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French Version

University students plan 'park for peace' in South Lebanon (Daily Star)

Project will be built near site of former prison in Khiam

Life-size boxes stand at regular intervals on a field of green grass. Carved from glass the thickness of fingers, they seem to float over their bases, made from old crumbling stones. As you approach the structures, you realize they offer a view down into a series of light shafts, leading to the remnants of an old subterranean hospital.

Etched onto the surface of the glass facades are words taken from the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood," reads one etching.

For now, this strange pastoral scene exists only on a collection of detailed charts and computer-generated photographs created by a group of five students from the Lebanese American University (LAU). Their message of human dignity, placed among white-stone walkways sloping gently down a grove of neatly arranged olive trees, is part of a design scheme they have imagined for a most unlikely location - the border village of Khiam in South Lebanon.

Best known as the site of a prison run by the pro-Israeli South Lebanon Army (SLA) during the 22-year Israeli occupation of the South, Khiam is still, in the minds of many, synonymous with torture, tragedy, poverty and conflict. A few minutes' drive from the former prison is the hospital, which the British government began building in 1942 but never finished. Plans are under way to convert the hospital - which was tucked under the olive grove for camouflage, using the light shafts for ventilation - into a World War II war museum. It is on top of this structure that the LAU students have envisioned their "park for peace."

Antoinette Nammoure, Maya Freigi, Abdul-Aziz al-Azem, Amira Bizri and Rasha Geiid first came up with the plan last February, while they were brainstorming for ideas to enter the UN-sponsored "Seeing the South" competition. "Seeing the South" encouraged students to construct landscape design projects specifically for South Lebanon, which has been struggling to attract tourists since the occupation ended in 2000.

The LAU students designed their project to engage with the history of Khiam in particular and the South in general. They made it to the competition's short list, but they were not among the three winners chosen from the initial pool of 21 proposals. Still, they didn't take the loss hard. They were encouraged by positive feedback from some of the competition's judges and decided to start pitching their project on their own. They began meeting with various non-governmental organizations around Lebanon, making proposals for funding.

When Mercy Corps, a non-profit humanitarian foundation associated with the U.S. Agency for International Development (Usaid), agreed to finance the park's construction, the students were thrilled.

Mercy Corps has agreed to give an as-yet-unspecified amount of money to complete the project, which the students estimate will fill a 400-square-meter space atop the old hospital (Mercy Corps is also funding the building's restoration). Sami Shalabi, a Mercy Corps representative working with the students, says their plan was attractive because of its use of the landscape to render a message of "humanity and peace." He says construction should be complete by winter.

From the early planning stages, the students have been studying Khiam's history. They have met with municipal leaders and coordinated with Mercy Corps officials. All of this constitutes a process that their academic adviser at LAU, Rachid Chamoun, hopes will bring techniques learned in the classroom to the service of rebuilding and restoring Lebanon's historical sights.

"We try to use the cities and communities as a lab," says Chamoun, who is overseeing urban design projects in Mina, near Tripoli (for final-year architecture students at LAU), as well as the proposal for Khiam. An assistant professor of architecture and urban planning who pushed his students to come up with these proposals in his "open space" design course, Chamoun emphasizes constant interaction between the students and municipal leaders. Project design, he stresses, must be "an extension of community needs."

For the students, the park is their way of repainting "the culture of death" symbolized by the Khiam war museum with "a culture of life" represented by the words of the Declaration of Human Rights, the olive trees and flowing water channels that are also part of the design scheme.

"Getting in touch with the people of Khiam and understanding what they have suffered from," says Antoinette Nammoure, inspired the group to try to supplant the area's tradition of conflict with a message of peace.

The resulting plan articulates a concept that is as powerful and jolting as the students' description of the site's polarities. Rather than try to obscure the horrors of Khiam and the war it symbolizes, the plan embraces and draws on the site's past.

Underneath the laminated and tempered glass boxes that rise from the light-shaft apertures, the students will construct a metallic film with special mirrors and place it over the top of the shaft. When looking downward into the hole, the mirrors create a "tunnel effect" so the viewer seems to be gazing into an endless black chasm.

"There's a mix of ideas taking place in this same spot," says Nammoure.

In addition to mixing symbols of war with messages of hope, the students hope to create a space with handicap-accessible walkways and shaded benches, where people can mingle and reflect.

"People are too often standing behind their religion and their different identities," Nammoure says. "We wanted to say that, through these different identities, human rights will be respected."

The students chose the words from the United Nations declaration to promote a nonsectarian appeal for the project. The declaration, which enshrines values of equality before the law, freedom from arbitrary arrest and freedom of thought and conscience, says its provisions are "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations."

Initially, the students planned to include passages about peace from the Koran, the Bible and the Torah.

Mercy Corps, however, insisted that only articles from the human rights code be used to avoid associating the park with any particular faith.

While the glass boxes bear the written message, the students say that the site's interaction with its natural environment will create a more powerful testament to what they call "the work of God."

Expressed in the water and in the olive trees, which were traditionally harvested cooperatively in village ceremonies, the students hope to enlist nature to drive the monument's regenerative purpose.

Shadows cast by the trees, the swishing of water through narrow channels, and the glass boxes set atop stone blocks carved decades ago form the students' paeon to harmony.

Says Nammoure: "We wanted to create a kind of symphony between the work of God and the intervention of man."

Beirut 18-10-2004
Will Ramussen
The Daily Star

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