What does Beirut smell like? From the stench of trash to blood

In mid-July, rubbish collection in Beirut and the Mount Lebanon region — the two most populous areas of the country — had ground to a halt

Published: Updated:
Enable Read mode
100% Font Size

The clouds of tear gas that clogged the air on Saturday night in downtown Beirut truly blotted out the smell of rotten rubbish for the first time in weeks. It was clear that things had changed as close to 10,000 demonstrators gathered. They were there to protest the lack of action by the government over the closure of Beirut’s only landfill site, which led to mountains of rubbish piling up in the streets. Before the weekend was over, downtown Beirut had descended into chaos over two consecutive days as police fired water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse crowds of protesters, resulting in dozens of injuries.

In mid-July, rubbish collection in Beirut and the Mount Lebanon region — the two most populous areas of the country — had ground to a halt. Within a few hot summer days, piles of rubbish collected around the large municipal dumpsters in streets around the city. The smell of rotting food, feted waste and baking plastic filled the air. Flies swarmed thick around the growing piles that filled street corners blocking traffic, pavements and shop fronts. A group of activists formed the ‘You Stink’ campaign to call for action.

James Haines-Young
James Haines-Young

“It’s just embarrassing,” said one protester at an early demonstration against the waste problems in Beirut in mid-July, “What country can’t even collect its own garbage.” However for many, waste was only the latest in a string of problems affecting Lebanon. Years of corruption, inefficiency and lack of investment has left an infrastructure system under strain.

There are daily power cuts, internet speed ranks among the slowest in the world, water shortages are also common and parliament is locked in political in-fighting and rarely passes meaningful reforms.

James Haines-Young
James Haines-Young

It was the stink of rotten waste that drove many to the streets this weekend, but it was this lack of progress in all areas of government that they wanted to see changed. There was a hopeful, festival-like atmosphere as crowed gathered in the early evening on Saturday, however it wouldn’t last. The police reaction came as a shock to many.

“It was a totally unexpected use of force, it was like something from the worst dictatorships,” Nasri Atallah, who has been to all the garbage protests since the start of the ‘You Stink’ campaign, told Al Arabiya News.

James Haines-Young
James Haines-Young

For years, Lebanese have spoken of the apathy that set in as they watched the failures of their own politicians after Lebanon regained independence from the Syrian regime in 2005. However, finally something had again brought young and old, families and students – all sectors of Lebanon from all backgrounds — out onto the streets in numbers. No one, rich or poor, could escape the piles of rubbish around the city throughout July. Garbage, not a political party or movement had united people of all backgrounds to call for action from the government.

James Haines-Young
James Haines-Young

However the reaction from the police was swift. They began to hose down protestors with water cannons and within minutes teargas started to fly into the crowds. As clouds of teargas filled the streets, people panicked.

However, the resolve that had been seen on the faces of the core activists who had started the movement a month ago was now reflected on the faces of every man and women in downtown Beirut.

Dr Ajwad Ayash, who lives near the now closed landfill site south of Beirut and started the campaign to shut the facility, talks of the effects of living near a dump site for 70% of Lebanon’s waste. “We breath the toxic fumes from the landfill everyday,” he said, “This time we’re 100% committed to change, no truck will ever go into the Nehme landfill again.”

James Haines-Young
James Haines-Young

The crowds didn’t disperse quickly. The protestors had resolved to stay and make their demands clear.

As groups of protesters moved into more open areas in Beirut’s central Martyrs Square, Security forces opened fire with their rifles. They shot over the heads of protestors to drive them back, prompting panicked screams from the crowd. The bubbling hope that brought people to the streets was now replaced by tension and chaos. Some responded to the gunfire by throwing water bottles, plastic chairs and other debris towards the line of police.

As the sun set more clouds of gas rose over Martyrs' Square and shots echoed off the walls.

“The Police reaction [Saturday] night was beyond anything that we imagined,” said Joey Ayoub, one of the members of the organizing committee for the ‘You Stink’ campaign. “We had held several meetings to prepare and we expected they might use the water cannon but we didn’t expect the reactions that we saw, the tear gas being fired indiscriminately around families.”

As the sun rose on Sunday morning, politicians were already running to show support for the protestors. Lebanese Prime Minister Tammaam Salam conceded that “excessive force” had been used and offered to meet with protest organizers. However, the government is in a tough position. The lack of infrastructure for waste management simply can’t be fixed overnight. Indeed, experts say that Lebanon is still more than 6-12 months away from acquiring the incinerators that the government announced and more than 6 months away from opening new landfill sites – assuming there are no delays.

Other areas of Lebanon agreed to take some of the waste from Beirut and at the beginning of August and so much of the garbage from central Beirut has been cleared. However, outside the heart of the city piles of trash still line the streets. Perhaps more worrying for many is that municipalities have started to use unofficial dumps to get rid of waste. Thrown off mountainsides, into ravines, empty lots and under highways. In many cases the waste was thrown out of site but not out of mind.

As Salam was delivering his message to the organizers of ‘You Stink’ on Sunday morning, people had already started arriving at the site of the sit-in.

What a difference a day makes

“What we saw [Saturday], the way the security forces reacted, it personally reminded me of the Syrian regime when we had no freedom of speech,” said Jad, a network engineer who didn’t attend Saturday’s protest but was motivated to come out on Sunday after seeing the violence on the news. Jad, like many, wanted to show support for a movement that he felt represented all of Lebanon. He was tired of the inefficiency, the lack of movement and the corruption. “In the political life of a country there are a few times that you can stand up and truly say what you believe in, and I really think this really was one of those,” said Jad.

But inspired protesters weren’t the only newcomers to Sunday’s demonstrations, which attracted an estimated 20,000 people. Within the number who took to the streets on Sunday was a large contingent of people seeking a fight with police.

A man covers his nose as he walks past a pile of garbage along a street in Beirut, Lebanon July 22, 2015. (Reuters)
A man covers his nose as he walks past a pile of garbage along a street in Beirut, Lebanon July 22, 2015. (Reuters)

While the main body of the protest rallied around activists leading chants, a group of men moved to the front, closest to the police lines. While this group clashed with police the main body of the protest moved away to distance themselves from the violence continue to deliver their message peacefully.

However, by 11 p.m. local time, the ‘You Stink’ organizers were asking people to leave the streets. Shortly thereafter, Lebanon’s Daily Star reported that the army had been called in to ‘clear remaining rioters from Downtown.’

While some violent activists threaten to derail the movement, the campaign has grown from small protests about rubbish collection in Beirut into a national campaign for a change in governance. The ‘You Stink’ campaign’s demands for the resignation of the Lebanese government are growing louder every day. “The police violence was just the cherry on the top of our failed state,” said Atallah.

Top Content Trending