Beirut blast: How young people turned a petrol station into a disaster relief centre
“It was like a zombie apocalypse.” That’s how Hussein Kazoun describes the moments after the blast at the Port of Beirut on 4 August 2020. After shielding himself inside his home, the 28-year-old stepped outside to a horror scene. “You have old people walking around, completely bloodied, half unconscious, people running barefoot.” It was the aftermath of the world’s biggest non-nuclear explosion caused by more than 2 500 tons of ammonium nitrate that was improperly stored at Beirut’s port for seven years. “I saw a guy who took off his shoes and gave it to one woman. Another woman was barefoot, so I carried her on my back.” Since those first moments, Hussein hasn’t stopped helping his community. He is one of the founders of ‘Nation Station,’ a grassroots disaster relief organisation that has grown to become a sophisticated community support centre. “The message to the government and this country's leader is [that]...we knew from the start that you don't have any intention to, to help.” The Lebanese government called a state of emergency but many people in the country had already lost faith in the government. The blast, for many, was breaking point, after what they say, has been years of economic mismanagement and corruption in the hands of its leaders. Then Prime Minister Hassan Diab admitted that deep-seated corruption was “rooted in every part of the state.” He resigned, along with his entire government. While the government scrambled to form care-taker roles, the army was deployed to help with recovery. But the people of Beirut took it into their own hands. Built from an abandoned petrol station, Nation Station provides food and medicine, reconstruction support, as well as psychological assistance. All without government support, from international and local donations.
They started an Instagram, which promoted their work, and encouraged donations from around the world. “I feel like we have now become part of the neighbourhood,” Hussein said. Hussein said most of the people they are helping are from the older generation, who lived through Lebanon’s Civil War, and aren’t accustomed to community help like that provided by Nation Station.
But it is evident they are grateful for their help - both practical and emotional.
Ghassan and Hayat Abi Chakra live about a kilometre from the blast. Their son Shady, who is deaf, died in the explosion. He was visiting a friend and the building collapsed on him. He was unable to be rescued because, they say, there was not enough equipment. “There is no equipment and there was no government, there was no lighting, the electricity was cut off, so they had to stop the work. If they took him out at that time, Shady would have survived. But there is no government!” As well as losing their son, Ghassan and Hayat’s home was badly damaged in the blast. At least one room was completely destroyed, and they both slept on the couch. While grieving their son, Nation Station has been helping them with food, repairs, as well as emotional support. “There is no one but this youth who helped us, there is no government,” Hayat said. “They are really amazing. They come to me every day to check on me. They bring me a daily menu and every week they bring vegetables of all kinds. How beautiful. They always call me to ask me how I am and ask me if I need anything.”
William Spiers, a 29-year-old from Sydney, has been volunteering for Nation Station since late August. He travelled from Sydney to Beirut after the blast. William has family in Lebanon, his cousins were affected by the explosion. “So I got a phone call from her that morning. She made me cry. She's the most joyous person and to hear her cry. I knew I had to go.”
Australian’s are banned from travelling overseas due to the COVID-19 pandemic. William applied for an exemption on humanitarian grounds, which was granted. “My family's here. The love in this country is amazing. So I just felt like I needed to be here, by hook or by crook. I had to get over here.” While the country grapples with a deepening economic crisis, William delivers food, helps with reconstruction and provides company to those affected by the blast, who are still asking: How did this happen? Many point to a government structure that is divided between Christian and Muslim groups, a system dating back to the Civil war in the 1940s. Critics say this has fuelled self-interest, corruption and failing leadership over decades.
Lebanon's lead investigator into the catastrophic Beirut port explosion charged outgoing leader Hassan Diab and three ex-ministers with negligence.
The four were charged with "negligence and causing death to hundreds and injuries to thousands more" in the first such official indictment against a prime minister in office in Lebanese history.
Dateline reached out to the President, interim Prime Minister and interim Justice Minister but did not receive a response in time for publication.
Nation Station has become a stable force in a country with little stability, all fuelled from the help of young volunteers.
Source: Date Line