Beirut residents struggle to rebuild lives a year after mass explosion

Syrian refugee Waad Hariri is still trying to rebuild her life, a year after the massive harbor explosion in Beirut ravaged her apartment, injuring her husband and traumatizing her children.

In the weeks after the explosion in August 2020, the family suffered another hard blow: the loss of their home.

A series of eviction attempts — often targeting refugees and migrant tenants — took place in the wake of the deadly Aug. 4 blast, highlighting the lack of state protection for vulnerable groups during the disaster response, critics said.

“We have lost the community we have lived in for ten years. It is very difficult for me, but also for my children who are always begging to go and play with their friends in Karantina,” says Hariri, referring to their former neighborhood in the capital. from Lebanon.

A year after the blast, which killed more than 200 people and destroyed parts of the city, activists and analysts said the government had failed to lead the reconstruction, fueling inequality and a lack of transparency.

“If you don’t have the state as a key player coordinating reconstruction, it usually happens in a fragmented way, which comes at a cost, especially for the most vulnerable,” said Mona Harb, a professor of urban studies and politics at American University. from Beirut.

Government agencies led less than 1% of initiatives such as water and food distribution and reconstruction in blast-hit areas in the month of August 19 to September 20, according to local research organization Lebanon Support.

Instead, the immediate clean-up and relief operation was led by thousands of volunteers armed with dustpans and brooms, local and international NGOs, opposition groups, sectarian political parties and religious organizations.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government resigned days after the explosion, which struck amid a deep economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many Lebanese viewed the explosion – fueled by a large amount of explosive material that had been misstored for years – as a symbol of deep-seated corruption in state institutions.

‘Left to their fate’

Without a strong state presence to enforce legal protections — such as tenant rights — and ensure aid reaches everyone, marginalized groups face even greater exclusion, Harb said.

“It means that people are left to their own devices and depend on social capital and their networks to access help. Those who don’t have these networks are left behind,” said Harb, who is also a research leader at Beirut Urban Lab.

A spokesman for Beirut’s governor, Marwan Abboud, said the disaster would have been a challenge for any government.

“So we shouldn’t talk about the state’s absence in response because whatever its capabilities, it would have been too little,” the spokesperson said, adding that the eviction issues were overblown.

A housing monitor set up by Public Works Studio, a research and advocacy group, documented 114 eviction threats in affected areas from a month after the blast to April 2021, affecting hundreds of people.

Many were Syrian refugees or migrant workers, who are particularly vulnerable to deportation because of their “fragile” legal situation, said Abir Saksouk, the group’s co-director.

The Hariri family left their apartment in Karantina two months after the explosion following threats and increasing pressure from their landlords, Hariri said.

“What could we do in the end. We are refugees and this is not our country,” she said at the family’s new, small and dimly lit home on the eastern edge of the capital.

Hariri said one of the reasons they gave in to their landlord’s move requests was because they feared he would involve authorities.

The vast majority of the more than 1 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon are not legally resident, putting them at risk of being fined or imprisoned for interacting with authorities.

Shortly after the explosion, the Lebanese parliament passed a law that nominally froze leases for a year, but that protection was loosely enforced and will expire in the coming days, Saksouk said.

‘No transparency’

She added that the involvement of religious groups and political parties in the reconstruction had also exacerbated tensions between residents in affected neighborhoods, whether they were on the same street or in the same building.

In Karantina, where sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians took place during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990, one Muslim charity took over much of the response in Muslim-majority areas, while another worked in Christian neighborhoods.

Hamzah El Said, a lifelong resident of Karantina, said the quality of the clean-up and reconstruction work in the mainly Christian districts had been much better, sparking resentment.

“You look at one side and everything is shabby, while the other side looks like Paris, so of course people will feel frustrated and this creates tensions,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The patchy approach to reconstruction also tends to neglect public spaces such as parks and even common areas in buildings where people from different backgrounds can mingle, Saksouk said.

“We saw buildings where some apartments had been completely reconstructed, but no one thought of fixing the elevators or stairs, rendering them useless,” she said.

The spokesman for the governor of Beirut said the biggest problem facing the affected areas was the slow pace of reconstruction, which was estimated to have addressed only 10% of the total damage.

But as public anger simmers over a stalled local investigation into the explosion, people living in hard-hit areas have formed a group to push for fair compensation and reconstruction for all residents, regardless of nationality, religion or sexuality.

El Said, one of the founders of the Affected Neighborhood Residents’ Collective, said they gathered after residents were barred from a multi-agency committee charged with overseeing compensation and reconstruction.

“Since the explosion, there has been no transparency about who gets what aid and why,” El Said said.

“We say we all want answers, whether it’s about compensation or the reasons for the explosion.”

(REUTERS)

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