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French Version

Anchors away on aid to bomb-damaged businesses

Retired commander brings naval experience to Lebanon's United Solidarity Fund

Retired General George Azar isn't actually a general. "They don't know," says Admiral Azar, a life-long sailor. "Everyone thinks I'm a general."

Azar doesn't mind the error, perhaps because Lebanon's navy is small and it sounds better to be called "general." But what's important is that Azar is a military man. He returned to public life in April to lead relief-efforts for businesses damaged in Beirut's recent string of bomb attacks, and he's tackled the new job with military flair.

In his free time, Azar reads biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte and World War II British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. His management style is a cross between number-crunching business administrator and valiant general mustering his troops for a charge.

Early this month, after visiting the centuries-old Jounieh souk partially destroyed in a car bomb, Azar grabbed headlines by declaring that the private fund he heads was prepared to rush aid to businesses even before the government.

Sending teams of engineers to appraise each of the estimated 150 damaged sites is certainly a tedious task, but Azar's enthusiasm for his mission hasn't dimmed. With the political situation in Lebanon basically paralyzed until at least after the election results are settled, the United Solidarity Fund is the first hope of relief for many.

"Why make the damaged businesses wait?" Azar asks. "Maybe the government will pay next week. Maybe next year. We will not wait for the state."

Appointed in April to head the $2.5 million fund, which was started by $1 million donations each from Bank Audi and Blom Bank, Azar has an enthusiastic, can-do attitude that is reassuring for businessmen who never know when a new bomb might detonate outside their storefront.

The United Solidarity Fund was established in April and will run until its entire chest is distributed to small businesses - everything from mini-markets to hotels to nightclubs.

Damages for the second Jounieh bombing alone reached $3 million, according to the local chamber of commerce - meaning that the fund will need help to cover everything. The fund will cover the bombings in New Jdeideh, Kaslik, and Jounieh. Philanthropist and Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal is aiding victims of the Sad al-Boushrieh blast.

As United Solidarity Fund's CEO, Azar manages a team of evaluators hired from McLarens Young International and reports to the fund's board of directors, composed of local chambers of commerce, Lebanese banks, and tourism officials.

For all his martial flourish, Azar is a deeply personable man who enjoys engaging others - a useful trait when his job is to help businessmen assess their own damages and get back on their feet.

Azar has traveled widely and studied at the most prominent naval schools in France and the U.S. As a 20-year-old, he left Lebanon for the rigors of the French Naval Academy in Brest.

Still trim and physically fit at 55, Azar said he had no trouble adjusting to the academy's rigid discipline and calls the time in France "a shining and beautiful experience in my life."

"It was a new world," he says of first visiting France. "It was fascinating. The academy was a meeting of almost 100 cultures from around the world. I met people from Africa, Asia, Europe and America. We exchanged beliefs and ideas."

After earning his degree in France in 1974, he returned to Lebanon for seven years, reaching the rank of captain in the Lebanese Navy. During the civil war, the navy monitored the coastlines, ran smuggling interdiction missions, and provided rescue services.

It was during his service in Lebanon in his 20s and 30s that Azar fell in love with the military life.

"I'm still military in my mind," the retired admiral says. "I spent 30 years in uniform, its my life's story. The military is my second family. I love it like my family."

Azar's devotion to the military and his patriotic ardor still runs strong ("for 30 years I was ready to die for my country," he says) even after a tragedy befell his family during the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon.

In 1997, Azar explains, his nephew Jawad Azar was martyred defending a position in the South against an attack from Israeli Apache helicopters.

"He died along with six of his men," Azar says, with as much pride as sadness.

Azar left Lebanon in 1981 to spend "a wonderful year" at the U.S. Navy's prestigious Surface Warfare School in Coronado, California.

After that, he earned

another degree in Paris, between 1984 and 1985, at the French Supreme School for Military Administration.

Lebanon recognized his achievements in 1998, promoting him to admiral in charge of the Lebanese fleet.

After his retirement, it wasn't much of a transition to the private sector. He brought his military ethos with him.

"I'm healthy and I can use my experience in civil fields," Azar says. "The spirit is still the same. I'm serving my country by providing assistance to all the damaged businessmen."

20-second resume
In the Family: wife
Michelime, daughter Madonna Azar, 27, and son Firas Azar, 24
What car do you drive?
Jeep Grand Cherokee 2000
Last Vacation: visited my kids in the U.S. over Christmas
Favorite book: All biographies
Favorite film: Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth"

Beirut 30-05-2005
Will Rasmussen
The Daily Star

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