‘Save us from corruption’, residents of Karantina plead a year after the attack in Beirut

A year after the attack in Beirut, residents of the working-class neighborhood of Karantina in the Lebanese capital have returned to houses reconstructed by NGOs. They do not expect help from the Lebanese government, but do demand an investigation into the disaster.

God was on Rue Rmeil in the Karantina neighborhood of Beirut on the evening of August 4, 2020. Everyone here says it – the owner of the supermarket, the teenager who lives above the store, her elderly neighbor across the street – they all explain that God be with them that catastrophic day when a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate exploded in the harbor of Beirut behind the street.

A year after the explosion tore through the Lebanese capital, killing more than 200 people, residents of Rue Rmeil are confident that their survival was nothing short of a miracle.

“I know God was here on August 4. I believe in him, we believe in him. Of course God saved us,” said Daniella Khadra, 20, sitting in her living room with the walls decorated with images of saints and the Virgin.

Daniella Khadra is back in her family’s apartment in Karantina a year after the explosion in Beirut. © Samia Metheni / FRANCE 24

“Forgotten” is an adjective often used for Karantina, which gets its name from the Turkish word for quarantine. Built in the early 1800s as a public health isolation site for sailors arriving at Beirut harbor, Karantina is the kind of dusty, rickety zone often found around ports and transportation hubs in the developing world.

It is one of the four districts of Beirut most affected by one of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear explosions. But unlike the trendy Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhail districts – with their upscale bars and art galleries – and the glitzy center, with its malls and designer stores, Karantina is literally on the wrong side of the harbour.

Enclosed by the Mediterranean Sea, a national highway and a massive landfill and waste disposal plant, Karantina has long been neglected – intentionally, some say, because developers could make a fortune if the legal residents stopped and cleared out the migrants and itinerants who have settled here.

The Lebanese state never took care of the inhabitants of Rue Rmeil, a small street that runs perpendicular to the Saydet al-Najat – or “Our Lady of Salvation” church from which the cranes and the destroyed grain silo of the port of Beirut are visible behind construction scaffolding.

Faith has sustained them for years and now, more than ever.

Khadra’s mother, Fadiya Zarou-Khadra, nods in agreement as her daughter recounts how everything in the apartment was destroyed except for the framed images of saints on the walls. “On August 4, I just prayed to Mother Mary,” said the 58-year-old hairdresser. “The Church has saved me and my family.”

When residents of Rue Rmeil say “the church saved me,” they don’t mean the Vatican or the archdioceses of their respective Christian denominations. They mean that Our Lady of Salvation, to whom the little church down the street is dedicated, was responsible for their unlikely survival.

Miracles provide the only explanation for how some people survived on this street, barely 2 kilometers from the site of the explosion. For those who died in the explosion – including friends and neighbors – there is the government to blame.

Khadra rattles off the names and ages of some of the victims of the explosion in Beirut. “God saved me, but what about the children, the 200 people who died, what did they do? What is the reason the goddamn government has to kill these people? The government should just go. They just steal money from people and put it in their pockets and give it to their children, who travel abroad,” the young woman sputters angrily.

‘The government has let us down’

Lebanon has a president, 87-year-old Michel Aoun, who has changed so many sides and allies in the course of a public career from warlord to president that young people like Khadra don’t know, and don’t care, the professional details of their leader.

Although the country has a president, it has not had a government since the previous government stepped down in the wake of the explosion in Beirut. Najib Mikati, 65, the man who was tapped to become prime minister, is a co-founder of an investment company and the richest man in Lebanon with a net worth of $2.5 billion in 2021, according to Forbes.

On Monday, Mikati told reporters that no cabinet would be announced mid-week to coincide with the first anniversary of the Beirut explosion. Mikati is the third potential prime minister to be nominated in the past year, after former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri failed to form a government.

The horse-trading and distribution of spoils that have characterized the Lebanese political process has left a weak, caretaker government in an economic crisis that the World Bank has called one of the worst in the world in 150 years.

Parliament, meanwhile, has joined the country’s top security forces to delay an investigation into the August 4 blast by citing immunity clauses in the constitution, some of which have never been used in Lebanon’s history.

In the immediate aftermath of the blast, Aoun rejected calls for an international investigation, insisting that the Lebanese state conduct an investigation and that the results be released “within five days”.

A year later, with no government and no “results” of an investigation, the people of Karatina are unwilling to put up with Lebanon’s political affairs as usual.

On another street, where children play in the shade, oblivious to the midday heat, a woman in a purple hijab beckons from the door of her ground-floor apartment.

“I didn’t like being in front of the camera, but now I’m going to raise my voice,” confesses Aicha Shahine, a 47-year-old mother of two young girls. “The government has let us down…It used to rob us of our rights and we still said, ‘It’s okay’. But now it not only robs us of our rights, but also participates in killing us all. Please, please, save us from the corruption and danger we live in,” she begs.

Aicha Shahine fears she will be forced to leave her home in Karantina as she struggles to pay rent due to the economic crisis in Lebanon. © Samia Metheni / FRANCE 24

‘I have no garbage in the government’

Karantina may be adjacent to the harbor through which Beirut, and much of Lebanon, has been supplied for centuries. But while it attracted industrial warehouses and workshops, the trickle of proximity to a national hub eluded the district.

Jobs in Lebanon’s ports and airports depend on which party “controls” the hub, and employment opportunities are shared between supporters. The system of familial, sectarian and political connections to access positions, called wasta, is repeated in ministries and government departments across the country.

Many residents of Karantina worked in the waste sorting and processing industry, but with the economic crisis, even those jobs are failing them.

“I studied law and psychology, but because I have no waste in government, I don’t have a job,” explains Shahine. After the explosion in Beirut, her husband, the family’s sole breadwinner, lost his job, and the family is now in a precarious condition. “When my kids ask me to buy them shoes, I say I can’t, I’m sorry. Even a chocolate bar is hard to afford. Inflation is so high these days and our salary is barely worth $50. How can we live? My house is rented out, so I might end up on the street with my kids.”

‘I feel trapped in this place’

In the family apartment on Rue Rmeil, Fadiya Zarou-Khadra smiles sadly when asked how she is coping with the economic crisis. “Everything is so expensive. I used to have my job, I was never home. But then the hair salon closed because of corona[virus], then came the explosion, and now I have no job. Now we just live from day to day. This is my situation now,” she says simply.

Born and raised in Karantina, Zarou-Khadra has been living with her two daughters in her mother’s two-bedroom apartment since she lost her husband 20 years ago. In addition to her 77-year-old mother, Zarou-Khadra’s sister and two brothers, all single, also live in the apartment, making it cramped.

After the explosion, the family moved into a tent in a temporary camp in the area while an NGO renovated their apartment building and they were able to return home. The widowed mother of two loves the sense of community in Karantina, where their apartment door is always open so neighbors can pour in for a chat and keep themselves cool during the frequent power cuts.

“I like it here. This is my area. I love my life here. My family, my neighbors are all here. I would like to travel, but I want to come back here,” she says.

However, her daughter did not want to return to the apartment where she had seen so much destruction on August 4. That fateful evening, when a fire broke out in the harbor, sending plumes of smoke over Karantina, a seventh-floor neighbor came to the family’s first-floor apartment to see what was going on. The neighbor was standing on their doorstep when the massive explosion hit and the force of the blast threw the family friend down the stairs, killing her instantly.

A year later, Khadra is still traumatized by the explosion. “We saw all the neighbors die. Even now, when I think about it, I start to tremble. Two days ago there was a noise and I started to cry. I said I don’t want to die. If I hear a loud noise, I go between the walls or go under the table,” explains the 20-year-old. “I feel trapped in this place.”

Her mother would like her daughters to leave Lebanon to “go anywhere – maybe France, maybe Canada”.

Khadra would gladly obey if she could, joining the wave of Lebanese professionals who left the country after the explosion in the port of Beirut. But to leave and build a new life requires resources that are scarce today. ‘Now I can’t pay for my studies. There is no future in Lebanon, there is no life in Lebanon. I have to fight to live, I only have to pray. You have to fight and pray to survive here.”

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