Lebanon’s battered economy

Marketplace Staff Aug 3, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: The Beirut Stock Exchange opened yesterday for the first time in more than two weeks. The benchmark BLOM index dropped a bit more than 4 percent. Not bad, overall. Market regulators had been worried it would be worse. They put a five percent limit on stock movements. Up or down. Suffice it to say most of the movement was down, as is almost all economic activity in Lebanon since the fighting started. Ben Gilbert made a trip to some of the villages near the southern port city of Tyre.


BEN GILBERT: The average Lebanese earns about $400 per month, and many get by on a little over $200. The rolling hills of southern Lebanon are home to some of the poorest people in the country.

Many work on farms. And up to 80 percent of the 250,000 people living in and around the southwestern port city of Tyre have fled north. The exodus has left this rural area known for its tobacco farms and banana and orange groves, largely deserted.

In the town of Qana, about five miles west of Tyre, a dozen men drag cardboard boxes of UNICEF aid into a garage, and quickly shut the door. More than 50 people died here last week in an Israeli air strike.

Driving out of Qana and into the nearby town of Tebneen, storefronts are shuttered and gas stations demolished. A black Mercedes rests on it’s roof in the middle of the road near a large crater.

Restaurants with brokem windows still have chairs neatly arranged on terraces overlooking picturesque valleys. One location now offers a view of a burning ridgeline.

The only signs of life in this town of 8,000 are near the local hospital, where a dozen men mill about outside. Displaced people from nearby villages have taken refuge here. They’re now living in the hospital’s darkened basement.

Gamal Magoub has been here for nearly two weeks.

GAMAL MAGOUB: Look at that. How living here people. You see? People sleep here. You see that? No good here. No good.

A man sleeps on a mat on the floor. Children play in dark hallways. The humid basement smells of urine and sweat. Magoub says he doesn’t know how many families are here.

MAGOUB: One hundred only now. Yesterday, 1,000 people here. One thousand. No food, no water, no anything.

In one room, Hussein Rashid and nine members of his family are cooking tuna on a small camping stove by candlelight. He’s been here for three weeks. Rashid says he didn’t leave with other refugees yesterday because it’s too expensive.

“I have no money,” Rashid says. “It costs $1,000 to get to Beirut.”

Even if he made it to the capitol, Rashid says he doesn’t know how he’d provide for his family. Food costs have doubled since the beginning of the conflict, and aid is still not reaching the south regularly.

In the coastal city of Tyre, about 20 miles from Tebnine, the economic impact is just as disastrous. The city still has electricity and water service, but the main sources for revenue for the city and the region have been destroyed.

Deputy president for the area, Machmood Hilawi, says agriculture, tourism and fishing are devastated. He says about 300 families depend on fishing.

MACHMOOD HILAWI: Very poor people. If they don’t fish one day, they don’t eat.

Many people here are in the same situation. Ghassan Farran is a city councilman in Tyre, and also a doctor. His home was destroyed in an Israeli air strikes in late July. Like most professionals in the city, he has closed his office. He now treats patients in the government building downtown. The mayor’s conference room serves as his makeshift pharmacy.

Farran says he thinks the economic problems caused by the war will last far beyond repairing the country’s broken infrastructure.

GHASSAN FARRAN: I think we’ll see social problems, economic problems, and health problems, and psychiatric problems.

Farran doesn’t know how the city, or the region, will recover. Tyre’s budget is around $5 million per year. At least a half million of those dollars come from tourist revenue.

The war started just as the tourist season began.

For Marketplace, I’m Ben Gilbert in Tyre, Lebanon.

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