Thousands of Syrian labourers have left Lebanon since Syria bowed to international pressure and Lebanese opposition demands to withdraw its troops after three decades in the country, following huge street protests in the capital, Beirut. 

They fled fearing attacks by Lebanese whose anger at Syria peaked after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, which anti-Damascus politicians blame on Syria. Syria, which has long dominated Lebanese politics, denies any involvement. Many Lebanese could not be happier. 

Unemployed until two weeks ago, Ibrahim Abbud has found salvation in the departure of the Syrian workers who he says undercut prices and made it impossible for him to eke out a living as a street vendor. 

"I started selling vegetables 10 days ago. I was encouraged by the departure of Syrian workers," said Abbud as he sold produce from a wooden cart on a Beirut roadside. 

"They don't compete with us any more. I am very happy today because I made a lot of money," he added.

Resentment

The Lebanese have long resented Syrian workers in their country, seeing their presence as a reminder of the grip Syria has kept on its neighbour since it poured troops into Lebanon early in its 1975-1990 civil war.

"They were bloodsuckers and, now they are gone, we are relieved"

Lebanese street merchant

They complain that in addition to overseeing Lebanon's affairs, Syrians have bled the Lebanese economy and taken jobs from locals.

One long-established Lebanese street merchant said Syrians had occupied the best vending spots, and that when he complained they told him: "We gave our blood to this nation."

"Well, I tell them, they were bloodsuckers, and now they are gone, we are relieved. Our selling record is increasing day after day."

Attacks on workers

Police say that in the past month they have investigated reported attacks on Syrian labourers - many of whom work as masons, food vendors and delivery boys - and do what they can to protect them. 

Newspapers have reported that some makeshift homes belonging to workers in east Lebanon have been set alight. The leader of Lebanon's Hizb Allah said 20 to 30 Syrian workers had been killed in recent weeks. Police declined to give statistics. 

Lebanese demonstrators asked
for the withdrawal of troops

But analysts say that as much as the Lebanese resent the Syrians, they perform a much needed role in the economy by filling menial jobs at low wages that most Lebanese are unwilling to do. 

"We brought them in and they helped us rebuild the economy," said Sami Barudi, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University. 

"Syrians will be back when things settle down. They speak the same language we speak, it is easy for them to commute and they do not need papers to come." 

Reliable statistics are often unavailable in Lebanon, where no census has been carried out for fear it would threaten the shaky balance of power among confessional groups that fought the civil war. 

Lebanon's Labour Ministry estimated about 54,000 foreign workers were registered in 2000. Some anti-Syrian Christian groups speak of a million or more workers of Syrian origin in a country of about four million. The truth, analysts say, lies somewhere in the middle.

Syrians needed

Even as some Lebanese were celebrating the Syrian departure, others in the business community mourned the loss of workers they said would raise their cost of doing business. 

"I can't leave, at least not now, although some individuals are insisting on bothering me"

Syrian vegetable shop owner Mazin Ziwani

"Sixty per cent of our Syrian workers left since the withdrawal began. They have been harassed, they got afraid and went back home," said Ghassan al-Tannir, project manager for a
hotel and mall construction project in a Beirut suburb. 

He said he had brought unemployed Lebanese from the north to replace the departing Syrians, but had to pay them $16 a day as opposed to the $10 he would pay a Syrian. 

Although many Syrian labourers returned home, others were hunkering down in the country where they have lived and worked for years. 

"I can't leave, at least not now, although some individuals are insisting on bothering me," said Syrian Mazin Ziwani, who long ago rented a vegetable shop in a Beirut suburb. 

"They pass by to curse me and all the Syrians like me. It's annoying, but I can't just give up everything and go back to
Syria. I have work here to do."