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Damon: What happened to my Lebanon?

By Arwa Damon
CNN

Editor's note: Arwa Damon's family has lived in Lebanon for the past three years.

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Haret Hreik, a neighborhood in Beirut, Lebanon.

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Behind the Scenes
Lebanon

BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- The smell of rotting, putrid bodies is overpowering in the southern Beirut neighborhood of Haret Hreik. As people move through the rubble-strewn streets, some wear masks, others hold tissues over their mouth and nose, some breathe in the stale air naturally.

Ten stories up one building, I can see a green couch and a chandelier still hanging. It looks like a scene in a dollhouse that a child would peer into, except it is reality, and there are no children playing here. The entire fašade of the building has been blown away, and what is still standing is scorched black. People walk through the street pointing out the damage to one another. Some take photographs with their cell phones; others drive by in fancy cars, presumably from other parts of the city that were not hit. It has an atmosphere of tourism, or rather "aftermath of war" tourism.

"Arwa, I was looking for you among the foreign press corps," a friend who lives in Dahiye, the southern suburbs, told me a few days ago. "I wanted you to interview me."

He jokes, and we laugh. But his welcome home was anything but funny. "I actually did not stick around too long," he said. "I saw pictures of my friends who had been killed on a wall. They were just sitting outside, smoking a shisha, when a bomb fell on them. I got too depressed." He tried to smile and shrug it off, but his face contorted into a grimace.

On the drive back into the center of the city, I look up at the other buildings that bear the scars of war, but these bear the scars of Lebanon's 15-year war -- the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990 -- now just hollow shells, juxtaposed against tall modern glass buildings.

The call to prayer seems to echo louder than I remember in Solidaire, Lebanon, recently renovated and still sparkling in its newness. Or maybe it's just because the streets are still relatively empty. But other parts of the city are enveloped in a false sense of normalcy, masking the underlying anxiety.

People are out and about and the waterfront at sunset feels almost normal: fathers with kids on their shoulders, couples walk hand-in-hand, rollerbladers whiz by, friends share a shisha pipe.

"Dad, did you see the fishermen are back?" I say when I get home. We speculate about what will happen next in this country. Even casual conversations are now highly politicized; gossip is now about what is open, what areas have "life" in them, and what is still closed.

How has this affected life here in Lebanon?

"This was going to be the best year for tourism in Lebanon," Samir told me angrily days before he decided to finally leave the country.

At the time, we were sitting in his newly opened restaurant and bar in a part of the city that was trying to cater to the few that ventured out. "I opened three weeks before the war started, business was great, you wouldn't believe it," he said proudly, a glint coming back into his eye as he remembered better times, but it faded quickly. "It's all over now," he said, sinking back into his depression.

The Lebanese social scene moved up to the mountains. The same clubs that were in Beirut are reopening on safer ground. I keep getting calls from friends lounging by the pool, clubbing, telling me to get up there. "Yalla, come on, it's a different world up here," a good friend told me as I called to check up on him. "It's classic Lebanese escapism. Everyone is trying to ignore how depressed they really are."

The craters in the road on the northern drive down from Syria to Beirut are reminiscent of the Amman-Baghdad road in 2003, before the Iraq airport opened. They are ugly gaping holes with twisted protruding metal. But this time the war zone that I was driving into was not Baghdad, it was Beirut, which has been my home outside of Baghdad for over three years.

It struck me along that drive a few weeks ago that this time my welcome home is not my family waiting, relieved that I have survived another trip into Iraq. Nor was I making phone calls to friends to make plans for the night. This time I had a flak jacket in the trunk of the car, and about an hour after I passed through, I received news that there had been an attack in the north.

"Arwa, I am so glad that you are back," my friend Nadine said as I sat in diverted traffic off of the main highway. "But everything has changed."

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