Beirut residents struggling to rebuild lives a year after massive explosion

·5-min read

Syrian refugee Waad Hariri is still trying to rebuild her life a year after Beirut's massive port blast tore through her apartment, injuring her husband and traumatising her children.

In the weeks that followed the August 2020 explosion, the family faced another sharp blow: the loss of their home.

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

"We've lost the community we lived in for 10 years. It's very difficult for me but also for my children who always beg to go play with their friends in Karantina," said Hariri, referring to their former neighbourhood in Lebanon's capital.

One year on from the blast, which killed more than 200 people and wrecked swathes of the city, activists and analysts said the government had failed to lead reconstruction efforts, fostering inequalities and a lack of transparency.

"When you don't have the state as a main actor coordinating the reconstruction it is usually done in a fragmented way which has costs, especially to the most vulnerable," said Mona Harb, a professor of urban studies and politics at the American University of Beirut.

Government entities led less than 1% of initiatives such as water and food distribution and reconstruction in blast-affected areas in the month from Aug. 19 to Sept. 20, said local research organisation Lebanon Support.

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

Prime Minister Hassan Diab's government resigned days after the blast, which struck during a deep economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many Lebanese viewed the explosion - fueled by a large amount of explosive material stored improperly for years - as emblematic of deep-rooted corruption in state institutions.

'Left to their own devices'

Without a strong state presence to enforce legal protections - such as tenants' rights - and ensure aid reaches everyone, marginalised groups face even greater exclusion, said Harb.

"It means people are left to their own devices and depend on social capital and their network to access aid. Those who don't have these networks are left behind," said Harb, who is also research lead at Beirut Urban Lab.

A spokesperson for Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud said the disaster would have been a challenge for any government.

"So we should not talk about the absence of the state in the response because, no matter what its capabilities were, it would have been too little," the spokesperson said, adding that the evictions issues had been exaggerated.

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

Many were Syrian refugees or migrant workers, who are especially vulnerable to eviction due to their "fragile" legal situation, said Abir Saksouk, the group's co-director.

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

"In the end what could we do. We are refugees and this isn't 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 demands to move was because they feared he would get authorities involved.

The vast majority of the more than 1 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon do not have legal residency, putting them at risk of being fined or jailed during interactions with authorities.

Soon after the explosion, Lebanon's parliament passed a law which nominally froze rent contracts for one year, but those protections were loosely enforced and are set to expire in the coming days, Saksouk said.

'No transparency'

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

In Karantina, which saw sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, an Islamic charity took over much of the response in Muslim-majority areas while another worked in Christian neighbourhoods.

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

"You look to one side and everything is shabby while the other side looks like Paris, so of course people are going to feel frustrated and this creates tensions," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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

"We observed buildings where some apartments had been completely reconstructed but no one thought to fix the elevators or stairs, making them unusable," she said.

The Beirut governor's spokesperson said the biggest problem for affected areas was the slow pace of reconstruction, which he estimated had only addressed 10% of total damages.

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

El Said, a founding member of the Collective of Residents of Affected Neighbourhoods, said they came together after residents were excluded from an inter-agency committee tasked with overseeing compensation and reconstruction efforts.

"There has been no transparency since the blast in terms of who gets what kind of help and why," El Said said.

"We're saying that we all want answers, be it about compensation or the reasons for the explosion."

(REUTERS)

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