Five days ago, I gave a lecture in Dublin on the parallels that linked Northern Ireland, former Yugoslavia and Lebanon. A common theme, of course, was the civil conflict that has engulfed all three. But there were some differences. Ten or sixteen dead in Belfast is a tragedy, but the same figure constitutes a very quiet day in Sarajevo. And, until recently, in Beirut, too. In 15 years of war, 150,000 died in Lebanon - perhaps 200,000 in former Yugoslavia in 20 months - but the Lebanese war has ended. I drew attention to the epic scale of the Lebanese and Bosnian casualties and provoked a very angry lady from Belfast to approach me at the end of the lecture. By taking a perspective based on statistics, she said, I had belittled the tragedy of Northern Ireland. Why had I said that by comparison with Lebanon, Belfast did not - yet - deserve the title of civil war? 'There are people who listened to you this evening and who are driving back home to Belfast in fear tonight. It's very real to them.'

I didn't doubt her meaning, nor the truth of it. Individual death is just as tragic whatever the number of fatalities. But she left something unsaid: an irritation, I suspected, with my own repeated emphasis on the fact that the Lebanese civil war had ended whereas the Northern Ireland quarrel remains as murderous as ever. The very name of Lebanon became synonymous with bloodshed, Beirut with anarchy. To 'Lebanise' became a verb. 'Lebanon-style' became an adjective used about Angola, Moscow, Bucharest, even Sarajevo in the early weeks of its war.

Yet in Beirut today, the unimaginable has happened. Million-dollar apartments are being built along the Corniche; new restaurants are being opened. The old Soviet Cultural Centre has been turned into a pizza parlour. Already one of Beirut's oldest mosques and the fine Turkish Serail have been restored from the ruins of the city centre. Beirut was a figure of speech, a shorthand for 'civil war', but these days I can visit the cinema or meet friends for dinner without having to lock my car door or look in my rear-view mirror for potential kidnappers, or keep the windows open to hear the sound of shellfire.

A man from the United Arab Emirates has just taken a flat in the apartment block next to mine. He flew in with five young palm trees in the baggage compartment of his plane and he has just planted them on the central reservation of the seafront highway in front of his home, walking across the road to water them each evening. It will take 20 years before they reach the level of his apartment. The man from the Emirates intends to stay that long. Three years ago, we would have said he was mad.

Officially, the war ended in October 1990. I was at home when the very walls of my apartment vibrated with the bombardment that ended General Michel Aoun's military rule in east Beirut. Syria's reward for joining the West's campaign against Saddam Hussein was American permission to rid Beirut of the turbulent general who dared to oppose Syrian power in Lebanon. The last battle of the Lebanese war was thus the first battle of the Gulf war. All that Saturday afternoon, we sat on the rooftops and watched the fires spreading across the hills.

The civil war followed me everywhere in Lebanon long after the last shots were fired. Every road I drove down, every city block I passed held a violent memory. A body on this street corner, a shellburst in that valley. Everyone here remembers these things just as a bright light continues to cling to the retina long after the eye has closed. Only half a mile from my home stands the old front line: acres of Dresden-like ruins, a grotesque, outsize fossil of those 15 years; tottering walls sinking into the undergrowth and sewage of a decade and a half. And despite the new high-rise apartment blocks, their curved balconies like the sails of galleons along the coast, there is scarcely a building in all Lebanon that has not been scored by little lines of holes stitched up the concrete, as if the fabric of every house had been disfigured by some concrete smallpox.

There are plans afoot in Beirut to put the wreckage of Lebanon's tragedy into a tourist itinerary, to show visitors the rubble and the plans for the new city that will be built from it. Shares in the company to reconstruct Beirut went on to the market only four days ago. The only tourists so far, however, are the Lebanese expatriates who have crept back to look at their land and re-invest in it. Towns such as Deir el-Qamar, the possession of an 18th-century Lebanese emir, were besieged in the war, starved and shelled just as the Muslim towns of Bosnia are being starved and shelled today. But its palaces have now been restored, its Christian inhabitants living amid their former Druze enemies with growing confidence. The only road block outside the town is caused by a group of whey-faced and honking scruffy camels trucked up on Sundays for the Lebanese children who crowd the Mar Moussa museum.

So where are the men who almost destroyed Lebanon and then suddenly stopped fighting? I meet some of the old militiamen from time to time, in the Lebanese army now, retrained to serve with the men they were trying to kill only three years ago, re-programmed like the rest of Lebanon to pretend that the war didn't happen. One friendly hijacker I know now works nine-to-five in one of the biggest banks in Beirut; he who once greeted me with two bandoleers of machine-gun bullets draped round his shoulders, now be-tied and jacketed, sipping red wine with me in Hamra's best restaurant.

His war ended for the same reason everyone else's did; because nobody among the Lebanese won. It ended because the Americans finally allowed Syria to control Lebanon, ending the old Israeli dream of a pliant pro-Israeli government in Beirut. Now there is a pro-Syrian government. Syrian troops are still in Beirut, despite earlier promises to leave. The PLO-Israeli accord has frightened the Lebanese who realise that the 400,000 Palestinian refugees in their country are not included in the agreement - and may stay here for ever. And when Hizbollah killed eight Israeli occupation soldiers inside Lebanon only last July, Israel launched a savage bombardment against the villages of the south, killing more than a hundred civilians, more than half of them women and children.

The Lebanese like to bury these nightmares quickly, regarding such recent ferocity as an aberration. We pretend the war really has finished, that a Middle East peace agreement will eventually include Lebanon, that the country's sectarian system of power - a Maronite has to be the president, a Sunni Muslim the prime minister - will not eventually break it apart again. We must think of conflict as something that belongs to the past.

So in the bookshops now there are coffee-table volumes on the war, blood and fire across the glossy pages, captions on vellum, your very own souvenir of the war that you'll never forget. The French-language L'Orient-le Jour has published a 16-volume history of those 15 years, every page of each book the front page of its own newspaper throughout the conflict. In the wreckage downtown, urchins will sell you postcards of Martyr's Square. Look on the cards at the Ottoman buildings around the square, then look up and see the rubble that is left today. Their message is simple: the war is over. And we are starting to believe it. If we try hard enough, if we forget the dangerous nightmares, it might even turn out to be true.

(Photographs omitted)