On a midafternoon in late August, nearly a month after the Beirut Port explosion, Jihad al-Mawla was in his printing press in Khandaq al-Ghamiq, leaning against a stack of freshly minted qurans.
The shutters of his shop had not yet been fixed, and small shards of glass still littered the floor.
“They’ve exhausted all options of getting aid into Khandaq,” he said. “If it was going to come, it would have already.”
Down the street, Hasan Khalifa was slicing meat in his butchery. Though he had managed to patch up the slight damage done to his shop, paying for repairs had been a struggle.
The damage sustained by many buildings in Khandaq were not minor, and the most in-demand commodity was glass. No deaths were reported in the neighborhood, but widespread poverty had made rebuilding difficult for many.
“We didn’t have it as bad as our brothers and sisters in Gemmayzeh. And people are giving food. But nobody is helping us rebuild. … People come and say they’ll help, but they never come back,” Khalifa said.
Throughout the day, it was a sentiment shared by most shop owners, passerbyers, and residents of the neighborhood. That is: Khandaq doesn’t need as much aid as the harder-hit areas of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh, but it does need aid. And it’s not getting enough.
Khandaq al-Ghamiq is not an ordinary neighborhood in Beirut — it’s one of the poorest and most politicized. Residents are known for their unwavering support for the Amal Movement, and the neighborhood was made infamous in November when residents of Khandaq accosted supporters of Lebanon’s revolution, or thawra.
The revolution calls for the dissolution of all political groups, which protesters deem the root of Lebanon’s corruption. Armed groups like Amal and Hezbollah are under further scrutiny by supporters of the revolution, with many describing these groups as “states within a state.”
But, even before revolution-related incidents, many Lebanese say Khandaq is off-limits to anyone that isn’t a resident, or a friend of one.
Mawla said he believed Khandaq’s reputation was one of the reasons the neighborhood has not received adequate aid. “Because I’m in Khandaq … the street is famous for it’s problems. That’s why nobody came and asked about us. But they’re the first to blame us for the problems.”
In Mawla’s view, Khandaq residents are undeserving of the neighborhood’s violent reputation. He has daughters, and wants to feed and raise them well, just like all Lebanese want for their children.
Hani Fawez, who lives a block away from the printing press, agreed with Mawla. Having paid 22 million Lebanese pounds to repair the damage done to his own house, he feels indignant at what he perceived as the nation’s apathy toward Khandaq.
“We also want to shower. Where is my shampoo? Where is my toothbrush? We hear about all these aid planes. But where is all the help? I watch the planes come, the aid come, but the aid is just a picture. Everytime they show it, I turn the channel.”
Fawez’s question about the aid’s whereabouts is timely. In the weeks following sthe Beirut explosion, large sums of money have flowed into Lebanon, many donations intentionally bypassing the government and going straight into the hands of NGOs. These organizations have been hypervisible largely on the streets of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh, working to relieve the thousands of families which, already in the midst of Lebanon’s largest economic crisis since the Civil War, lost their homes and belongings in the explosion. Rebuilding efforts, too, have been on full display, with a multitude of organizations working to install glass and renovate damaged buildings. Outside of organizations, the youth of Lebanon have also been particularly active in restoration efforts.
Mental health servives, animal reunification, food and clothing drives, and free or subsidized damage appraisal are among the services offered in the Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh area. Not one resident interviewed in Khandaq knew of any of these services beyond food donation by the Red Cross, World Food Program, and the Lebanese Army, and medical assistance from Doctors without Borders.
Mouin Jaber, co-founder of Minteshreen, a Lebanese youth organization that has been heavily involved in the coordination of local NGO services post-blast, says this is not purposeful, and does not speak to any hostility towards Khandaq. He noted food boxes were sent to the neighborhood.
“Most of our volunteers were in Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh. They were the most affected, so it’s about resource allocation. People also have an emotional attachement to these areas. People don’t know as much about Khandaq. It’s difficult to access,” Jaber said, noting that he and his team had been able to organize aid quickly because of existing revolution-based WhatsApp group chats.
For him, whether it’s for the revolution or for aid, the intention is the same: making a difference in Lebanon. “Being a revolutionary and being an aid distributor, you’re two sides of the same coin. Our aid is a microcosm of the government we want. We are transparent with our finances … and we put the people first.”
“We don’t care about their war-mongering narratives,” Jaber continued. “First it was about religion, now it’s about pro-thawra or anti-thawra?”
Intrestingly, this is a view shared by both Jaber and Khandaq residents. Of the latter, many expressed the sentiment that they too believe in a Lebanese revolution that seeks to eliminate all-too-common corruption from the system. They said that just because they see Amal and Hezbollah as a part of that system shouldn’t exclude them from the progressive movement currently underway in Lebanon. In fact, they say their narratives need to be heard, expressing that any revolution needs to be rooted in poverty.
“I am living in poverty. People are using the bomb — people who were not affected — to say because of the bomb we should be anti-Hezbollah. But here I am, affected, and I am not saying those things,” said a man who identified himself only as Abdel-Hamid.
While there is no evidence to support that aid distribution and anti-Amal or anti-Hezbollah sentiments are partially or entirely correlated, the link perceived by many Khandaq residents begs questions of responsibility and accountability post-blast, particularly when so many streams of aid are flowing outside governmental subsidiaries. Of course, that is not to say that such subsidaries would be better, nor that anyone is advocating a return to aid flow to such subsidaries.
At a time of simultaneous crises — COVID-19, economic volatility, the devaluation of the pound, a shortage of foreign currency and the third-largest explosion ever documented — answers are overdue for poverty-stricken neighborhoods which were largely ignored through the former crisises, but have seen an overflow of aid into wealthy communities that were more affected by the latter crisis. But can the onus be on NGOs to ensure equal distribution and care for all citizens in this emergency?
The answer is, of course, no — and it’s one that needy residents and aid distributors agree on.
“This is the government’s work,” Jaber said. “We are filling the void due to their criminal incompetence.”
He says despite that, his aid distributors “will continue to pierce through the divide,” a reference to the apparent political split between affilated volunteers and residents of Khandaq.
Mawla echoed his sentiments, saying, “I’m frustrated with the thieves. With the corrupt government, I don’t blame the NGOs.”