Lebanon’s economic and humanitarian disasters leave citizens to fend for themselves

For the past several years, Lebanon has been in economic freefall. Its currency is close to worthless; its government is fractured and ineffective; there is almost no electric power, and there is less security. Lebanon's people are suffering. Special correspondent Leila Molana-Allen reports from Tripoli on a country in collapse.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For the past several years, Lebanon has been in economic freefall. Its currency is close to worthless. Its government is fractured and ineffective. There's almost no electric power and there's less security. Lebanon's people are suffering.

    Special correspondent Leila Molana-Allen sent us this report on a country in collapse.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Abdelhakim has watched over Lebanon's historic cedar for nearly two decades. As a ranger in the country's mountainous north, he considers the trees the emblem of their flag, many of them hundreds of years old, sacred.

    But this past winter, they started to disappear. As Lebanon's economic catastrophe escalates, the cost of basic goods like fuel has gone through the roof. The only option now for most to cook and stay warm is firewood. Too expensive to buy, Lebanese are chopping it down themselves.

  • Abdelhakim Assayed, Policeman (through translator):

    If you ask anyone around here why they're chopping trees, they'd simply say that don't have money to eat or their income barely last three days.

    No matter how much regulation we enforce, you can't stand in the way of all these people trying to keep their children warm.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    As Abdelhakim takes us deep into the forest to see the destruction firsthand, we come across a man dragging a freshly cut tree down the mountainside with his bare hands. He's a soldier, but can't get by on his army salary. He's too afraid of punishment to speak to us.

    Selling green or living trees is illegal and could have disastrous environmental consequences. But people here are now so desperate, they're thinking about how to keep their children fed and warm today, not about what comes tomorrow.

  • Abdelhakim Assayed:

    These trees are not just mine, but for my children and my children's children, as well as for everyone who lives in this village. If the government is not willing to support the people, we will say goodbye to all these trees, and, three or four years from now, the only thing you will be able to see here is rocks.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    In the nearest village, we meet a pair of loggers who say they work legally harvesting deadwood. But they're not surprised others are resorting to stealing Lebanon's natural bounty.

  • Ghezwan Al-Shami, Lebanon Resident (through translator):

    We don't have employment or wages here. May God replace this failing government. They make you pay mechanical funds, but the roads are still not fixed. We pay our electricity bills, but there's no power. You're paying taxes for something that doesn't exist.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Fuel isn't the only essential that Lebanon can no longer provide for its people. The economy here has collapsed, sending the currency value crashing from 1,500 lira to the dollar to 30,000. Meanwhile, salaries remain unchanged.

    Everyone who can has left the country. But for those stuck here, this is no longer a crisis situation. This is their new reality. They are now facing a future in which the most basic necessities, power, transport, even food, are luxuries.

    In May, for the first time since the crisis began, Lebanon held an election, a chance for change at last, or is it? Many Lebanese were apathetic, more focused on survival than a government they feel lives in another world.

  • Mounia Al-Kadamani, Lebanon Resident (through translator):

    I hope that people come down and vote. The people that are not voting are making a big mistake, especially this year. We Lebanese have had enough.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Absence of functioning state, as so often here, it's the Lebanese people who are helping their own.

    Down the mountain, at 11:00 a.m. each morning, families wait patiently at the gates of this food bank in the northern city of Tripoli.

    Robert Ayoub has helped needy families here for years. The city is Lebanon's poorest .But in the past few months, their numbers have ballooned so fast, the kitchen is struggling to cope. The need has gone from 40 meals a day to 600.

  • Robert Ayoub, Coordinator, Maidat Al-Mahaba Kitchen:

    One bag of milk, one gallon of oil, and something else like this, those three things cost 900,000 Lebanese pounds.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    And that's more than the minimum wage now.

  • Robert Ayoub:

    Yes. So it's true that no one will survive without donation, without help.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Is the government anything for people here at all?

  • Robert Ayoub:

    No, no.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Families who used to donate to the kitchen now come to use it. With donations drying up and demand always increasing, they have had to drastically reduce what they can offer.

  • Robert Ayoub:

    We used to offer fruit and sweet and bread. And we used to serve two kinds of food for every — daily. But the more we have people, the less we can serve.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    So, many of these people are getting one meal a day?

  • Robert Ayoub:

    Yes.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    And that's only what you provide? They're not getting any other food?

  • Robert Ayoub:

    No.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Rabih walks five miles back and forth each day from his home to the kitchen. This small bag will have to last his family of five a week.

    He's grateful for whatever they can give. Without it, his family would starve.

  • Rabih, Father (through translator):

    As soon as I get this stuff home, the kids rummage through and eat it. They open the hummus and the beans. The cheese lasts one day. The situation's becoming unbearable. I can't buy meat. It costs a fortune. And so does food.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Back home, his three small children and wife wait in the dark. With just one hour of power a day, when it comes, and no money for a pricey generator, they live in the shadowy damp of their crumbling three-room flat huddled around a candle, when they can afford one.

    Much of the furniture has been sacrificed for firewood.

  • Rabih (through translator):

    The wardrobe had two shelves, which I broke off to use as firewood. What am I supposed to do? I had to bathe the kids. I stayed one month without fuel.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Little Malak (ph) is just 5. She follows her father around, her feet like ice on the frozen floor.

    Rabih can't afford shoes for any of his kids. There hasn't been any water in the taps for four days. With no work and no state assistance, food is whatever the kitchen gives them. But with no gas to cook it, even those meals are a gamble.

  • Rabih (through translator):

    These poor kids require plenty, but it's not available. They're deprived of so much. I don't care about myself. I'd eat out of trash. But they don't know any better. I'm constantly in pain. And I don't like to talk about it.

    I constantly feel defeated and miserable. God forbid what's lying in the future.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    Robert checks that dwindling supplies ahead of another meal session. These days, the kitchen is just taking things day by day.

    It's not much you have here for so many people.

  • Robert Ayoub:

    No. Someone promised that we will bring too much rice. We're waiting.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    When they don't get enough, they have to close for weeks at a time. By the end of last year, the U.N. estimated nearly half of Lebanese were food-insecure, meaning they don't have enough to eat to stay healthy. And that number only looks set to grow.

    Salaries aren't going up. The economy is still going down. And people hear nothing is changing. So what do you see as the future? Can people survive here just on charity forever? Your donations are reducing.

  • Robert Ayoub:

    Even the donation won't be enough to — for all the people to survive.

  • Leila Molana-Allen:

    His team opens the gates, ready to do what they can for their community, knowing the day approaches when they will have nothing left to give.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Leila Molana-Allen in Tripoli, Lebanon.

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