe, was the only way such a diverse population could peacefully coexist. Now that Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Druze are jumbled together as people try to flee from the war, the old fissures have widened, and few seem to be heeding the government's calls for a united national front.
"Everybody now is in their homes watching the news and talking about, `I'm with this' or `I'm against that,'" said Youmna Ghaziri, 23, a Red Cross volunteer and engineering student. "This is spreading from the homes to the neighborhoods to the whole country. It's not the time for this. Not again."
She and her husband, both Sunni Muslims, listened as the imam warned that Israelis want to cause "fitna," a powerful Arabic word whose translations range from discord to the anarchy that Muslims believe will precede Judgment Day. To many Lebanese, the word conjures up memories of the bloodletting during the civil war, which ended in 1991.
The Ghaziris normally wouldn't attend this mosque, but the Israeli strikes kept inching closer to their home south of Beirut, so, like thousands of other families, they decided to flee. Displaced and scared, the young couple had hoped to find sanctuary within the serene halls of the mosque. But shaking their resentment at Hezbollah was harder than they imagined.
"Look around you. We didn't want to lose all this," said Ziad Ghaziri, 25, a pharmaceutical salesman, pointing at the gleaming Beirut skyline. "We're all against Israel. Israel is our primary enemy. But the problem with Hezbollah is the timing. We were just rising out of everything that happened. It was such a promising season."
So far, Shiite lands in Beirut's south suburbs and along the Israeli border have borne the brunt of Israel's revenge.
Lebanon's Christians and Sunni Muslims are petrified that Israel will spread such destruction to their districts. Many of them privately say that Shiites ushered in this war because of their wide popular support of Hezbollah. Shiites, especially impoverished ones who called the south suburbs home, counter that the Sunni- and Christian-led government neglected their community for years. Hezbollah was the force that stepped in with schools, clinics and orphanages.
In a bid to free Lebanese detainees in Israeli jails, Hezbollah guerrillas abducted two Israeli soldiers in a bold cross-border operation it hoped would yield a prisoner swap. Instead, Israel responded with relentless airstrikes and tentative ground assaults that have destroyed swaths of its tiny Mediterranean neighbor. Hezbollah fought back, sending hundreds of poorly aimed rockets into Israel.
More than 300 Lebanese have died in the air raids, including more than 100 children and 23 Lebanese soldiers. The government in Beirut estimates the onslaught has displaced 500,000 residents, with 100,000 camping out in overflowing public schools.
This uneven, deadly tit-for-tat has halted Lebanon's progress toward a democratic government representative of its diversity. It also has left smoking ruins throughout a capital that took years to rebuild.
"We feel so ambivalent," Youmna Ghaziri said. "You hear things like Hezbollah attacking an Israeli ship and it makes you happy and proud that we have a force that can stand up to Israel. But then you get scared, because you know Israel is stronger and you don't know what the response will be."
Carine Mirr, 32, a Maronite Christian mother of three, lives near one of the schools north of Beirut where dozens of southern Shiites have converged. At first, she said, local Christians showed compassion to their displaced neighbors. That changed, however, when one of them stuck a yellow-and-green Hezbollah flag on top of the school this week. Terrified that such an act would bring airstrikes to their lands, Christians asked the police to remove the flag—and tensions have remained high ever since.
"I pity them, but I think that if Israel attacks the Christian areas, it's because the Shiites are here," Mirr said. "I'm so, so frightened. I wish a ship from a foreign country would just come and take us away."
Throughout the capital Friday, symbols of Lebanon's gains were juxtaposed with signs of its new losses.
Cranes rose up from construction sites for new luxury apartment buildings. Next to a billboard touting a building project led by Ivana Trump, dozens of Canadians hauling suitcases were lined up to board a ship that would spirit them away from Lebanon. More than 60,000 expatriates, including at least 2,000 Americans, already have fled, with many more waiting to evacuate.
Posters advertised a concert by the American hip-hop sensation 50 Cent, who now shares wall space with pro-Hezbollah graffiti. Several chic French bakeries and major department stores have reopened, though shoppers stocked up in the dark because electricity is sporadic. The Cartier and Bulgari proprietors had snatched their diamonds from shop windows, perhaps fearful of looting if the area was bombed. The same went for designer clothing stores, where the mannequins stood naked and the doors were padlocked.
But these were all minor scars compared with the wreckage of Beirut's predominantly Shiite south suburbs. Massive and repeated Israeli hits have reduced most of the area to smoldering debris. Half a million Lebanese lived and worked in the suburbs, where Hezbollah also kept political and charity offices. The once-bustling area has turned into a dangerous knot of live wires, trash and concrete.
"I pray to God to make this war stop," said Ghada Mabsout, 21, whose parents moved the family to Beirut this week to flee the violence in her southern hometown. "I ask for peace and for Lebanon to overcome this war as one. I just wish things could go back to how they were."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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