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U.N. Conferences Shifts Focus Briefly to Cities at War

June 8, 1996

ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) _ At a U.N. conference on cities, participants shifted their focus for one hour from the problems of cities at peace to the chaos of cities at war _ and the challenges they face in trying to recover.

When the Palestinians took control of Gaza City two years ago, the city was black because the Israelis had coated buildings with tar to prevent them from being used as message boards. Today, it is colorful again, but life is far from normal.

After five years of civil war in Sierra Leone, hundreds of thousands of hungry refugees are wandering the streets of the capital, Freetown. They have no place to live, no jobs, and some are dying of starvation.

Beirut is being rebuilt from the ashes of civil war. But the old downtown center that traditionally was the meeting point for Christians and Muslims has been destroyed by development _ and some fear that hopes for real reunification have been destroyed with it.

From Kuwait City to Sarajevo, the roll call of cities devastated by war grows longer every year. Rebuilding is still a distant dream in Liberia, Chechnya and Afghanistan, where fighting continues to rip apart the fabric of urban life.

Florence Dillsworth, mayor of Freetown, said Friday the war has destroyed half the country and created acute overcrowding in urban areas. Water and sanitation are inadequate. Children lucky enough to attend school sometimes have 150 youngsters in their class.

``Four years ago the population of Freetown was 110,000. Now it is 1.5 million, and we have not added to the facilities that we had some five years ago,″ Dillsworth said.

The top priority of the country’s recently elected civilian government, the first in 20 years, is rehabilitation and reconstruction.

``Well, where does it begin?″ Dillsworth asked. ``We need every help we can get _ but we do not have the resources.″

The mayor urged the U.N. conference to promote assistance for war-ravaged countries and peaceful resolution of conflicts.

``I think it is incumbent on the developed cities, the richer cities, to stretch out the hand to help us to begin again,″ she said.

Mayor Aown Shawa of Gaza City asked for money to help the cities rebuild.

As soon as the Palestinians took control of Gaza City two years ago, he said, they started making emergency repairs to vital services such as roads and the sewage system.

``I visited some districts in the Gaza Strip where sewage flow went into homes _ the bedrooms of the people,″ he said.

The mayor blamed the Israelis for ``deliberate negligence″ of all infrastructure during their 27 years in control of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

``In other respects, Gaza was a destroyed city and still is,″ Shawa said. ``I think we are on the way, but we need time and we need resources.″

Many industrialized nations have been reluctant to finance reconstruction in countries devastated by war, partly out of concern that fighting may break out again.

Clovis Maksoud, director of the Center for the Study of the Global South at American University in Washington, which sponsored Friday’s session, said it is in the industrialized world’s interest to promote peace in developing countries _ because it would create new markets.

In Beirut, it’s not resources that are the problem, but the reconstruction plan being implemented by Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, said Assem Salaam, president of the Lebanese Institute of Architects and Engineers.

He blamed Hariri, a property developer, for demolishing much of Beirut’s medieval sector and 19th-century Ottoman quarter in 1983 and 1992 _ and for ignoring a plan that would have kept the historic center of the city where all trades, professions and religions mixed.

Its elimination, Salaam said, dealt ``a deadly blow″ to reunification.

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