When The State Is Absent
Bloomberg Businessweek|September 06, 2021
A year after Beirut’s devastating port blast, the government is AWOL— so the people have stepped in to rebuild
By Lin Noueihed

After the Aug. 4, 2020, explosion at Beirut’s port, Mariana Wehbe found her city in ruins. The streets were covered in thick gray ash. Broken glass from shattered windows crunched underfoot. Doors were blown out. Cars were crushed. Dazed residents surveyed the devastation, wondering what had happened and how they might recover.

As news of the blast spread around the world, her Instagram account lit up, urgent WhatsApp messages poured in, and her phone started to ring nonstop. Friends and acquaintances were checking in, wanting news of Wehbe and her family and—more important—asking how they might help. “Initially I said, ‘Call the Red Cross,’ but they said, ‘No, we want to help you,’ ” Wehbe recalls, nodding at the concrete hulk of the port’s grain silos outside her window, still in ruins amid the twisted remains of warehouses. “I thought: What do people really need right now? Doors and windows.”

The blast was triggered when hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a waterfront warehouse caught fire and exploded. It killed more than 200 people, injured 6,000, damaged 80,000 homes, and displaced at least 300,000— wreaking what the World Bank estimates was $4.6 billion in physical damage. As the shock wave ripped across Beirut, it destroyed myriad communities, both wealthy and impoverished, home to the elderly, the poor, migrants, and refugees. In a city already disfigured by civil war, greed, and a disregard for heritage, the explosion tore through some of the largest remaining clusters of early 20th century buildings with their signature high ceilings and triple-arched windows.

The crisis threatened to accelerate what’s happened in the three decades since the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Development here typically means that money changes hands and permission is granted to fell trees, demolish a building, or clear out archaeological ruins. There’s little public discussion, no hearings, and scant accountability—just an endless cycle of razing and building.

Within days, Wehbe and a friend had founded a group called Bebw’shebbek, Arabic for Door and Window. Their goal was to heal the city by keeping people in their homes to preserve the social fabric of neighborhoods. Initially relying on some 200 volunteers, Bebw’shebbek has evolved from the chaos of those early days into a focused group that employs about 50 people full-time. It’s repaired some 900 homes, using authentic materials in an effort to do minimal damage to a capital where red-roofed Ottoman-era jewels are frequently demolished to make way for luxury towers with little connection to their surroundings.

Through the entire effort, one organization has been conspicuous by its near-absence: the Lebanese government. “Lots of NGOs say we’re not political, but of course we’re political,” Wehbe says. “We’ve been running the country.”

Bebw’shebbek is among the dozens of nonprofit groups and community initiatives that have stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the state. After the blast, there was virtually no official emergency response, no message to the nation about the catastrophe that had ripped through the heart of the capital, no effort to rescue survivors from the rubble, clear streets, shelter the homeless, or reinforce collapsing buildings.

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