BEIRUT: When the explosion at Beirut’s Port occurred Tuesday evening, Evana Matar’s first thoughts were for her family who lived near the blast. She raced from Jounieh to the neighborhood of Karantina and evacuated her aunt from her shattered flat.
Wednesday morning, as the world came to terms with the size of the blast, Matar was back in Karantina with a few friends to help those in need. Matar's initially tiny group of volunteers has since snowballed.
“We started as four, then we were six, and now we have a WhatsApp group with over 100 people,” Matar told The Daily Star standing with a spade and gloves amid the damaged homes in Karantina.
People across Lebanon have mobilized in extraordinary numbers. By Thursday thousands of mainly young people busied themselves in areas affected by the blast, giving out food and water, cleaning glass off the street and removing the rubble from the sides of buildings.
As well as spontaneous groups organized on WhatsApp, NGOs, charities and activists have sprung into action.
In Martyrs' Square, pro-revolution activists who had begun setting up tents Wednesday. By Thursday some 20 teepees had been set up with huge stores of resources inside. “The tent is for donations, the food then goes on to the affected people," Ayman Raad told The Daily Star Thursday, he then added, “We’re a group of people who met during the revolution.”
Hundreds of activists rushed around Martyrs' Square carrying and sorting food, sanitary equipment and other donations.
Some people were gathered, receiving aid directly. “Not everyone who is coming here to take donations are really people who were damaged by the explosion, the situation was already disastrous before the explosion. A lot of people who were already in need are coming here and we’re giving them what they need,” Raad explained.
Looking around at the masses of donations being sorted in the teepees, Raad said he had been surprised by people’s generosity given the economic crisis in the country.
As well as material donations many have opened up their homes to those whose homes were ruined in Tuesday’s blast. May Charada's family have posted online on a site called betheapp that their home in Beirut open for people to stay in. “My sister and brother, they saw a lot of people injured in Mar Mikhael, we felt traumatized and helping was the only thing we could do.”
Many other volunteers said that the shock and helplessness they felt Tuesday had motivated them to give their time and money.
“Psychologically for us not to be absorbed in the trauma, we need to shake it off through helping people on the ground, it is the only thing we can do,” Rami Merdas told The Daily Star late Wednesday night. Standing in the dark on Armenia Street, surrounded by the food he was donating, Merdas shrugged, “We can’t live with our trauma.”
While in Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael volunteers have packed the streets Thursday, in Karantina, a much less known and poorer neighborhood, there were fewer volunteers. Reine Rached, who works for a charity called The Joy of Giving, told The Daily Star aid had arrived slowly in Karantina.
“We came here Wednesday evening. It was as if the bomb had just happened,” Rached said. She thought that Karantina’s more marginal role in young people's imagination explained the lower number of volunteers. “I think Armenia Street is more known, especially for the people who go there for drinks. It's like their second home,” Rached said. “It’s the same reason why problems in Tripoli get less attention than problems in Beirut.”
Rached was busy assessing the different needs of homes in Karantina, she said the organization's engineers had believed that some homes were not fixable. Amine Khatib’s home in Karantina was partially destroyed, a quarter of the building's wall had collapsed, and he said the other walls were severely cracked. However, Khatib was defiantly optimistic, “I’m starting at the beginning, but we rise up and start again.” Khatib was also refusing outside aid, as he didn’t want to divert help away from others, saying, “I have my friends, I have my brothers, it’s enough.”
Amid the acts of kindness, some voiced rage at the explosion and a perceived lack of government action. Speaking to The Daily Star in Karantina, Abdul Batrouni’s voice shook with emotion as he looked at his young son. “I don’t have anything. The baby, he’s sleeping on my legs. He’s always crying. When he sleeps he covers his ear, he never saw anything like this.”
Growing angry, Batrouni looked around at the neighborhood he's lived in his whole life. “This area is destroyed. The government hasn’t sent anybody. What happened was like Hiroshima. Fifty-five years I’m in Lebanon and I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Standing outside her aunt's ruined home, Evana said her rage would have to wait. Visibly exhausted, she added, “Right now we can’t feel the anger. We need to help our brothers and sisters, maybe tomorrow or in a week, but not now.”
Looking around Martyrs' Square with activists camped for the first time in months, Raad was hopeful that once the damage had been cleared people’s rage at the catastrophe would reignite the protests. “The tents are not going to be for donations anymore, they will serve another purpose,” Raad said coyly.