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The explosion at the Port of Beirut on August 4th has resulted in deep human suffering and massive destruction to the Lebanese capital. But local volunteers asking for direct aid say it has also revealed a deeper and more devastating problem for the country—widespread and systemic corruption. Special Correspondent Leila Molana-Allen reports.
Millions of dollars in international aid has been promised to help assist Beirut, Lebanon in the wake of this month's port explosion which killed nearly 200, maimed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands.
The country was already reeling from a collapsing economy, civil unrest and claims of corruption. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Leila Molana-Allen reports that trust in the government is waning and to help rebuild, some are taking matters into their own hands.
The government is not here, is not anywhere, is not present. Only Lebanese people. Students, elderly people, youth. We are building the country.
The day after the blast, volunteers gathered in Mar Mikhael, one of Beirut's worst-hit neighborhoods, to register victims' needs, distribute aid and plan how to rebuild.
They're now getting three or four thousand volunteers daily, helping up to 15,000 people each day. These young people are repurposing skills like party organizing to coordinate a widespread humanitarian emergency response.
Thirty-year-old Maroun lost his own home and office and three of his closest friends were killed. He's been working 20-hours days for more than two weeks.
And you're getting no government funding?
And we will not take anything from them. We don't want them. We just want them to leave, and we'll take care of the country.
For nearly a year, activists like these have taken to the streets demanding the downfall of a political system they see as corrupt and self-serving. Now, they're demanding that any aid coming into the country go directly to them and local NGOs. It's the networks forged during the protest movement that have allowed them to respond so quickly and effectively to this crisis. They say they've learned they can't depend on anyone but each other.
Samir El Khoury:
Every single person in this government is a crook, they destroyed our past, they destroyed our present and they're destroying our future.
The grassroots effort extends beyond Lebanon's borders. They've been working with Lebanese expats around the world to get aid and medical supplies into the country manually until the slow-moving wheels of NGO bureaucracy turn.
This is the aid. As you can see. This is from London.
And you can see there's more aid coming.
So a community fund-raises, locally then one person buys a plane ticket, one person gets on the plane and brings as many suitcases as they can carry?
While we're there, a representative from the U.S. Embassy turns up.
Don't give them the money, give it to us. We're doing the distributing.
So this is why it's important for us to come down to the ground here.
The next day, it becomes clear why. Undersecretary David Hale has come from Washington to look at how to get Lebanon back on its feet. And just hours after landing, it's not the government he's meeting with.
We don't have any government, the government doesn't care. It's us. We're here for each other.
That's why this is my first stop, for that very reason.
The operation, dubbed 'Min taht il rudm' – From Beneath the Rubble – is a tall order, and these young people may end up overpromising. While international aid organizations may be unwieldy and have to work around political concerns, they have experience managing big sums of money and mechanisms to get hard cash into the country quickly. These volunteers say foreign governments and NGOs should be working with them.
This is the first time we see these people coming and checking on organizations and walking around with people, meeting with the people, usually they only meet with the government. So maybe this will change.
Like many international donors the United States has taken a hard line on aid to Lebanon, saying they won't let any money fall into corrupt hands. But that's easier said than done. And while they say they won't funnel money through the government, they're still working with increasingly unpopular state institutions.
We have tons of meals ready to eat… the army is helping us distribute them.
Across Beirut, food has been the fastest response in the relief effort, with the WFP and USAID working to get Beirut port up and running enough to receive some deliveries.
Part of the key message we sent and we are repeating is that we will not accept for aid to be politicized. At the end of the day we are here to ensure that the people in need get the aid.
But many of those people say the aid they're receiving isn't what they need. They don't want bags of food – an easy win for NGOs because it can be distributed fast and looks good to donors – but cash, to rebuild their homes and businesses.
Just a few streets away is Karantina, one of Beirut's poorest neighborhoods. The area was ravaged by the blast; residents say they've long been neglected and still aren't getting the help they need.
Nabil Al Mir:
Every day they bring two boxes, three boxes. But we don't want food aid, a lot has been distributed and people are throwing it away… We need people to send money to rebuild the house.
Nabil's house used to have four walls. Now it has just two, and those are cracked beyond repair. He tells us it's even worse upstairs, but it's too dangerous to take us up there.
So Nabil, this used to be your kitchen and the entire wall, it collapsed and fell out into the street?
I was getting a half salary then it became a quarter salary. One work, one day no work. And then this. We are broke. Zero. We have nothing… We can't rebuild. We have money in the bank but they won't give it us.
Nabil's neighbors are refusing to move out, even as cranes come to remove what's left of the building's roof. They're scared to leave in case developers swoop in and level the area to build new high rises in this prime seafront location. Unless this community gets a cash injection, and soon, they're out of options.
A short walk away is the deformed structure that's at the heart of this crisis. Not just the explosion, but the years of mismanagement that allowed it to happen, and bled so much money to corruption that Lebanon was already on its knees when the disaster hit: Beirut Port.
Riad Kobaissi is a Lebanese investigative journalist who's been digging into corruption at the port and airport for years. He's been arbitrarily arrested, repeatedly threatened, and beaten to a pulp for trying to reveal what goes on in the shadows of these shipping crates.
There's a famous slogan here at the port: whenever Benjamin Franklin is there, problems are solved… Because this is not a government, this is a mafia.
That's because the port is run just like another public authority: the parliament. Each position is reserved for a particular religious sect, and they're linked to political factions. They choose who they want for each job and then those people take bribes both to smuggle in goods in and to avoid import taxes, draining vital state revenue. It's estimated up to $2 billion a year are lost just to Beirut port.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in donations have poured in since the blast. But it caused an estimated $15 billion in damages to the city. And with political factions holding tight to their control of the only entry points for bringing in aid, each will likely take a cut of the pie. For Nabil and others like him, despair is setting in as they realize they may not get the help they need.
It's the first time I've cried. I've lived here through the bombardment, through 30 years of war. If the house can't be repaired what can I do? There's no future for us.
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