It has been three weeks since a massive explosion in Beirut's port killed nearly 200 people, injured thousands and damaged much of the city's infrastructure. Explosives experts say it was one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions of all time; even Lebanon's neighboring countries felt the strength of the blast.
Following the explosion, the ubiquitous sound of shattered glass being swept away became a discordant anthem of Beirut's grief. Thousands of volunteers from all over Lebanon and its diaspora flooded the affected areas, armed with shovels to clear rubble and wreckage blocking the streets and offering accommodation to hundreds of thousands who'd lost their homes. For the elderly and vulnerable, they fixed broken doors and windows.
Hussein Kazoun, 28, an organic farmer and the owner of a produce delivery company, sips instant coffee, enjoying his first break since he began his volunteer shift at 7 a.m. He hasn't made money in weeks, and he doesn't know when he will be able to return to his business.
But, he says, his work as a volunteer is more important: "Lebanese people have to help each other in the absence of a functioning state."
Kazoun is a cofounder of Nation Station — an abandoned gas station converted into a disaster relief community center. The center serves the residents of Geitawi, a neighborhood overlooking the port that was badly damaged in the blast. It is just one of many initiatives by young Lebanese citizens determined to rebuild a capital city devastated by years of official negligence.
The state, paralyzed by corruption, mismanagement and the country's economic collapse, has been conspicuously absent following the Aug. 4 blast. While in most other countries, the government would have led an emergency response, in Lebanon, volunteers and nongovernmental organizations have taken things into their own hands and are leading the way.
Although the Lebanese Army distributed boxes of food aid last week — rice, lentils and powdered milk donated by foreign countries — many volunteers slammed the move as a one-time publicity stunt. In most cases, government critics say, soldiers and police have done little, as volunteers and nonprofit workers have rushed to aid those affected by the blast.
The Lebanese state, already bankrupt and suffering from an economic meltdown, has few social safety nets for Lebanese in need.
Nation Station was established the morning after the explosion, with Kazoun distributing free produce to Geitawi's residents. Other volunteers soon joined, offering their own services. They wired electricity throughout the dilapidated gas station, installed WiFi and created shift schedules. They formed cleanup crews, home repair crews, aid distribution teams, a hot meal kitchen, and set up a free secondhand clothing area in the gas station's parking lot.
Three weeks later, it remains a bustling neighborhood center, where up to 150 volunteers have created their own functioning version of Lebanon — itself a form of protest against an increasingly dystopian reality.
Gerard Bitar, 25, a DJ and sound engineer, is on a technical team repairing electricity in damaged homes. Eager to help after he lost his own home in the blast, he says he picked up the electrical trade "like, two weeks ago." Mostly, he says, volunteering helps distract him from thinking about the explosion.
"They killed us, man," he says of Lebanon's politicians.
Confidence in Lebanon's ruling class was already wearing thin after years of political corruption and mismanagement brought the country to economic ruin last year, plunging more than 50% of the population below the poverty line, the World Bank estimates.
Inflation has soared, Lebanon's middle class has slowly disappeared, businesses have shuttered and unemployment is high. Lebanon's power-holders have done little to stem the crisis or enact the reforms required for an international bailout. The political class — some of them former warlords who emerged from Lebanon's 15-year civil war as politicians — are known for ruthless power-mongering and self-preservation that have come at the expense of ordinary Lebanese.
Many Lebanese see Beirut's port explosion — caused by 2,750 tons of explosive material left deteriorating in a warehouse for nearly seven years — as the culmination of decades of government negligence. Since the blast, it came to light that high-ranking politicians and government employees, including the president and former prime minister (who resigned after the explosion), had previous knowledge of the haphazardly stored explosive material but made little effort to remove it.
A makeshift gallows of metal wreckage stands at the entrance of Nation Station, from which hangs a noose made of electrical cables — a popular symbol of Lebanese outrage against politicians. On a sweltering Wednesday afternoon, volunteers gather in the shade to rest between shifts, while others load supplies onto motorbikes headed for the homes of vulnerable people. Neighborhood residents stop by to pick up hot meals. Many come to request medicine for wounds sustained in the blast and for preexisting illnesses.
Antoine Kalab, a 27-year-old graduate student, walks the streets of Geitawi, surveying homes. He was in London when the explosion took place. Like many Lebanese in the diaspora, he watched in horror as footage aired of Beirut's sky turning red, followed by a mushroom cloud that expanded to envelop half the capital.
Five days later, angry and under no illusions that the Lebanese government would competently handle disaster relief, he arrived in Beirut and signed up to volunteer at Nation Station, joining a needs assessment team.
Weeks after the blast, the disaster response has changed. Glass and debris have been cleared from most streets, and those who lost their homes have located temporary housing. Kalab jots down residents' needs: medicine, food, a new front door, free mental health counseling.
One resident, Mona Ass'ad Aramouneh, a retired nurse, lives with her 90-year-old diabetic mother, who cannot see or walk. The two women were in their rented apartment when the world around them exploded.
Mona's mother fell to the floor, the glass door of their balcony shattering over her head. Even now, she says, "I'm still picking bits of glass out of my hair and feet."
Aramouneh managed to drag her mother out of harm's way, and, unable to carry her to the hospital (which, unbeknownst to her, had mostly been destroyed in the blast), bandaged her at home. The memory of it contorts her face. Neither she nor her mother can sleep at night, she says, and although their apartment wasn't severely damaged, the memory of the explosion has tarnished any love they had for it.
When Kalab asks if any government aid has come their way, Aramouneh says: "The government, helping? Not until catastrophe befalls them, until one of their own dies, will they realize the value of the Lebanese people, the poor people, those of us who have suffered."
Later, on the walk back to Nation Station, Kalab says he plans to return to London. When the volunteer effort eventually fades, he says, Lebanon will hold no future for him.
"A country that requires you to die for it ... It's not a healthy country," he says, tearing up. Then he walks past the makeshift gallows, and back into the bustling gas station.