Published: Thursday, August 10, 2006, Sonia Verma reports from Beirut on how violence has caused thousands of young, university-educated professionals to leave Lebanon, possibly for good. BEIRUT – These are the trades 28-year-old Ziad Hawwa is willing to make to leave Lebanon: His swanky Beirut bachelor pad for an indefinite couch surf; the company of his elderly mother for a secure paycheque so he can support her from afar; his brand new Honda Civic for a one-way cab ride out of the country at a cost of $1,500."If I look to the future I see black," said Mr. Hawwa, nursing a bottle of mineral water in an eerily empty cafe near the pharmaceutical company where he still shows up for work in pressed khakis and a blue button-down shirt.

His friend, Nadia Khouri, a 32-year-old teacher whose salary has just been cut in half until further notice chimes in: "We have our whole lives ahead of us. We have to marry, find a house, make a family. We can’t hope to do that here. Lebanon is dead," she said.Mr. Hawwa plans to catch a ride to Syria sometime next week. Ms. Khouri has already applied online for jobs teaching English in Dubai.

Estimates of the number of Lebanese nationals who have already fled to neighbouring Arab countries run upwards of 250,000 — a staggering number in this nation of 3.5 million people.But as Lebanon reels from a month of punishing air strikes and braces for further fighting, government officials predict the exodus will swell to include hundreds of thousands more in the weeks and months to come.

The fear is that these Lebanese are leaving for good, never to return for much more than a visit, or to collect the family and belongings they are leaving behind.

"We’re talking about losing an entire generation. The war is happening in the south, but the future of Lebanon is leaving out the back door," said a Lebanese government official from the Ministry of General Security.

In Beirut, most of the shops, restaurants and bars have long since shut down. Fuel shortages force lineups at the gas stations that run kilometres long. The black market buzzes, but nearly everybody — even the wealthy — is running short on cash.

Banks won’t dispense American dollars. Most businesses have stopped paying salaries.

The situation is forcing young, professional, university-educated Lebanese to look elsewhere to live.

In the neighbouring Arab countries of Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Lebanese nationals can live for years on a tourist visa.

The Lebanese government has issued about 5,000 passports every day since war broke out a month ago, a record for this country’s already clogged Ministry of General Security, which handles immigration.

The lineup outside its main office starts to form before the front doors open at 8 a.m., stretching down the winding concrete driveway and spilling onto the sidewalk as the day wears on.

"I’m afraid of the situation, of where it will lead," said Rania Kasir, a 25-year-old science student at the American University in Beirut, who waited for three and a half hours in the sun, so hot that her palms perspired on her passport application, smearing the ink.

The shop where she worked in the suburbs to finance her education was bombed last week. She plans to leave for Muscat after renewing her passport, relying on family and friends to support her until she finds her feet.

These days, the government only requires her to produce one piece of identification to renew her passport.

Most of the people in line fled their homes in the south in such a hurry, the only official paperwork they managed to salvage was whatever happened to be inside their wallets.

"Staying here is just too hard. The situation will take more than my lifetime to repair itself," said Ms. Kasir, who will leave her two brothers, two sisters and parents behind.

The Lebanese government estimates it will take between 40 and 50 years to rebuild the country’s infrastructure.

Young people in their late 20s and 30s, who are old enough to remember the violence of the civil war and Israel’s occupation of the south are also young enough to leave and start fresh somewhere else.

Local observers fear the trend of university-educated people leaving will only radicalize those who are left.

"Those who are leaving are those who can afford to leave and generally speaking these are politically liberal people," says Minia Boujaoude, a columnist with the left-leaning daily As-Safir.

"We need these people to rebuild Lebanon as a modern country. It can’t fall to Hezbollah," she said.

At Ashrafieh Mall, a shopping centre in an upscale part of Beirut, the end-of-summer sales have started early, but nobody’s buying. Inside, the air-conditioned shops, designer clothes and imported linens seem a world away from the war raging outside, but it is always close to people’s hearts.

"When I see my friends leaving, I think this place will be thrown back 60 years in time," says Sami Zakhi, a young doctor who just opened his orthopedic practice.

"I am very against this war because Hezbollah is not Lebanon, it is Iran and Syria.

"But life has changed here and it won’t change back for a long time," he said.

Susan Misri, a Christian woman who manages a jewellery store on the mall’s second floor, hasn’t made a single sale in the past nine days.

"I have a good education, a good family, a good job and a nice home, but it can all disappear in a single bomb blast. Who can live with this kind of uncertainty?" she wondered.

She had to let go six of her staff.

She is weighing her options, applying for immigration to both Sweden and Canada.

"I am trying to stay in Lebanon for as long as I can, but it’s difficult economically. I hope things in my country will improve," she said.

But she has no intention of sticking around long enough to see whether or not her wish will come true.

Tomorrow: Leaving Lebanon to Hezbollah