HARET HREIK, Lebanon: Rima Mrad is not an especially superstitious person. Yet, wearing a serene smile, the mother of four lets slip that ever since she moved back to her rebuilt apartment in Beirut’s southern suburbs in September 2010, everything has turned out for the best.
“It must have been a good omen,” she says, as she smells her coffee, takes a sip and sets it back on the saucer. “Two of my daughters got engaged after we moved back to our apartment in Haret Hreik.”
Located right next to the former headquarters of the Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Manar television station, Mrad’s building in Haret Hreik’s Al-Maarad street was reduced to rubble during the 2006 summer war with Israel.
“Don’t ask how it felt when I first saw my home leveled to the ground,” she says. “I was devastated, our shelter was gone … all our memories lost.”
But Mrad’s bitter sentiments did not last for long after she learned that Hezbollah’s construction arm Jihad al-Binaa had devised a massive project to rebuild the capital’s battered southern suburbs, commonly referred to as the “dahiyeh” by the Lebanese.
Dubbed Waad, the project kick-started work in June 2007, turning out to be Lebanon’s biggest construction venture since Downtown Beirut was rebuilt in the 1990s.
“To this date we have delivered 230 buildings out of the 269 and it will only be a matter of months before we hand over the last batch,” says engineer Hasan Jishi, Waad’s project manager.
The new earth-tone buildings are earthquake resistant, with each enjoying state-of-the-art elevators, fire alarms, a private parking lot and underground shelter.
In an area of the country where power cuts and water shortages are frequent all year long, buildings were also equipped with power generators and artesian wells.
The name “Waad” (Arabic for promise) refers to an address by Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah on Aug. 14, 2006, hours after a cease-fire with Israel came into effect.
The Hezbollah leader had promised his party would help the Lebanese reconstruct their homes and he also pledged that the southern suburbs, a stronghold of his group, would be built “nicer than it was.”
Almost four years after the launch of Waad, the capital’s southern suburbs remain a giant construction site. At least 28 contracting companies operate on the ground, as thousands of workers can be seen laying the final touches on brand new apartment buildings.
Although the capital’s overcrowded southern suburbs – buildings of substandard construction towering above a labyrinth of narrow streets – seem to have undergone a major face lift, a lot more work still needs to be done.
“We haven’t started building sidewalks or creating green spaces pending the conclusion of a long-awaited project by the Center for Development and Reconstruction to revamp the southern suburbs infrastructure,” Jishi explains. “People might have to wait a little bit more before they see a fully transformed dahiyeh.”
Jishi, however, admits that several hurdles got in the way of the project, including, to name only a few, the United States Treasury blacklisting Waad in 2009 as sponsoring terrorism activities, as well the Lebanese government’s laxity in paying compensation.
Going through all the trouble of acquiring the legal documents and ownership certificates for each of the destroyed apartment units was another major impediment.
“International contracting companies that initially expressed interest in rebuilding the dahiyeh pulled out at the last minute,” says the engineer. “So instead of relying on three or four big firms to do the work we had to resort to dozens of local companies.”
Jishi adds that the Lebanese state was not very “reactive” or “helpful” either, as some residents have yet to receive compensation.
While the Cabinet of then-Prime Minister Fouad Siniora allocated LL80 million ($53,000) of government compensation promised to owners of each destroyed apartment unit, the sum was insufficient to finance the construction of the 1.2 million square meters of built-up area damaged during the war, and Hezbollah pledged to cover the remaining costs.
A majority of the southern suburbs’ residents consequently gave Waad power of attorney over their properties, allowing the company to collect indemnity payments from the government on their behalf, and determine the architects and engineers to which building contracts would be awarded.
Waad drafted an urban planning scheme that would allow structures to be rebuilt according to their prewar dimensions, but residents had a say in the layout of their individual homes and in selecting materials for the interiors.
“This significantly delayed work,” says Jishi, who adds that 10,000 amendments were made to the original blueprints to meet the demands of apartment owners.
Mrad, for example, who is also an architect, says she worked with Waad architects to entirely overhaul the layout of her apartment.
“It was a chance to carry out some changes in the apartment,” she says. “Now my son has a room of his own, while previously he shared the same room with his sisters.”
Jishi says the overall feedback of the southern suburbs’ residents was positive in general.
“We made use of the destruction to create a better living environment and most of the suburbs’ residents are satisfied,” he says.
Delegations from Waad visit buildings that have been delivered to their owners to collect feedback, and according to Jishi, out of 140 meetings with owners only a few were negative.
The Waad project, however, razed a landmark of the southern suburbs – the famous “security perimeter,” which housed Hezbollah’s top commanders and earned heavy criticism from the party’s detractors for being outside the authority of the state.
“After the summer 2006 war with Israel there is no longer a need for security perimeters … each resident of the dahiyeh can protect the resistance better than a thousand security parameters,” says Jishi, who is contemplating sharing his experience at the head of Waad in a book.
Asked whether he would undertake reconstruction work with the same enthusiasm in the event of another war with Israel, Jishi seems categorical: “I am defending a cause here, if Israel destroys our homes we will reconstruct them a third and a fourth time.”
As for Mrad, the likelihood of another brutal war erupting that might destroy her home a second time is a scenario she does not entirely discard.
“But I honestly prefer not to think about the coming war,” she says. “I prefer to enjoy the comforts my home offers for the time being.”