Beirut has moved on but the scars of war remain

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The Independent Online

The door upon which Terry Waite knocked after returning from his first meeting with the kidnappers of Beirut still makes the same heavy booming sound it did more than 15 years ago.

The Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy had appeared at the door, white-faced and shaking, clutching snapshots of the Americans he was trying to rescue. He had sat at a glass-topped table over the seafront Corniche with its muddy central reservation and its sleek, dark-windowed Mercedes with their bearded, wolfish drivers. And there on the table he laid photographs he had just received in person from the kidnappers; of a staring Terry Anderson, a white-bearded Father Jenco and the other hostages of Islamic Jihad.

It's my front door now and the glass-topped table is still there. But outside on the Corniche, the central reservation is planted with soft grass and shrubs and new palm trees. The kidnap cars have long since piled up in garbage lots, their owners converted to politics or taxi driving or business in Tehran. I knew some of them, the men who embroiled President Reagan in the Iran-Contra scandal and who were to kidnap Terry Waite when - against all advice and their warnings - he returned once more to Beirut to seek the Americans' release.

Waite had left us the next day, the snapshots taped to his bare chest beneath his shirt so that gunmen at the old airport building could not find them. We travelled with him to the final departure lounge to ensure his safety - a journalist, Juan-Carlos Gumucio, and I - as he set off to Washington to show his pictures to the President. But the airport at which Mr Waite arrived last night is state-of-the-art, with smartly uniformed security men.

The marks of war and fear are still there in Beirut, of course. There remain hundreds of buildings smallpoxed with bullet holes and the real front line still exists; it runs through the minds of every Lebanese because there has been no effort at reconciliation. But downtown Beirut has been partially rebuilt for the Gulf rich, its old French mandate streets revamped for coffee bars and some of the Middle East's wealthiest nightclubs. The mini-skirted girls and their escorts - the largest bottle of champagne at the clubs now costs $3,000 and rumour has it that you can pay by instalments - were scarcely three years old when the war ended.

The Lebanese always look kindly on those who have suffered and Terry Waite will be feted by the local press - which he will love - and treated to the usual hospitality of Lebanese cuisine and fine wines. The Lebanese love to talk, though not as much as Mr Waite. As Terry Anderson said to me when he eventually emerged from captivity: "You can no more stop Terry Waite talking than you can stop water running downhill."

And the Middle East has moved further downhill. Iraq and Egypt, Israel and "Palestine" and the Gulf are dangerous for all Westerners. Beirut is perhaps the safest city in all of the Middle East. Mr Waite is a face from the past in a city that has long ago undergone the cosmetic surgery that all broken cities must undergo. My journalist colleague Juan-Carlos later committed suicide. But I still live in Beirut and remember the night when Mr Waite knocked on what is now my front door, his heart beating so fast that he could only speak between gulps of air. "They are ruthless," he said of the men who would later kidnap him. Many of them are now in their fifties and they, like Beirut, have changed.