“You see on the stairs footprints and handprints of blood. And then you see children’s footprints and handprints of blood, going down the stairs, running away,” said Marwan, 33, who worked with a friend to clear out the nearly demolished apartment of an elderly woman, returning anything salvageable to her and carrying down bags of glass and broken furniture.
Often, the owners are nowhere to be found — or they return home to discover that the volunteers have beaten them there.
“Every time I would come back to my apartment, which is obviously relatively destroyed, it would still end up being cleaner and cleaner,” said Adam, 32, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used out of security concerns. A few volunteers had let themselves into his home through the hole where his front door once stood.
“This has been the worst week of my life in a lot of ways,” he said, choking up. But he added, “I’ve never felt like I’m more part of a community though at the same time.”
Hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers have descended onto Beirut’s streets in the past week — some from other Lebanese towns, a few from as far afield as the United States and France — relentless in their efforts to clean up their city.
Many said they stepped up because they had no faith their government would respond. In the week since the explosion, which is widely blamed on official negligence, there has been little sign of emergency efforts by public works and housing agencies to clear rubble and help the displaced. Government health officials also have been noticeably absent. Residents have despaired of what they say is a glaring lack of government empathy.
Mostly, the volunteers have focused on the neighborhoods of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael, known for their bustling bars and popular eateries. These quarters weave together Lebanese and foreigners, rich and poor, living side-by-side. Glass store facades line the streets, which at night used to fill with people spilling onto the sidewalk, dashing from bar to bar or drinking the local Almaza beer on the steps of one of many sets of stairs.
But the explosion last week, which sent a shock wave across eastern Beirut, shattered so many windows and storefronts that the main street was carpeted with bloodstained glass. Old, intricate, beautiful balconies fell down in chunks, eviscerating cars and at times killing those on the street. Buildings are riddled with gaping holes, erasing any privacy. Passersby often stop and look up, disbelief etched on their faces.
By Monday, Marwan and his friend Zeina, 29, had developed a routine as they looked for damaged homes. They try to avoid those that look to have serious structural damage, with beams and dislocated shutters jutting out like limbs, leaving those buildings to the many civil engineers assessing the chances of collapse.
Instead, the pair looks for homes that still seem sound, climbing the old marble staircases in Gemmayze’s bright-yellow and pink buildings, calling out to any residents they see, asking if they need help.
In the home of Elie Chamoun, 57, they crouch on their knees and sweep aside the fine film of glass powder and the bigger shards. They work in his daughter’s room while he sits in the living room, traumatized from the blast. Chamoun said he cannot stay at home for more than 10 minutes at time, his mind wandering to dark places, wondering what would have happened had his grown daughter been in her bed at the time of the blast. (She had been out with friends, returned home the next day and passed out from shock, he said.)
Zeina and Marwan also attend to the survivors. An old woman looks frail. Does she need medicine? They provide a phone number for medical help. A man looks rattled. They offer numbers for mental health assistance.
Before the blast, Zeina and Marwan, an architect and engineer, respectively, had volunteered at Embrace, a Lebanese group focused on mental health. Zeina was working a shift on a suicide-prevention hotline when the office shattered around her.
“I lived through something hard,” she said soberly about the blast. “And I saw that people have gone through even worse stuff, and we’re all in the same country and are supposed to feel for each other.”
Her cleaning work offers a catharsis. “I felt like I need to go down and do something, for myself, for others, for my country,” she said. (Zeina and Marwan spoke on the condition that their last names would be withheld because of security concerns.)
Marwan said he joined the effort a day after the explosion as he was headed to a hospital, carrying his construction hat and brooms, and people kept calling out for help. They repeatedly stopped him, asking him to clear away storefronts and stairs.
People who have lost so much plead with Zeina and Marwan to take a token of gratitude: small knickknacks, cash, coffee, water. They decline. The elderly woman whose home they helped clean begs them to come back later so she can play the piano for them, and they accept.
From balconies and along the streets, residents thankfully welcome the volunteers, exchanging the same sentences with them like a never-ending game of ping-pong: “Allah ya’teekon al-afiyeh” — “May god give you well being.”
Volunteers who aren’t cleaning the rubble are passing out water, coffee, face masks and sandwiches filled with labneh, a Middle-Eastern yogurt-cheese hybrid spread. Some volunteers are standing guard outside abandoned buildings to protect against looting. Yet others are documenting the damage.
Posters are pasted everywhere offered housing, mental health services, even interior design assistance for destroyed businesses.
“There is no hope for anyone to fix the country but us,” Zeina said.