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Lebanon's young begin return to normalcy

After delays for rebuilding, south Lebanese students returned this week to schools that are still devastated by war.

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An extra month's vacation sounds like a child's dream, but southern Lebanese kids seemed only too happy to be back at school last Monday. Their return follows a summer during which many lost their homes in the fighting between Hizbullah and Lebanon. After the cease-fire, unexploded cluster bombs kept them from playing outdoors.

"I'm really happy to be back and that we didn't have to leave school," says Mariam Qassem, age 11. "I like studying because when I grow up I want to be a children's doctor."

Mariam had been looking forward to last summer's holiday, which she said had turned into her worst ever. "The war really affected us, we had to leave our house and the Israelis destroyed a lot of our town and completely changed it."

Many children spent their summers pent-up in schoolhouses with their families as internal refugees, having fled the conflict that raged throughout the south. Nearly all of the 1 million mostly southern Lebanese who were displaced by the fighting have returned to their villages, the United Nations says.

But even as Lebanon's internal refugees return to their homes, a return to normalcy remains in the distant future. The reconstruction process has turned otherwise mundane events like a first day at school into notable milestones.

Danger still lurks in the south, despite an uneasy peace. More than a million unexploded cluster bomblets are scattered across southern fields, groves, and villages. Israeli planes dropped most of them in the last three days of the conflict, according to the United Nations. The ordnance has killed at least 18 civilians.

Lebanon says it needs about $3.5 billion to repair buildings and infrastructure damaged in the 34-day Israeli offensive. But even before this year's destruction, Lebanon was already saddled with a public debt of about $38 billion – most of which stemmed from the reconstruction costs of the country's 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

Last Monday, a school director at Ansariyeh Public School was shouting into a microphone to marshal the blue-shirted children, who were waving Lebanese flags, into rows. The children were lining up to greet the education minister, who was about to arrive to mark the start of the school year.

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