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MARK PATINKIN Hariri was a symbol of hope in Lebanon



Published: Thu, February 17, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



I'm guessing most Americans will only read the headline: Former Lebanese prime minister assassinated in huge blast.

Just more terror in the Middle East. Time to check the sports section.

I might have done the same had I not come to know Rafik Hariri's work years ago.

To me, he'll remain a symbol that, even in the worst places and times, there is always a reason to hope.

In 1986, I went to Lebanon to write about the conflict there. It was an awful, fratricidal war. Beirut had once been the Paris of the Middle East, but was now split, Muslims on one side, Christians on the other. They and other groups were fighting over power. And faith.

Parts of Beirut were like European cities after World War II. Some buildings were said to have been hit by over 100,000 bullets. Broken pieces of concrete swung from high rises on steel cable. Streets everywhere were sealed by debris piled in place by militias protecting their turf. The government was too weak to restore order. There was certainly no hope of any central agency rebuilding the city.

But one man did it anyway: Rafik Hariri.

Successful businessman

He wasn't prime minister then -- he wasn't even in politics. He was a businessman. He'd grown up poor in Lebanon and made a huge fortune in construction in Saudi Arabia.

He could have retired young to villas all over the world, but refused to forget his roots. At the height of the war, he came back to Beirut.

And went to work.

I'd gone to Lebanon to write about war, but I kept hearing about this builder named Hariri who'd taken it upon himself to fix a broken city.

One day, I sat down with his chief executive, a cigar-chomping man named Fadl Chalak.

As we chatted, it became clear what trait made Rafik Hariri a success.

Impatience.

It's how he had stood out in Saudi Arabia -- at one point promising he could do an $800-million construction job in half the time proposed by others.

When he delivered, he became the royal family's favorite builder.

Now, back in Beirut, he showed the same impatience. One day in 1984, he called Fadl Chalak, an established contractor, and said he wanted to rebuild the city.

With what money? Chalak asked.

His own money, said Hariri. He was worth billions by then and felt if he was going to give a piece of it away, it should be to his homeland.

Rafik Hariri was 42 and in a hurry. The first part of the job was to clear rubble. Fadl Chalak rented a ship and filled it with tractors, bulldozers, cranes, garbage trucks, backhoes and excavators. It sailed across the Mediterranean to Lebanon and delivered its cargo. In less than a week, Hariri had established something Beirut's government then lacked: a public works department.

After the first day of work, Chalak proudly told his boss they had cleared 135 truckloads of debris.

Hariri told Chalak that was too little.

Hariri wasn't satisfied until they got it to 600.

Hariri then gave Chalak his next assignment.

"The buildings," said Hariri. "Fix them."

One by one, they began to lash thousands of hanging concrete slabs to cranes, cut the cables and lower them to the ground.

Next, Hariri reconstructed Beirut's street lighting.

Although a Sunni Muslim, Hariri had crews do the same work on the Christian side.

"We are all Lebanese," Chalak told me.

Hariri spent over $40 million in 1980s dollars on the job.

And he wasn't done.

College bound

He felt the war had destroyed not just buildings but people's hope. One way to get that back, he decided, was to send young people abroad to college.

Those who might have joined militias would instead become students.

Chalak called Hariri when 1,000 kids had been selected for full scholarships.

"Make it 2,000," said Hariri.

Then he made it 4,000.

Some of the reconstruction was ruined again as the war dragged on. But Hariri kept rebuilding.

The 15-year Lebanese civil war ended in 1990 following a Christian-Muslim peace conference in Saudi Arabia that Rafik Hariri paid for.

I'm personally convinced a key reason for the peace was that Hariri first gave people a glimpse of normalcy.

Scripps Howard News Service




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