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Lebanese don gloves and clean up

‘From three or five people, we ended up being 50. From 50, we became 500’

BEIRUT: Medical student Lynn Abi Khalil, 17, says she could not take part in Lebanon’s massive spontaneous protests against the government so instead she picked up gloves and a trash bag. “I haven’t been participating in the demonstrations because my family doesn’t want me to,” she says, as she collects rubbish in the centre of the capital. “So I’m taking part in a different way,” she says, wearing a white medical mask.
On Sunday night, hundreds of thousands gathered across the country chanting against what they view as a corrupt and arrogant ruling class unable to lift the country out of its daily economic woes. In the capital’s main square, on Monday morning, the ground is strewn with plastic water bottles, smoldering trash, and the odd red-and-white Lebanese flag.

“Leave now,” reads a trampled flyer bearing a picture of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Abi Khalil is one of hundreds of men, women and children who have flocked to the edge of the capital’s Martyrs’ Square in the early hours to do their part. On the pavement at the foot of a large mosque, volunteers crouch behind an orderly line of supplies, handing them out to those who have turned up. In a country infamous for major trash spillovers and sub-standard recycling, there are blue bags for plastic, green for glass and metal, and black for general waste.

‘Lot of pain’

Wearing a dark grey T-shirt and backpack, Peter Mouracade has been coming to Martyrs’ Square since Saturday morning. “I went to my kitchen, looked at was inside the cupboard — plastic bags, gloves — and I just went down to the streets,” says the 39-year-old. But the volunteer movement has since ballooned as the streets fill day after day with Lebanese from all religious sects and walks of life venting their discontent — and then also cleaning up.

“From three or five people, we ended up being 50. From 50, we became 500. Today we have thousands of people who are coming,” he says. Mouracade, who is the CEO of the Beirut Marathon, says he and other volunteers mostly find a lot of plastic bottles. When he first started out on Saturday, it followed a night of several people overturning trash dumpsters and setting them alight, or even breaking shop windows.
“There are a lot of people who are feeling a lot of anger and a lot of pain, that’s why there’s so much destruction,” he adds. “We need to respect the voice of the people, and our duty is to clean” afterwards.

Lebanon’s economy has been on the brink of collapse for some time and the latest protests grew after proposed tax hikes on phone calls on free applications — a proposal since scrapped. But the demonstrations have morphed into a huge popular outcry against what is viewed as a broken system. The last such huge movement against the political class was in 2015 under the slogan “You Stink”, after the capital’s main trash dump brimmed full and refuse flooded the streets.

‘Throw them out’

On the square, female volunteers scoop up piles of used half lemons — some with rind curling off them — and burnt trash. Suheil Hamdan, 49, films them with his mobile phone, seemingly making a video to share on social media. “This is where corrupt lawmakers and ministers in our country belong — in the bin bags,” he says, a cap on his head to keep off the sun. “I won’t leave the street until all our corrupt lawmakers and ministers are in prison,” he says.

Near an iconic cinema abandoned since the 1975-1990 civil war, even a few foreigners have turned up. A group of Asian workers who usually clean the capital’s streets smile as they lean on their brooms, dressed in faded grey overalls, but refuse to speak to AFP. White earphones stuffed in his ears, their supervisor is standing nearby. A Swiss woman watches as her six-year-old son drops scraps into a large trash bag, his hands protected by oversized pink washing-up gloves.

But first and foremost, cleaning up is about being Lebanese. Sami Deeb, a 34-year-old, has taken the day off from running his struggling food distribution business.

“We have been on the ground for four days fighting for our rights,” he says, dressed in an immaculately pressed pink shirt. For days, he has been taking part in the protests, which late Sunday evolved into euphoric celebrations complete with humoristic songs, DJs, and traditional dabke dancing. “We clean in the morning, and we party at night,” he says. – AFP

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