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French Version

Rebuilding the Fidar Bridge shapes up as a key test

Work is already under way to restore key link between capital and North

On September 9, construction workers began clearing the rubble of the Fidar Bridge just south of Byblos.

Until its destruction this summer, the Fidar was the second tallest bridge in Lebanon and a vital link between Beirut and Tripoli. The Fidar was one of 107 bridges and overpasses - including all four major bridges in the North connecting the capital to the country's second largest city - that sustained damage during Israel's 34-day bombardment. Like 12 of the other major bridges that were completely destroyed during the war, the Lebanese private sector, in this case Byblos Bank, is financing the $4 million redesign and reconstruction of the new Fidar.

The work on the bridge site has continued swiftly since construction kicked off two weeks ago. Heavy equipment chips away at the remaining slabs of concrete littering the now impassible valley which separates the villages of Halat and Madfoun. Nearby, a group of workers in hard hats cluster around a pile of girders to work on the new Fidar's foundations before the rubble of its predecessor has even been removed.

The Fidar was not only one of the tallest bridges spanning a small, mountainous country. It was also one of Lebanon's most vital commercial arteries, connecting the northern agricultural and industrial sectors and the Tripoli Port with Beirut and the South. As one of the first major postwar infrastructure projects to be claimed and put in motion, the rebuilding of the Fidar will in many ways serve as a litmus test for the latest round of reconstruction in Lebanon.

On August 4, day 24 of the conflict, Israeli warplanes launched a series of aerial attacks on all four major bridges in North Lebanon. The move not only dealt a startling blow to the economy - already suffering under the imposition of the air and naval blockade and the loss of the summer tourism season - but it also punctured the illusion of security harbored by portions of Lebanon's northwardly clustered Christian communities, which had thus far been spared direct Israeli fire. The Fidar, which had survived three decades of intermittent warfare since its completion in 1974, was therefore a particularly symbolic material casualty.

The Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) immediately listed rebuilding the Fidar as one of its top priorities and on August 16, Byblos Bank signed an agreement with the government to finance the feasibility study, redesign and construction of a new bridge.

Byblos commissioned Dar al-Handasah Shair & Partners to draw up the new plans and hired local contractor Elie Selwan to supervise the project, which is expected to be complete in 11 months.

"The bridge is a vital link because, without it, it takes three or four hours to get into Beirut from the north, so fast construction is a must," says Dar al-Handasah's project manager, who requested anonymity due to the newness and political sensitivity of the Fidar initiative.

Much like Lebanon itself, part of what made the Fidar one of the country's most aesthetically pleasing bridges was ultimately its Achilles heel. Running over 300 meters in length, the two-lane carriageway stood 24 meters above a deep, leafy chasm. Israel only needed to hit the peak of the arch to cause the entire bridge to crumble.

"The design of the old-bridge is outdated," says the Dar al-Handasah engineer, pointing to the Fidar's original blueprints from 1973.

"At the time, new technologies like pre-stressed concrete were not used in Lebanon, and the whole thing collapsed because the Fidar was an arched bridge made of reinforced concrete," he added.

The aerial attack sent cars plummeting into the ravine below, killing three motorists and crushing a 60-year-old jogger, Joseph Bassil, who had been out for his daily exercise. Bassil was the second cousin of Byblos Bank's chairman, Francois Bassil, though the head of the bank's marketing and sales department maintains that this was not a motivation for rebuilding the Fidar.

"Dr. Bassil is from Fidar, the bank's name is Byblos, and the bridge is in Byblos, but we did it for the good of the country because they [were] cutting Lebanon into pieces," says Joumana Bassil Chelala.

About 20 percent of Byblos employees and 22 percent of the bank's customers live on the other side of the Fidar. Chelala says the diversion of traffic to the smaller coastal road was adding at least an extra hour to the commute into Beirut.

"We are not going to use shoddy building materials just to say that we are doing something. We want to make sure that what we are paying for is the cost of the bridge," she says.

The Fidar was built over a one-and-a-half year period from 1973 to 1974, when the geographic and sectarian fault-lines dividing Lebanon were deep. Rival politicians regularly traded jabs in the media, accusing each other of apportioning state resources along sectarian lines. The minister of public works portfolio was a particularly contested post. Then, as now, the construction of infrastructure was a fraught political issue. Funds allocated for state-sponsored development projects in the government budget often went unaccounted for.

For example, in October 1974, 15 engineers and contractors hired by the government for road-construction projects were charged with forgery and squandering $40 million of funds.

Two weeks later then-President Suleiman Franjieh, who was from the North, was accused of failing to distribute $6 million from the 1972 budget for road construction in the neglected regions of the South.

The construction of the first Fidar Bridge occurred against this intensely political backdrop. At the time, the government awarded local contractor Abdel-Raham Hourie the contract to build all four bridges in North Lebanon simultaneously.

According to Hourie, who still works in Beirut today, 80 workers built the bridge for a a modest sum. Save for a delay stemming from a problem with the bridge's foundations, Hourie remembers the building process as unremarkable.

Though the Fidar's post-Civil War function has been to bridge the North of Lebanon with the South, in the late 1980s it functioned as the end of a runway for a makeshift airport in Halat, used mostly for private planes and helicopters. Some particularly ardent elements in Lebanon's Christian communities, namely the Lebanese Forces, hoped the landing strip might eventually become the commercial airport of an independent Christian state. Samir Geagea campaigned for the

establishment of the Halat airport in advertisements broadcast on LBC toward the end of the decade, as the Civil War was in its last throes. What should have been the physical manifestation of unification became, however briefly, a tool for attempted division.

Israel's targeting of Lebanon's infrastructural hubs this summer disconnected the main lines of transportation, such as the Fidar, between Lebanon's geographic and religious communities. As such, the Fidar's destruction carried the potential to reactivate increasingly blurry sectarian tensions. The Lebanese government's handling of the reconstruction effort overall may well, therefore, be decisive in defining an era of either unification or disintegration.

Much like the state's current reconstruction plan, the Fidar project has been subject to considerable confusion. The US government, for example, decided to earmark funds for the Fidar's reconstruction at the Stockholm donor conference on August 31 - much to the surprise of Byblos Bank, and a good two weeks after Prime Minister Fouad Siniora signed a well-publicized agreement with the bank.

Beirut 22-09-2006
Lysandra Ohrstrom
The Daily Star

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