Beirut blast: Lebanese volunteers band together to clean up, help residents

Swathes of Beirut are damaged, and the death toll is still climbing, after the huge blast at Beirut's port. Initial investigations point to years of inaction and negligence.
Lebanese activists cleaning the damaged neighbourhood of Mar Mikhail, on Aug 5, 2020.
Lebanese activists cleaning the damaged neighbourhood of Mar Mikhail, on Aug 5, 2020.PHOTO: AFP
Satellite images show the Orient Queen cruise ship before the explosion in Beirut on Aug 4 and the cruise ship capsized on Aug 5, in the aftermath of the explosion.
Satellite images show the Orient Queen cruise ship before the explosion in Beirut on Aug 4 and the cruise ship capsized on Aug 5, in the aftermath of the explosion.PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT (AFP) - In Beirut's beloved bar districts, hundreds of young Lebanese ditched beers for brooms on Wednesday (Aug 5) to sweep debris in the absence of a state-sponsored clean-up operation following a deadly blast.

"What state?" scoffed 42-year-old Melissa Fadlallah, a volunteer cleaning up the hard-hit Mar Mikhail district of the Lebanese capital.

The explosion, which hit just a few hundred metres away at Beirut's port, blew all the windows and doors off Mar Mikhail's pubs, restaurants and apartment homes on Tuesday.

By Wednesday, a spontaneous clean-up operation was under way there, a glimmer of youthful solidarity and hope after a devastating night.

Wearing plastic gloves and a mask, Ms Fadlallah tossed a shard of glass as long as her arm at the door of the state electricity company's administrative building that looms over the district.

"For me, this state is a dump - and on behalf of yesterday's victims, the dump that killed them is going to stay a dump," she told AFP.

The blast killed more than 110 people, wounded thousands and compounded public anger that erupted in protests last year against a government seen as corrupt and inefficient.

"We're trying to fix this country. We've been trying to fix it for nine months but now we're going to do it our way," she said.

"If we had a real state, it would have been in the street since last night cleaning and working. Where are they?"

'EVEN A SMILE HELPS'

A few civil defence workers could be seen examining building structures but they were vastly outnumbered by young volunteers flooding the streets to help.

In small groups, they energetically swept up glass beneath blown-out buildings, dragging them into plastic bags.



Satellite images show a view of the port of Beirut on Jan 25, 2020 (left) and on Aug 5, 2020 (right) a day after the blast. PHOTO: AFP

Others clambered up debris-strewn stairwells to offer their homes to residents who had spent the previous night in the open air.

"We're sending people into the damaged homes of the elderly and handicapped to help them find a home for tonight," said Mr Husam Abu Nasr, a 30-year-old volunteer.

"We don't have a state to take these steps, so we took matters into our own hands," he said.

 
 
 

Towns across the country have offered to host Beirut families with damaged homes and the Maronite Catholic patriarchate announced it would open its monasteries and religious schools to those needing shelter.

Food was quickly taken care of, too: Plastic tables loaded with donated water bottles, sandwiches and snacks were set up within hours.

"I can't help by carrying things, so we brought food, water, chocolate and moral support," said Ms Rita Ferzli, 26.

"I think everyone should be here helping, especially young people. No one should be sitting at home - even a smile is helping right now."

'THIS IS IT'

Business owners swiftly took to social media, posting offers to repair doors, paint damaged walls or replace shattered windows for free.

Mr Abdo Amer, who owns window company Curtain Glass, said he was moved to make such an offer after narrowly surviving the blast.

"I had driven by the port just three minutes earlier," the 37-year-old said.

He offered to replace windows for half the price, but said he was fixing some for free, given the devastating situation for many families following the Lebanese currency's staggering devaluation in recent months.

"I've gotten more than 7,000 phone calls today and I can't keep up," said the father of four.

"You think the state will take up this work? Actually, let them step down and leave."

 
 
 

Outrage at the government was palpable among volunteers, many of whom blamed government officials for failing to remove explosive materials left at the port for years.

"They're all sitting in their chairs in the AC while people are wearing themselves out in the street," said Mr Mohammad Suyur, 30, as he helped sweep on Wednesday.

"The last thing in the world they care about is this country and the people who live in it."

He said activists were preparing to reignite the protest movement that launched in October.

"We can't bear more than this. This is it. The whole system has got to go," he said.