by Alia Arafeh
This is an interview, translated from Arabic, with Mazen Kamal Arakaji, a Lebanese local. Arakaji was born in Lebanon and currently resides there. While he doesn’t live in Beirut, he was just miles from the explosion that occurred on August 4. He owns a basketball training center and has two sons, one of whom is a professional basketball player. The explosion was devastating for all of Lebanon and did as much mental damage as it did physical. The interview below showcases just one of the thousands of lives affected by the bomb.
How long have you lived in Lebanon?
I have lived in Lebanon for 53 years, and, to be honest, I have no friends from grade school or college who stayed in Lebanon. They all traveled outside of Lebanon and I am almost the only one who stayed…because I was attached to it and, at the time, from 1979-1992, I worked with the Red Cross and the Lebanese Civil Defense. I spent 53 years in Lebanon except for vacationing and I always came back to it because I had an attachment to it.
Have you seen or felt a change in the country and in your own community throughout this time?
Yes, I felt a big change. Life became a lot more difficult because of the government and because of the many conflicting political parties who were each concerned about their own positions. They consider the people to be like sheep and they divided them based on religion and even went as far as dividing different sects of the same religions. For the past 10 years, we’ve felt a deeper divide between the religious groups.
Regarding the explosion, what was your initial reaction? After processing what happened, how did you feel?
I was sitting at home and my two older sons had left the house ten minutes before the big explosion. We felt a big earthquake. The whole building was shaking, and we were on the fourth floor. Not even half a minute after we felt shaking, the biggest explosion hit. We are far from the epicenter, but all our windows shattered into the house. At my parents’ house on the lower floor, all the cars parked in the street were totalled by the falling debris from the buildings. I went down to see what had happened, and sadly I realized that there was no more Lebanon. I never thought I would ever leave Lebanon. We had several explosions before this — one of them was at the American embassy [where] I helped [take care of the injured]— but nothing compares to this explosion or its aftermath. In the 30 years of the civil war and all my work at the explosion of the American embassy or the Hariri explosions, I’ve never seen anything like this, ever.
How has this event affected your life, and how do you feel it will affect your future and the future of Lebanon?
Of course the effect is very negative towards our lives, because, to begin with, we weren’t really “living” a real life in Lebanon. It is very stressful and we struggle to have electricity, food, and water, plus the COVID-19 virus added to the struggle. Before the explosion we were already 50 percent not alive, and we are now at 200 percent. If no one helps us out now, there is no future for Lebanon. We need to get the people in authority out of the way to allow civilians to live their lives. Lebanon is going towards the worst if the same people stay in their positions of power.
What are steps that you are taking to recover, what are steps that the country is taking to recover, and how do you feel that the presence of COVID-19 might make this process more difficult?
Lebanese people are known to have strength. One explosion happens, we sleep, wake up then go on with our lives. If it was just the explosion itself, maybe we could have kept going, but we were deteriorating day by day since the Hariri explosion in which our cousin’s husband died. Until the end of last year, the banks blocked us from withdrawing our own money. There is nothing left for our kids.
There are no more dreams left for us to hold onto in this country and nothing to keep us standing on our feet. Maybe we can as people, without the current government. People can make it without the higher authorities, the political leader. Whenever they see us uniting, they put walls between us. They hire more ruthless thugs who come to the streets with weapons to keep us divided. And the government is not doing anything to the people who are sending the thugs. They keep begging other countries to help, but we don’t see anything happen or any of the money that is sent be used to help the people. All of it is disappearing. People are begging the international governments not to give the Lebanese government money directly, but to put it in the right hands to help the people. We the people are unable to eat and unable to do anything with our lives.
With regret, I had to say goodbye to both my boys. One of them had left already, and my other son, Ramsi, is leaving for Spain to finish his studies. Our dream to grow old with our kids in Lebanon has vanished. Our dream is gone. Now our only dream is to wake up in the morning and have enough to eat, but that’s not us. We are stronger than that.
I would rather have COVID-19 than the current government we have now. At least we know we can control COVID-19, but there is no control over the government we have. We are unable to protect ourselves from anything because whenever we think we are safe, something else comes out of the government. We’ve been suffering for 30 years. Every year we say this year will be better than the last. Unfortunately, each year is worse than the last. You can’t imagine what is happening with our young adults. Everybody is emigrating, and one of them is my son Wael who is a professional Lebanese basketball player. We are willing to accept COVID-19 for the next ten years if it wants to stay with us, but not the government that we have who rule us like we are sheep, even buying votes from many.
What can people who weren’t affected do to help the situation (as in people in the United States or other countries)?
Unfortunately, all the help that we are getting from outside the country is getting into the wrong hands. Everything ends up with the government. None of it is getting to the people. There are a lot of fake government organizations that take the money. It is all made up by the sector leaders so that they can have all the help for themselves. I’m begging the French people, the Arab people, the American people to help the Lebanese people and put the money in the right place. Come down to the streets and look at the people who are in need.
I visited the United States and have seen how the American people are living. It is like they are living in the sky and we are living in the core of the Earth, not on Earth, we are living at the very bottom. Imagine how I felt seeing how my country has deteriorated and how my life compares to someone in the United States. When I travel outside of my country, I feel like I’m in a dream. I have a lot to say, but what can I say? It will never be enough. I swear the 17 years that I’ve worked with humanitarian organizations and helped with the civil war, all the bodies that I’ve carried, I haven’t seen anything like this before. Even animals are living a better life than we are. I hope that my plea for help goes out to all other countries.