by Alia Arafeh
This is an interview conducted with Mazen Arakaji as a follow-up to the explosion in the Lebanese capital of Beirut that occurred on Aug. 4, 2020. Arakaji lives close to Beirut and is experiencing the destruction and the following period of recovery for those affected. While the explosion occurred nearly two months ago, Lebanese citizens are still suffering and struggling to survive.
How have living conditions changed for the people of Beirut following the explosion?
Regarding the first question, for sure my situation and that of others has changed dramatically for the worst. We no longer have hope, because, sadly, we experienced too many tragedies one after the other. We had a one percent hope of getting back on our feet which was dissolved by the string of unfortunate events. It started off with the economy. Economically, we have no salvation, as the banks are preventing us from withdrawing our money. Politically, the government does not want to give up their positions to better the lives of their people. Then [the coronavirus], and then the explosion, and the fires after the explosion. Eighty percent of the people living in Beirut are living through devastating conditions. More than half of the people are living below poverty level. No matter how much I describe the situation, you can’t understand unless you see it with your own eyes – how people are searching through garbage cans for something to eat. Some people are crying over small pieces of bread. Some need a bite of bread, some beg for a few cents, even though they’re worthless. The explosion destroyed all of Lebanon’s dreams at once, regretfully.
Did you receive any aid from the government or other sources? Where have you primarily looked for relief?
Most of the organizations that collect donations do it for their own personal benefit, rather than to help those in need. More than a thousand organizations were established during the month following the explosion just to claim that they’re helping. Other countries are sending donations to those organizations. Only about 5 percent of them are actually aiding the needy, while the rest are pocketing the money. [Even] now, two months after the explosion, there are a lot of houses completely destroyed, and nothing was rebuilt or fixed. Even windows, doors, and walls that broke haven’t been fixed because no one can afford to fix anything. Most organizations are just going around neighborhoods taking pictures and writing about people’s lives and their suffering so they can send those stories to other countries in order to collect more donations. However, those donations are not being given to the people, but are rather going to heads of organizations, sadly. I can only name a few that are fully trying to help the people. There is the Red Cross, The Joy of Giving… other than that, they are all just there for show. Most of the actual help is person-to-person.
What have you done to help your own situation and those in your community?
In terms of what I did personally, the day of the explosion I went to the streets to transfer wounded victims back and forth from the hospital. I have a motorcycle, so I transferred as many people as I could on the back of it, as hundreds of people did as well, because the cars and ambulances couldn’t fit into the alleys that were filled with debris. They called all the volunteers to the Lebanese Red Cross and the international Red Cross, so I went back to the job I had when I was a teenager. They wanted as many people as possible to help.
Even though it’s been 60 days since the explosion, we still go to help all the people who were affected by it to collect data as to how many people are wounded, missing, or dead, and to find out the best way to attend to their needs. Most volunteers quit their jobs so that they would have time to be able to help as much as possible. Especially now that winter is approaching, we have to prepare. It is going to be a disaster since most people don’t have walls or a roof over their head.
Can you describe how some people’s lives have been affected?
No matter how I describe it, it won’t do justice to seeing it with your own eyes. People are crying, people are begging, people don’t have jobs, people are poor, people are eating from the garbage bins, people are knocking on other’s doors just to have a bite to eat, people are stealing to eat, people are pulling out their guns and weapons just to be able to eat, people are going to pharmacies to steal medications for their sick moms or dads or kids. Prices for chicken and bread and propane and gas went way up, so no one can afford anything. It is indescribable, I swear. I can’t imagine how people are going to be living after a month, especially due to inflation based on the worth of the dollar.
Most companies declared bankruptcy, most stores closed because they are unable to function. The only people who are surviving are those who have relatives outside the country who are sending them fresh money to be able to help. These are the only people who are able to keep going, or the people who have cash and do not rely on banks to store their money. From 70 to 80 percent are below the poverty line. If I sent you pictures, you would wonder how these people are still alive. How they are only surviving just because it’s not time for them to die. You’d wonder how they’re surviving with their lack of money and lack of medicine. Medicine prices are going to increase because there are no longer regulations for the price of medicine. If it was 10,000 liras, it is now 100,000 liras.
The explosion had and still has a negative effect on people’s lives. Young and old all faced extreme trauma, psychologically. They need help so that they can overcome this obstacle, especially the youth who have never seen so much blood. It is a tough stage for all these generations. My hope is that I send you the correct image, and that I answer the questions as best as I can.
What would be the most helpful thing people can do for Lebanon?
There is only one thing to do. You yourself have to send money to trustworthy organizations. If you know people in Lebanon, send it personally to those people, not the big organizations. Make sure that you trust the people whom you are sending to, because those are the people who will go door to door to help others, who will bring them medicine and food and pay surgeons to operate. Some people are in need of wheelchairs, crutches, or cancer treatment. I honestly don’t know what to say. We’re working five days a week, 16 to 24 hours a day and we’re barely keeping up.
Do you have any hope for the future of the country and its citizens?
No, we don’t have any hope in this life. The only hope we have is in our faith, but there is no future for the way that we’re living. I’m glad that I sent both my boys outside this country, but it’s really killing me that they’re not with me, that my two sons are not with me. I dreamed that this would be the country that we would spend the rest of our lives in. There’s nothing in Lebanon. People are dying in Lebanon. There is no electricity, no water, no gas, there is only garbage everywhere you go. There are diseases, corona, people who are unable to be admitted to hospitals, people who have no money for surgeries, people who don’t have money to even eat, a lot who need oxygen tanks and don’t have them. People are in need of everything. No matter what I say I can’t justify it.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The only thing I can add is that we’re suffocating or, in other words, we have already suffocated because we can’t survive in this country. Nobody is comfortable. All our dreams are destroyed. Every year since we were young, we’ve thought the next one is going to be better for us, but something new comes up. A president who is worse than the previous, a government that is worse than the previous, a bad parliament. Maybe we are to blame for it because people were relying on the parliament and government to help out. We accepted the bare minimum that they gave us so they would get our vote, and they took that for granted. Sadly, they were only destroying the people and the country for their own good. We were just like sheep to the government. Every time we start a revolution, they send their dogs to quiet us. The only thing I’m asking for is that everyone contributes something. We’re not begging. We were raised to have dignity, but we really can’t live this way anymore.