Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Little relief for Tripoli's grief

[Originally posted at NOW]

Reconstruction efforts are hampered by systematic corruption in relief distribution, say local citizens and politicians.

For residents of Tripoli’s Maarad and Zahrieh neighborhoods, where twin mosque blasts killed 47 civilians and damaged hundreds of homes moments after Friday prayers on 23 August, the task of reconstruction is being compromised by systematic corruption in government relief distribution, according to local citizens and politicians.

On 29 September, former MP Mosbah al-Ahdab of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement held a press conference in which he condemned what he called a “scandal” within the Higher Relief Commission (HRC), the government body tasked with providing emergency humanitarian aid, in which substantially higher cash amounts were being paid to those with well-placed connections.

In his spacious but crowded apartment opposite Tripoli’s Rashid Karami International Fair on Saturday, just a few hundred meters from the al-Salam Mosque explosion site, Ahdab spoke to NOW in between quick meetings with a constant rotation of visitors – clerics, youths from the troubled Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood, and a poet, among others. “My place is like a train station,” he grinned as he excused himself for what might have been the tenth phone call in as many minutes.

“It’s been the same story for over two years, during which we’ve had at least fifteen rounds of destruction” between the feuding Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighborhoods, Ahdab told NOW. “Certain people get compensation without even opening a file with the HRC. Others are registered in Tripoli but they actually live elsewhere. On the other hand, people who really live here, and had their homes destroyed, get cheques for a few hundred dollars.”

As evidence, Ahdab handed NOW photocopies of three cheques, clearly marked as paid by the HRC, issued to three individuals in July 2013 (see above images). One received 805,000LL ($537); another 380,000LL ($253); and the last 235,000LL ($157). “What’s the point? It costs more just to paint the house,” he said.

Another phone call later, and Ahdab arranged for the son of one of the cheque recipients, Mustafa*, to join us at the apartment, along with some friends, all of them in their mid-twenties. Dragging deeply on back-to-back cigarettes, Mustafa’s bony arms trembled as he told NOW how his family’s Bab al-Tabbaneh home was devastated twice during clashes with Jabal Mohsen.

“We lived without electricity or water, and the state did nothing to help us. The first time, we rebuilt the place by ourselves,” he said.

The second time, the HRC offered them $537. “It would cost 100,000LL [$67] just to open a bank account. I’d rather rip the damn thing in half,” he told NOW bitterly.

“You’re one of the lucky ones,” snorted a friend. “Others got just 50,000LL [$33].”

The difference between those who receive hundreds of dollars and those who receive several thousands, they allege, is connections – with security forces, with army intelligence officers, or simply with “the state” (they use the word contemptuously, as though describing an enemy). Ahdab, moreover, says Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati, who lives just a few buildings away, is the most valuable contact of all, since the HRC legally falls under the control of the prime minister’s office. Indeed, under previous administrations, the HRC has faced similar accusations of favoring partisans of the incumbent prime minister.

NOW was unable to obtain comment from the HRC, though its Secretary General Gen. Ibrahim Bashir previously denied to NOW in December 2012 that bribery took place within the organization, dismissing such allegations as having “a political dimension” intended to “tarnish the reputation of the Lebanese army.”

As far as Mustafa and his friends are concerned, however, the institution’s corruption goes far beyond inflating cheque payments.

“The state sides with Jabal Mohsen. Their agents in Tabbaneh call up militants in the Jabal and tell them to fire shots at Tabbaneh, and they collect more money from the state that way. Others block the roads, fire machine guns into the air, and then call up army intelligence and get money to open the roads again,” said Mustafa.

“I don’t want to do things like that. I don’t want anything but my rights.”

*At the interviewee’s request, a pseudonym has been used due to the sensitivity of the subject.

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