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Beirut's Suburbs Take New Precautions As Syrian Unrest Expands

Riding the bus to Beirut's southern suburbs used to be a bumpy, crowded but fun experience. Everyone crammed in next to each other, bouncing around on the way to the area they call the Dahiyeh, the Arabic word for "suburb."

This sprawling southern district of Lebanon's capital is the place where the Shiite militant group Hezbollah enjoys its strongest support. But it is also a bustling, residential area. There are garages and vegetable stalls. And in the center of the neighborhood, there are juice bars and cafes.

But after a series of bombings in the Dahiyeh and another one in a bus just outside Beirut, few people take the bus south. The ones that do say they're afraid.

"Safety is one of the major problems," says Farah Fala, a teacher reluctantly riding the bus to class. "Definitely precautions are necessary." She says she checks people as they get on to make sure they're not carrying bombs.

A War At Their Doorstep

The war in Syria has had major repercussions in neighboring states. Millions have fled across Syria's borders into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. And sectarian tensions are rising throughout the region.

That has brought increasing violence, especially in Lebanon. Gunmen from Hezbollah are fighting alongside Syrian government forces. In the last week, fighters from the group have taken the lead in battles to retake strategic towns in western Syria.

This has prompted revenge attacks by Sunni militants allied to the rebels in Syria. The fundamentalist group Jabhat al-Nusra's Lebanese affiliate has vowed to strike Shiite civilian areas.

As violence has risen in the Dahiyeh, both the Lebanese army and Hezbollah have set up extra security on the edge of the district.

On the bus ride, an army checkpoint stops vehicles. They examine the papers of the passengers, pat them down and search their shopping bags.

The bus moves on, but not for long.

Two minutes farther down the road, another checkpoint is stopping cars. This time there are no Lebanese flags painted on the sentry boxes, nor uniforms. This is a Hezbollah checkpoint. The man stopping the bus has a distinctive yellow band on his arm. On finding foreign reporters, he has them wait while he makes calls and checks credentials.

"You can wander all over Lebanon," he says, before letting them go. "But in the Dahiyeh, you need permission."

Residents Vow To Stay

A man paints a mural that reads "patience is beautiful" in Arabic, near the site of a bombing in an area of Beirut, Lebanon known as the Dahiyeh.
/ Tim Fitzsimons for NPR
Tim Fitzsimons for NPR
A man paints a mural that reads "patience is beautiful" in Arabic, near the site of a bombing in an area of Beirut, Lebanon known as the Dahiyeh.

Along the main shopping street of the Dahiyeh, many of the shops and cafes now have sandbags piled up outside. Two workmen are filling more on a street corner. The market for the bags picked up, they say, after January's second car bombing. In both attacks, shops and cafes were targeted.

"You can't describe how you feel in this moment," says Uday Hussein. His cafe, Alwan, had been open for just six days when a bomb struck right outside. A teenage girl was killed as she walked to the bathroom, and a young man died as he sat by the window, waiting for a friend.

"I don't know what to say," he murmurs. "It's very hard to see what you have been working for and doing and putting all your money in it, and in a second you see it trash."

Although he expects more attacks, Hussein is busy painting and plastering and getting ready to reopen. "No matter what happened," he says, "we will carry on normally."

Although people are afraid, there is a spirit of defiance here. Outside, a young man is painting a vast mural next to the bomb site. In sky blue and sunset reds, are the words, "Patience is beautiful."

"I think it reflects a very good image to the people passing here," says a young woman in a crowd watching the painting on the way home from college. "We need to see something nicer, something other than destruction."

And just a little farther down the street, a man piles up sandbags behind the window display of his clothing store. He vows he will never close his shop.

"Never!" he says. "We'll stay here 'til we die."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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