Two days of mini-civil war were sufficient to drown the city in garbage: The Lebanese are a nation of consumers, and they produce large quantities of solid waste. During the 1975-1991 wars, Beirut's rubbish was all disposed of on the seafront and in the sea, near what used to be the Normandy hotel and the place came to be known as the Normandy dump. During times of heavy fighting, piles of garbage would be left to rot at street corners, and when the stench became too strong, these piles would be set on fire, smothering the city with the characteristic smell of burning rubbish and filling our lungs and houses with poisonous smoke.
After 1991, solid waste disposal became a priority goal of the new republic, but alas only in Beirut. The operation of solid waste removal and disposal was subcontracted to Sukleen, a private company whose owner is close to the top politicians of the country. The process for awarding the contracts as well as the costs of the contracts have all been severely criticized, and there were widespread accusation of corruption. The location of the solid waste disposal dump, in the Naameh area south of Beirut, as well as its design and its capacity have also come under fire. Yet, and while the rest of Lebanon's cities and villages are still awash with their own rubbish (because the state is not interested in anything aside from Beirut), the city (at least the central part of it) has become, in the past few years, cleaner than I have ever known it.
The system is simple and human intensive: People throw their garbage in large rectangular bins situated at street corners and the Sukleen trucks come and collect it on a very regular basis. But people are often careless, and throw their rubbish around the bins. Many do not close the bags properly. As a result, there is often as much garbage inside the bin as there is outside.
But the Beirutis have found another function for these bins: they use them to block roads whenever there are strikes or demonstrations. Their contents spill out, and the roads are closed to the collectors. Garbage accumulates again on street corners, and at these times, I can start smelling the burn again. This is what Beirut looked like yesterday.
West Beirut is still unsure of what to make of the latest political developments. Although the army is said to have taken over the whole city, people are cautiously evaluating the situation behind the safety of their TV sets. There are occasional sounds of gunshots, but we are told it is in mourning as people bury their dead. The streets are empty, but they are clean. Another, silent army has deployed, clad in bright green: the Sukleen cleaners. Many come from India, Bengladesh, or Sri lanka, and they are here, in the middle of this conflict, to clean the Beiruti's mess. Like an army, they follow orders. Fear or disobedience means the loss of a much needed wage. I spoke in a combination of broken Arabic and English with Asam this morning, as he and his 2 colleagues were cleaning an empty street in Hamra. The 3 of them are from Madras, India. Two of them have been here 2 and a half year and one just 6 months. They are given $200 a month (the minimum wage in Lebanon), and health insurance, and they are all housed together (I couldn't tell how many to a room) in common sleeping quarters. He did not seem to be aware that the government has decreed a 40% increase in the minimum wage.
To those unsung heroes.