Cash for chaos as brokers swoop in on battered Beirut after blast

Cash for chaos as brokers swoop in on battered Beirut after blast
A picture taken on August 11, 2020, shows a view of a heavily-damaged traditional Lebanese house due to the Beirut port explosion, in the devastated Gemmayzeh neighbourhood across from the harbour. (AFP)
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Updated 12 August 2020

Cash for chaos as brokers swoop in on battered Beirut after blast

Cash for chaos as brokers swoop in on battered Beirut after blast
  • Explosion left hundreds of thousands homeless
  • WHO says 50% of hospitals “out of service”

BEIRUT: Beirut residents are being urged not to sell their homes or real estate following the devastating explosion that laid waste to swathes of Beirut, as brokers swoop in to buy shattered buildings.
Last week’s explosion at the Port of Beirut has so far killed 171 people, injured more than 6,000 and displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. Dozens remain missing. The World Health Organization has estimated that 50 percent of Beirut hospitals are “out of service” due to the explosion.
The Tuesday blast has seen people take to the streets to pick up the pieces and clean up the chaos, even as Lebanon struggles to overcome the coronavirus pandemic and severe economic, financial and political difficulties. 
Small cards have been fixed to damaged cars in neighborhoods destroyed by the blast. They read: “If the car is for sale, call the number on the card.”
The cards were spotted in areas of Gemmayzeh, Mar Mikhael, Al-Mdawar and Karantina near the port area. Residents have complained that brokers are “touring their buildings to make offers” to buy houses and real estate in exchange for large sums of cash in dollars.
The devastated areas include heritage buildings, and the head of the Order of Engineers in Lebanon Jad Tabet estimated the number of old buildings threatened with total or partial collapse ranged from 50 to 60.
Many residents in these buildings are either tenants or poor owners who are unable to restore what has been destroyed, especially in light of Lebanon’s severe economic crisis and the collapse of the lira against the US dollar.
The behavior of the brokers has caused anxiety for other reasons, too. The areas destroyed in the explosion are predominantly Christian. 
Beirut’s port was the start of the 1975 Green Line that divided the capital into east and west, a situation that remained until 1990 when the war ended. Although the Green Line was abolished, the demographic division created by the war is the same but for a few exceptions.
In the past two days there have been reports that political or partisan elements in the country are “taking advantage of the opportunity to infiltrate” these areas.
“News about the existence of brokers is widely circulated in the affected areas,” MP George Okais told Arab News. “There are wealthy owners, old owners who are poor and other owners whose properties have been passed from their parents and grandparents and cannot be sold due to the difficulty of the heirs to reach an agreement. It seems that some people want to exploit the people’s feelings of disgust and anger as well as their intentions to emigrate from Lebanon, by offering them attractive amounts to buy these properties whether heritage buildings, or old buildings.”
The Orthodox Gathering appealed to the owners of buildings and real estate in the affected areas not to give in to despair or frustration, even though these feelings were justified in the face of such horror. It urged people to refrain from selling their property and to hold on to the “land and stone, symbol of their existence.”
Walid Jumblatt, head of the Progressive Socialist Party, warned the municipality of Beirut against committing the crime of destroying heritage in Gemmayzeh, Mar Mikhael and Ashrafieh for the benefit of some brokers. “The Municipality of Beirut has enough money to restore the heritage and shelter the victims and help them,” he said.
Talal Al-Doueihy, head of the “Lebanese Land – Our Land Movement,” who has been active for the past two years to prevent the sale of lands belonging to the Lebanese, particularly Christians, said: “Some people informed me that lawyers and agents of real estate developers have expressed interest in buying their damaged or destroyed properties.” 
He spoke of the “unrealistic amounts” offered to people — $8,000 dollars per square meter. 
“The demographic change in these areas may be or may not be on the table, but it is our duty to offer solutions and tell people to not sell their land and to not leave Lebanon no matter what sect they belong to,” said Okais. “The main focus is to provide people with financial support. That is what we are working on right now.”
The Lebanese Ministry of Culture has decided to “prevent any transaction of sale, disposal or insurance relating to the damaged properties and prevent their registration in real estate departments until after the completion of all repair work and after the approval of the ministry in accordance with the rules relating to the protection of historical and heritage buildings.”
The World Maronite Union accused “rich and wealthy people, owners of mafia money that sabotaged Lebanon, owners of smuggling and drugs money sponsored by Hezbollah in addition to Iran’s money, of trying to change the cultural and demographic face of Beirut.”
It feared that people would act “unconsciously and sign contracts and agreements that would steal from them and deprive them of their history and the future of their children.”
Rumors about further explosions in the Lebanese capital are also causing fear and confusion. The rumors have been attributed to the Lebanese Red Cross, the French embassy and also UN forces in Lebanon — with all three quick to deny them.
The embassy rejected the content of an audio recording that claimed the diplomatic mission had warned its citizens from going to Beirut between Aug. 13 and 15, stressing that the audio message was old and was being circulated “with the aim of misleading people and provoking panic.”
The United Nation Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) also denied the veracity of the recording. Its spokesman Andrea Tenenti said: “The audio recording claiming that the UNIFIL has warned of a terrorist act in areas of Beirut is unfounded. It only aims at creating confusion in these exceptional circumstances.”

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts
Updated 10 min 28 sec ago

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts

UN envoy calls for greater sense of urgency in Syrian peace efforts
  • Geir Pederson wants enhanced international diplomacy, and tighter focus on progress in drafting new constitution
  • The fifth session of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee begins in Geneva on Monday

NEW YORK: Geir Pedersen, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, on Friday called for “more serious and cooperative” international diplomacy as part of political efforts to improve the lives of the Syrian people and develop a vision for the future of their country.

Speaking ahead of the fifth session of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which begins on Monday in Geneva, he also urged committee members to focus their efforts and work more effectively to speed up progress on constitutional reform.

Pedersen expressed hope that much-needed international engagement with the peace process is now possible.

“After all, despite the differences, key states are continuing to reaffirm their commitment to Resolution 2254,” he added, referring to the UN Security Council resolution, adopted in 2015, that calls for a ceasefire and political settlement in Syria.

Pedersen, who briefed the Security Council this week on the latest developments, highlighted the fact that five foreign armies are active in Syria and “violations of Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity (have been) going on for years.”

Although the ceasefire agreement reached by Russia and Turkey in the northwest of the country resulted in a de-escalation of hostilities, Pedersen warned that this relative calm remains fragile.

UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File) 

“All of these issues cannot be sorted out by the Syrians alone,” he said. (They) need an international cooperation (and) a real exchange of views (among all parties).

“If that political will is lacking it would be very, very difficult to move this process forward ... if you leave this to the UN alone, we will not be able to succeed.”

Top on the agenda on Monday will be discussion of the basic principles of the Syrian constitution. Pedersen said he has been meeting with the two co-chairs of the committee on a regular basis, and has also had intensive discussions with the “Middle Third” civil-society group, which includes society activists and experts and other independents from inside and outside of Syria.

His experiences during the past year, he said, lead him to believe there is potential for finding common ground. No single actor or group of actors can impose its will on Syria or settle the conflict alone — they must work together, he added.

The time has now come for the co-chairs of the Constitutional Committee to organize and focus its efforts by establishing “more effective and operational working methods,” Pedersen said, so that they can begin to move forward from preparing constitutional reforms to actually drafting them, and agreeing on clear agendas and discussion topics for future meetings.

“There needs to be more urgency (in) delivering progress in this process,” he added.

As he saluted the work of civil society groups and “all the Syrians who do what they can to improve the situation on the ground and support a political process,” Pedersen singled out women in particular for praise. He has been particularly proactive in seeking input from the Women’s Advisory Board.

“It is a priority for all of us to make sure that we have full participation of Syrian women in the political process,” he said. “(Promoting) their core constitutional rights is central for me, as the facilitator of the work of the Constitutional Committee.”

Asked about plans for large-scale prisoner swaps, Pedersen said that although this is not on the agenda for the talks in Geneva this week, it is always part of his own agenda. The disappointment over the lack of progress on the issue so far means “that we should work even harder” on it, he added.

“This is a file that really has an impact on nearly every Syrian family, and it needs to be addressed,” he said. “(I) have appealed (for) more information on the missing. (We) need to see the early release of women, children, the elderly and the sick, and I think (nothing) should stop that from happening.”

The members of the Small Body of the Syrian Constitutional Committee are due to arrive in Geneva on Saturday, and Pedersen will consult with the co-chairs over the weekend before the main talks begin on Monday.

Asked whether he expects this latest round of negotiations to be a success for the UN, Pedersen said: “I really do not think this is the question; the question (is) whether it is a success for the Syrian people and (their) aspirations.

“My hope has been that the Constitutional Committee, if it is handled in the correct manner, could start to build trust and (be) a door-opener for a broader political process.

“But the (committee) cannot work in isolation ... we need political will from the different parties to be able to move forward.”

He added: “The (committee) is just one aspect, and it is not the one aspect that will solve the Syrian crisis. If we are to see changes in the situation on the ground, there are other factors that need to be discussed.”