tv Witness LINKTV December 1, 2021 3:00am-3:31am PST
i am in one of the world's oldest cities. people have lived here in beirut continuously for more than 5000 years. once heralded as the paris of the middle east, over the past 50 years, this city has seen the very worst of times: a brutal civil war. it completely ripped the heart out of this place. there is an inherent poetry in the narrative of a proud city trying to get back on its feet, but how far has beirut come? how far does it have to go? now, people come here for the nightlife, for the reputation of the "cool" beirut. but me, i came here to explore a beautiful but fragile city
and i came right here, to the physical, mental and symbolic border between east and west during the civil war, the former green line. my journey in beirut starts here. - where does one even begin to discuss the urban challenges facing the ancient city of beirut? even though the civil war ended nearly 30 years ago,
its repercussions have left permanent scars on the city. the bloody conflict that plagued lebanon from 1975 to 1990 killed some 145,000 people, severely injured more than 100 000 and displaced over a million. it essentially brought the country to its knees. the power struggles that led to the war are deeply rooted in complex and ever-changing alliances. it's not simply a sectarian conflict. regardless of the cause, citizens were held hostage as bombings and bulls fr snipers wreaked havoc across lebanon. beirut took centre stage, acting as a dividing line between muslims and christians. even though p and re-establish itself as a thriving capital, it's difficult to say how long peace will last. many of the people linked to the civil war are still tied to the government in one way or another. so the fight
for power is far from over. but citizens are tackling their problems one day at a time, as one must in beirut, despite the precarious cracks in the pavement and in their politics. the man, the myth, the legend. how are you doing brother? good to see you. and you. good. welcome to beirut! yeah, thanks. so filming here, ahead of the shoot, there's a lot of permits we needed, there are sensitive topics that we're not supposed to discuss, and we had to have a list of who we were going to be interviewing. and we were told not to put you on the list. it's too bad, right? they should view me as the best tour guide of the city, but you know, they're losing this great resource by blacklisting me because they don't want to hear the true story. - habib battah is an independent journalist who has been covering lebanon for national and international media outlets for years. he is viewed by local and outside observers as someone who digs up the truth in the midst of chaos.
he now runs his own news blog, publishing reports on beirut that national media outlets would rather bury. we're right now in martyrs' square. we're in one of the most historic parts of beirut. it was a place that was of great importance in the 1960s and the 1950s. it was a great gathering point for the city. these streets would have been packed with people. it was the real hub of the city. today, it's kind of like a highway. so when the war ended, there was this idea to rebuild the city. and the idea was we had a billionaire, prime minister, who was a big real estate developer... oh! funny that! sounds familiar. and he basically took over the government of the country. he populated all of the government institutions with his staff, so the managers of his companies became the heads of government institutions for reconstruction. their slogan was: "building the finest city in the middle east".
so what "fine" meant was expensive, unaffordable and really keeping the rest of the city out. - under solidere, the former prime minister's development company, heritage buildings were destroyed, making way for new developments. suddenly, politicians had "carte blanche" to do whatever they wanted. and so they did. they created a modern, glossy downtown by expropriating homes and small businesses. and what happens when politicians suddenly and miraculously become developers? grocery stores are converted into high-end restaurants, apartments are sold off to oil magnates and wealthy expats. in short, the social fabric of an important economic and cultural district of beirut was robbed of its integrity, and its livability. the country of lebanon went from war-torn country with some resources to being one of the most indebted countries in the world.
yeah. it doesn't even provide electricity, water, garbage collection, sewage treatment. it's flushed straight out to sea. there's no treatment of that. and the reason why we can't provide basic services like electricity, water, etc., is because the government has no revenue. all of the government's money basically goes to our paying for this debt of reconstruction. so people are living on scraps, literally, in this country, while these billionaires are erecting these towers of grandeur with the world's most famous architects. - and this pristine, shiny downtown with high-end shops and slick architecture is anything but life-sized. not only does it look like any other place in the world where rich developers have had their way, but pedestrians and tourists are being policed by security guards at every turn. we were indeed stopped several times while filming. in this part of town, the message is clear: unless you're paying to be here, keep out. we're just kind of lingering in the heat here because we're not allowed to film on this street.
i've been harrassed, i've been detained, i've been stopped many times in this city centre, and to the point where i don't really feel comfortable in this city, being a journalist and trying to document things because they really don't want that kind of thing. yeah. - when they finally let us in, it became immediately apparent why they were trying to keep us out. they don't want you to see actually that this city centre is largely empty, it's largely going bankrupt. billions were wasted here. they don't want you to look at all the empty shops. they price people out of even imagining coming to this part of downtown beirut. this part of beirut is not for the majority of the population. they don't feel at home. they don't feel welcome. because if you have a family of five, let's say, and you come to one of these restaurants, you won't leave without spending a couple hundred dollars. that's right. that's half the minimum wage of the country. so things just closed overnight. i mean, look at all of these empty places. yeah. you can't even keep track of the openings and closings.
there was a starbucks here. there was also a mcdonald's up here. they have taken out the mcdonald's sign. and for a mcdonald's and a starbucks to close, i think that's a rare thing. yeah. and that really shows you the level at which there is no business down here. there are more pigeons, really, than people on the average day here. yeah, there are. what about the rest of the city? i think that this was the first major real estate project in the country after the civil war. and after this project got started, it influenced a lot of similar projects in other parts of the city, and again, it's the same kind of concept. it's the kind of neo-liberal capital. it's the idea of: "let's just keep pouring lots of money into the city and try to attract foreigh capital" instead of actually serving the people who live here. no crosswalks. yeah. no. nowhere, dude. so, really not built for people. it's built for cars. - many of these new developments are being built on top
of historical treasures. refusing to stand by and watch the destruction of his history and his culture, habib took it upon himself to expose what was happening... to the public. i had always heard that so much archeology was destroyed in beirut. and i've always seen these sites being excavated with no information to the public, and i took it upon myself to start investigating this topic. and once i started to dig deeper and found out that there's actually a lot of it that's been destroyed, then i started to ask more questions and wanted to document this. so what i've started doing lately is whenever i see a construction site going up, i make it a point to try to get some images of that excavation. and so i do this work now to create a public record of the many excavations in beirut, so that someday we can come back and ask what happened to those ruins. we can't hold them accountable if we don't know what we're holding them accountable for.
jean duval, a very famous french architect wanted to build this grandiose tower and a mall, as if we didn't have enough malls and hotel towers in this city. but when they were doing the excavation, they found really important ruins here. we're going to try and get a look. do you want to try that? - let's do it. it's o.k, guys. it's clear. it's clear. let's go. let's go now before... - come. so this would have been a huge mall complex if jean duval had his way, and the investors behind him. this whole side is really, could be a wonderful site where people could come here and explore, and learn about the many different levels and stages of the history of this really troubled city. but as can tell, the site is closed and we have to beg for access and it looks like any minute now he's going to bounce and ask me to stop talking. - you'll find these fences hiding ancient ruins all over the city centre. had things been done correctly, with archeological digs and careful preservation, the real estate ambitions of developers would have been kept in check. but no, no, no, why save historical artefacts when you can slap up more condos and skyscrapers.
that's one of the greatest ironies here. it's that this project is called "the landmark", saying that their hotel will be as important as these world wonders. you're destroying roman ruins to make and compare yourself to rome. it's kind of ridiculous. - holding developers accountable for their actions isn't only about preserving history. it's a way to reveal the truth about the way the city is mishandling development. and it clearly points out that beirut doesn't only belong to them. it has stood here for thousands of years, despite war, invasion, bombings and bullets, but without citizens like habib, it will not withstand the greed of modern development and corruption. fortunately, habib is not alone in his fight. it's a very lively activism scene that are creating collectives and initiatives whether it's for making the city
bikeable or actually making the city more affordable, questioning really wasteful projects, and it's become a very embattled city, i would say. what they got away with down here, 20 years ago, that can't happen again today. today, every new project is contested. there are facebook pages that start about a building that's going to be torn down. there's a new issue, issue-based, issue-focused politics that are happening in beirut right now and it's a very exciting time. - from corrupt politicians controlling the real estate market to a garbage crisis that crippled the city, beirut needs cleaning up. and one man is devoted to doing just that. if you came here three years ago in the summer of 2015, you would have seen trash all over the place because the trash collection system collapsed. so we had a major landfill and the people living around that landfill said: "enough is enough.
you cannot bring garbage here anymore." and we had no plan b. the trash stayed in the streets for one whole year. for a year? for one whole year. - engineer ziad abichaker runs cedar environmental, a sorting, composting and recycling business that aims to reduce the volume of waste across lebanon. unfortunately, we still landfill 90% of the trash of beirut. 90? yes. where do you start tackling an issue that huge? we've been... you know, we've been haggling with this for the last 30 years. telling them: "listen. eventually, you will run out of space. you need to implement an integrated plan where you start sorting at source. you build recycling facilities, sorting facilities." most of our trash is food waste, so it's compostable. these panels are made from plastic bags and disposable plastics.
right. and then the planting media is red soil mixed with compost, and compost came from our food waste. yeah. if we put in a small waste management system, we can turn the city green. - ziad's work is changing the way beirut treats and manages its trash. check it out. - with a zero-waste objective, his company is creating all sorts of ideas to transform trash into something useful. among the most successful projects are these eco-boards. made out of recycled plastic bags, they can be used for planting flowers and even food. we have the equivalent of 10,000 supermarket bags giving you parsley. yeah. and now, they're going to start giving you lettuce. - thanks in part to ziad's work, beirut was able to turn things around at a remarkably fast pace since the 2015 crisis. and that is inspiring. the level of environmental awareness has skyrocketed right
after the garbage crisis because people saw that, you know, this is what's been going on with our garbage for the last 20 years, and now all of a sudden, we have it in the streets. i'm going to pick that up. you're always... you've got this radar, don't you? so, then... we're here. ... we decided that we're going to put our eco-boards to another use. so these are the boards. this is the cover. and we got the private sector also to chip in and assume responsibility for the waste that they generate by selling. that's the beer company sponsoring this one. that's the national beer company, exactly. and this is our national mineral company. and there's bank audi down there. yeah. this is a bank. no, no, no! i'm just kidding. o.k. here, it's full. put it from the side. on the side. there you go.
we used to pick them up once a month. yeah. then, it got to three weeks. every three weeks. now, we're down at every two weeks, and as you see, i think very soon, it's going to become once every 10 days. right. how many of these stations are there around the city? 14 now. 14. yes. we have 14 stations where people can bring in their recyclables. - let me be clear: the city has done nothing to improve waste management. that's just the type of attitude that keeps cities stagnant. luckily, citizens here don't tend to see eye-to-eye with their government on, well, just about every issue facing their city. best view from a recycling facility i've ever seen. - so ziad and his company cedar environmental found their own way to finance their activities: corporate sponsorship, sale of converted material, and contracts with smaller municipalities surrounding beirut.
they now run 11 recycling facilities in lebanon. imagine what they'd achieve if the city and the country actually got involved. this is a zero-waste facility. we don't throw away anything. we don't burn anything, and we keep track of everything that comes in and everything that goes out. everything. on an average year, we do about 450 tons per month. wow. o.k. of everything that comes in. and nothing is thrown away. keep that in mind. yeah. so what's wrong with the city of beirut? why are they not jumping onto this very obvious recycling train? it's way too many parameters. one of them, yes, i will not mince my words. one of them is political profiteering. o.k. landfill gives you land, supposedly, where you can build on. it's more lucrative
than putting back recyclables into the recycling industries. so, it's an amazing project. respect that you built all this up. thank you. but, i mean, one man doing all of this, and you have the whole country of lebanon. how do you take it to the next level? we're just showing the way, so people know that first of all, the waste management file is not hopeless, that we can solve it if we have the right perspective, and of course, one man cannot solve the whole problem. it's going to take at least 40 to 50 initiatives doing two or three facilities like this for the whole country to be safe from the waste management crisis again. - fixing beirut's garbage problem is a top priority, but let's not forget about that other, less visible but nonetheless massive, urban environmental
issue: air pollution. cars dominate beirut, and traffic has created a transportation crisis that is only getting worse due to bad roads, an increasing number of cars, and a virtually non-existent public transportation system. the solution, as we should all know by now, is quite simple: more bikes. the power of cycling on a social level, on an environmental level, on an economic level is enormous, and it's trying to get people to start seeing the bicycle as a means of transportation, as a means of creating a sustainable city and we're starting really from scratch, because it's really hard to move towards getting people to see the bike as something they can use in their daily lives and as something that can contribute to the city positively. - the young men and women here are part of chain effect, an organisation that promotes cycling as a sustainable and convenient mode of transport.
through street art, public interventions and community projects, these guys have launched a city-wide conversation about transforming urban mobility. the power of murals is that you're really speaking to the city. you're talking to people who are driving, who are in the process of moving around about mobility. and it's so much more powerful to do that in the streets, and you're also democratizing access because you're reaching the poor, the rich, the immigrant and the nonimmigrant, everyone at the same time, by choosing the locations in the city that you're painting on. it's open access. you see, we get a lot of responses from different people. some people do change their lifestyles after they either see us painting or they participate in an event that we organize, or if they hear us do a talk somewhere, they tell us: "o.k. you really changed the way i think. i'm going to try and go to work by bike and commute by bike." and some other people have oppositite reactions. sometimes, they would tell us: "are you trying to kill me?
look at how crazy people are here, how they drive, it's impossible. look at how many potholes we have, how many..." whatever. they keep looking at the negative side and we keep telling them: "guys, beirut is a tiny city. it's really tiny. the streets are narrow. it's always congested." i mean, speed is the main reason why people have scary accidents. here, it's impossible to happen because people's cars cannot go fast. yeah. - some people might argue that it just isn't possible to navigate a bike through beirut's traffic, that it's unsafe because of the potholes. but i've seen traffic, and we've all navigated around potholes, so i would say that some people are just plain wrong. and lazy. of course, when there's a lack of infrastructure, there's a higher risk of road crashes. but wait: more cyclists would mean fewer vehicles on the road. and then citizens could push for protected bike lanes. rome wasn't built in a day,
and beirut won't be rebuilt overnight. but you have to start somewhere. is this it? this is it. wow. o.k. it's going to be a mural on the entire building? it's going to be...we have like a huge biker poster that's going right in the middle over there. how many murals have you done? we've done 31. 31! yeah. wow. how do you measure the success of a mural like this, and a message? well, to tell you the truth, it's difficult to measure anything here in lebanon, because there's no actual statistic being done on anything. the only success that i see is actually when we meet people in random places and they ask me what i do, and i tell them: "i'm part of the chain effect and we do these murals around beirut." and they say: "yeah! i saw them. the ones about bicycles." so this is the only way i know that people actually saw it, but i don't know how many changed their lifestyle because of it, but we do along the years that people are cycling more. i see it on a daily basis.
- chain effect spreads the gospel on cycling through community-oriented events like bike to work day, and by petitioning the government to make changes to the infrastructure. so we're going to write [speaks arabic] which means "beirut is more beautiful by bike." and although it's a message we've already written before, we haven't done one here yet and it's always nice to do it in new areas of beirut, so new citizens can see it and feel like it's something they are a part of. where do you go from here? how do you scale up? do you start getting more seriously into hardcore lobbying the government and the municipality? where do you go from here? we've already started lobbying in a way. i think that's the second step. we need to keep doing awareness on the street because we need to get people. it's a two-way thing: lobbying but also getting people to be interested in cycling and understand that it's doable in a city like beirut. we have to, i think, work on both streams and tandem.
- don't get me wrong, tackling cycling in beirut is a challenge. but as i try to get across the city on foot, i realize that before its citizens can learn to ride bikes, they may need help on an even more fundamental, pedestrian level. it is absolutely bizarre to walk around this city. just the structure of it. sidewalks are there, then they disappear, super tall curbs and then none at all. this is an obstacle course for somebody like me, somebody who's able-bodied, but for the mobility-challenged, for the elderly, this is an extreme sport. hi! - hey! hi mikael. how are you doing? - how are you? good. - good to see you. you too. welcome to jeanne d'arc street. - thank you. it's a street that we chose, at the american university, to provide a modern, pedestrian-friendly street in the city.
- as a way to give back to the community, mona el hallak and her team at the american university of beirut developed a project called neighborhood initiative. together, they transformed the street just outside the campus walls by creating wider sidewalks, adding benches and improving green spaces for public enjoyment. but that's not all mona does, not even close. born and raised in beirut, mona was only seven when the civil war broke out. through education, activism and design, she now works relentlessly to improve her beloved city. o.k. so architect, urban activist, urban design initiator, and now you're sort of muscling your way into politics. what's up with that? i mean, i've been, all my life, trying to preserve heritage buildings, to preserve our natural coast, to look into housing alternatives
for affordable housing, work on waste management, so by default, i'm doing what the politicians should do, right? - mona is part of a unique political collective called beirut madinati, which recently ran for office on the municipal level. comprised from a diverse range of citizens from artists to teachers, the collective is a local movement born out of lebanon's waste management crisis. beirut madinati's main goal: make beirut a more liveable city. beirut madinati literally translates to "beirut, my city." my city. - my city. all right. and the program had the points that everybody wants: housing, green spaces, public spaces, access to jobs, waste management, proper governments. all the normal stuff. normal stuff, but nobody has addressed them at the municipality at all.
- but finding a way into the government in lebanon isn't just a matter of climbing the political ladder. from the municipal to the national level, every party is divided along religious lines. that, however, is not the case with beirut madinati. so, it's also the first nonsectarian-based electoral campaign. that's what beirut madinati was pioneering in. we found the right people and we just wrote our list. everybody thought that we wouldn't get anywhere. we got 33% of the votes. wow. and that was huge. but of course, we didn't get into the council, because it's a majoritarian law. you either get everything or you don't. but at the same time, we asserted that change is possible. yes, if you go and vote, you have a voice, you can voice your opinion in this city, because the main problem in beirut is that people don't believe they can
change anything anymore. - creating a new political movement is crucial, but mona also believes that the way to give the city a brighter future is to learn from the past. although beirut has lived through a brutal civil war, there is no memorial... and the conversation about what has happened has been stifled. until mona began speaking up about it. for the last 20 years, she has headed a campaign to save one of the few remaining heritage buildings from demolition and convert it into a civil war museum. this is beirut, the barricade building that stood as a fighting position from east beirut to west beirut on the green line. yeah. there are bullet holes. look at that. every bullet hole has been fired between 1975 and 1990, from one part of the city to the other, trying to prohibit the connection between the east and west of the city.
that's the only public building in lebanon that has preserved the traces of the war that, until today, has no history book written about it. you know that we don't teach the history of the civil war in our schools. really? it's already been 29 years since the end of the civil war. the children... my boy doesn't know anything from the history books. and you know, people want to talk, but we never gave them the chance. the city never asked for a reconciliation. - while mona was successful in saving the building from being destroyed, the campaign to create a permanent museum for the public is ongoing. and the battle isn't won until beirutis have a space in which to commemorate and confront their past. this is what we call the centre hole, triple-arch centre hole, traditional lebanese house. this was really one of those bourgeois high-life buildings in beirut.
it's unlike any building. so the snipers built these snipers nests. of course. o.k. i'm going to walk you into the first sniper position. inside this area, this was the safest room in this building during the war. so when it was really, really, really heated up, they came here. there's one sniper, the second and the third. so you can see how he saw the city. oh yeah. you can see the (inaudible). yeah? now, you can kill someone. the minute i entered here in 1994, i saw this tile and the memories of the war came back like this to my mind because this was the tile of the bathroom where we hid throughout the war, and the bathroom was the place where you hid, the interior ones, because it didn't have windows. yeah. so sometimes, we were 30 people in a bathroom as big as this one. wow.