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Volunteers hand out food at 'Nation Station' in Beirut's Geitawi neighbourhood. The community-support centre was founded in an abandoned gas station.

Photography by Rafael Yaghobzadeh/The Globe and Mail

“We are the government,” John Achkar declares with a grin, as he takes a break in the shadow of an abandoned gas station that has become the hub of a grassroots relief effort in the shattered Geitawi neighbourhood of east Beirut.

The 29-year-old is an entrepreneur and stand-up comedian, but the deadly serious look in his eyes broadcasts that he’s not entirely kidding.

Mr. Achkar is among the founders of a group of volunteers who, in the wake of the massive Aug. 4 explosion that destroyed parts of the Lebanese capital, stepped in when the country’s actual government failed to act. The day after the blast, Mr. Achkar and three friends decided someone had to organize who got what help, and when, in Geitawi. They took over a gas station that had sat derelict for three years and declared it the headquarters of their emergency response – and, maybe, a revolution.

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Three weeks later, the rebranded “Nation Station” is an impressive sight, helping residents with food, clothing, home repairs and medical needs. The organizers say that, once they’re done rebuilding their city, they’ll be ready to fill the void in their country’s politics too. “We’re filling the gap, and showing we’re here when the government fails,” Mr. Achkar said.

The Nation Station volunteers I met are emblematic of the push to change Lebanon in the wake of the port explosion. They are the good guys – “the streets,” as Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne put it during his visit to Beirut last week – that Western governments are trying to support as they push to reform a state that has collapsed under the weight of corruption and the overwhelming presence of Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia that controls much of what’s left of the Lebanese state.

Visitors take advantage of the Nation Station's services on Aug. 19.

Mr. Achkar and his friends are just the latest in a long line of Lebanese optimists. Their predecessors – the older generations who once thought they could change this country – eventually had the hope knocked out of them by the violence, and the threat of violence, that constantly hangs over politics here.

Members of the older generations told me they are worried that Lebanon, deeply divided along sectarian lines, is headed down a dark path, similar to the tunnel that led the country into a 15-year civil war. That fighting ended with an agreement that saw political and economic power shared between the country’s Christian, Sunni, Shia and Druze communities. It’s a system of compromises – now rotten with patronage and corruption – that many Lebanese blame for the port disaster. The blast is believed to have been caused by an enormous stockpile of ammonium nitrate that was left unattended in a warehouse for more than six years, while a succession of leaders ignored warnings about it.

The Nation Station volunteers believe they’re offering an alternative model for how the country can be governed – with organization, compassion and new leaders untainted by corruption. The youths say they’re slowly gaining the confidence of those who have known no other Lebanon than the one that has been ruled, and now run into the ground, by the sectarian warlords.

In Geitawi, the group of around 150 volunteers is succeeding where the country’s government didn’t even try. More than 250 hot meals a day are delivered with a kitchen set up where the pumps used to be. The garage is used to distribute donated clothing to those who lost their belongings. Upstairs in the station itself, a team of volunteers keeps a database of who needs what in the surrounding neighbourhoods. They dispatch teams to help repair homes, and to connect those in need with medical and psychological assistance. They’ve raised upwards of $220,000 through online crowdfunding, and have an auditing team that makes sure none of that money gets misspent. “Politically we feel like we have independence. We feel the impact and we’re being taken seriously by the older generation, who see we can do this,” said Josephine Abou-Abdo, a 29-year-old designer who runs the kitchen at Nation Station. “We all think there is something bigger happening.”

It does indeed feel like events are in motion in Lebanon. But not everyone shares the peaceful intentions of the young people at Nation Station.

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John Achkar, 29, takes care of the Nation Station's planning. He is optimistic about what it can achieve: 'We’re filling the gap, and showing we’re here when the government fails.'

Josephine Abou-Abdo, 29, runs the kitchen, which is run out of what used to be the gas-pumping area. It can handle up to 250 hot meals per day.

Others have tried to change Lebanon. Each time, the effort was brought to a bloody halt.

Three decades ago, the Taif Agreement – named for the city in Saudi Arabia where it was signed – was supposed to bring peace, and perhaps even independence, to the country after a civil war that saw Syria, Israel and the United States, among other players, send soldiers to fight and die in Lebanon.

On Nov. 5, 1989, the country’s new parliament elected René Moawad, a moderate Maronite Christian, as the country’s first postwar president. Seventeen days later, a 250-kilogram car bomb killed Mr. Moawad and 23 others in the middle of Beirut, ending that brief era of reconciliation. The assassination, widely believed to have been carried out by the Assad regime in neighbouring Syria, was never credibly investigated. After all, the Syrian army remained in central and north Lebanon as guarantor of the country’s post-civil war “security” (while Israel occupied much of the south until 2000).

The political leaders who came after Mr. Moawad were all deferential to Damascus, until the ascent of Rafik Hariri, a billionaire Sunni Muslim businessman who made himself popular by personally funding much of the reconstruction of the Lebanese capital. But when Mr. Hariri began to push for genuine change in Lebanon – an end to Syria’s occupation of the country, and a debate over whether the Shia militia Hezbollah should be allowed to maintain its status as the only group that kept its weapons after the civil war – he was killed in 2005, along with 22 others, by another massive car bomb blast in the heart of the city he tried to rebuild.

“Anyone who was vocal or efficient on the ground was terminated, which terrorized all the rest,” said Marwan Hamadeh, a former cabinet minister and close ally of Mr. Hariri who survived a 2004 attempt on his own life. “We’re still living under this reign of terror.”

Marwan Hamadeh is a Lebanese politician and journalist who served in several cabinet roles until he quit after this month's Beirut explosion.

Mr. Hariri’s assassination resulted in massive street protests that forced Bashar al-Assad to withdraw the Syrian army from Lebanon after a 29-year stay. But when an international court delivered its long-awaited verdict this month, it found that it was a member of the Iran-backed Hezbollah that carried out the murder.

And Hezbollah remains. Over the 15 years since Mr. Hariri was eliminated, the militia has grown into a political juggernaut.

While Taif mandated that the president should always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim, Hezbollah has become powerful enough to have an effective veto over all three posts. And while all the other sectarian militias handed in their weapons, Hezbollah kept and expanded its arsenal, saying it needed to be able to defend the country from Israel.

Many Lebanese see the Aug. 4 explosion as a result of Hezbollah’s hold on the country. The port, it’s widely believed, was used by the group to smuggle weapons and other illicit goods into and out of the country.

In the aftermath of the blast, anger erupted into the streets, with protesters demanding – and getting – the resignation of prime minister Hassan Diab and his government. But that’s not what the protesters are really after.

The slogan of Lebanon’s latest political uprising, which began last fall – and which resumed with new fury since the explosion, after pausing for the coronavirus pandemic – is “all of them means all of them.” As in, the protesters want Lebanon’s entire ruling elite to go. That means Hezbollah too, this time.

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A family looks out at Beirut's devastated port, which some Lebanese believe Hezbollah used for smuggling.

After Mr. Diab’s resignation, the protesters set their sights on an even bigger target, President Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah who saw and ignored a July 20 letter warning him about the growing danger posed by the ammonium nitrate stockpile in the port.

Then-Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah spoke, and drew a red line. In a televised speech on Aug. 14, he warned repeatedly about the possibility of civil war.

A protest calling for Mr. Aoun’s resignation was quickly cancelled. Instead of pushing to overthrow the country’s political elite, the youths at Nation Station decided their revolution would be to focus on rebuilding the devastated neighbourhoods around them, and to show what was possible in Lebanon if everyone looked past sectarianism.

But it’s not just Hezbollah that stands in their way. Mr. Achkar, the organizer, says he was forced to leave his home last week after his parents received a warning about an online post of his that mocked President Aoun. Nation Station also received a recent visit from supporters of Samir Geagea, the Christian warlord-turned politician – a rival of Hezbollah and Mr. Aoun – who holds sway over this part of Beirut. It deteriorated into a shouting match.

“They were asking ‘Do you still support Geagea?’ I said: ‘The only problem we have in Lebanon is people like you. As long as we have people like you who still respect the warlords, we will never have peace,’ ” said Hussein Kazoun, who runs the warehouse at Nation Station.

Mr. Kazoun, a 28-year-old organic farmer, is a tattooed free spirit with a Shia mother and a Sunni father. But he knows that in his encounter with Mr. Geagea’s supporters, he may have stepped too close to an invisible line. “At least if I die, everyone will know why,” he said with a bitter laugh.

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Hussein Kazoun, 28, runs the Nation Station's warehouse. His parents are Sunni and Shia Muslims; the eastern Beirut neighbourhoods hardest-hit by the explosion are predominantly Christian. Nation Station volunteers say they don't care about the sectarian or political affiliations of those they help and work with.

A common complaint among the predominantly Christian residents of east Beirut following the port explosion is that they don’t feel the other Lebanese sects are sharing their pain – or helping clean up. While the young volunteers working at Nation Station say they no longer care about religious or political affiliations, there’s nonetheless a sense among their parents’ and grandparents’ generations that the Sunni and Shia areas of the capital – which were protected from the worst of the blast by the city’s grain silo – aren’t suffering.

But in the Sunni neighbourhood of Hamra, another crisis is top of mind: The presence of thousands of refugees from Syria who – because the refugees are mainly Sunnis – were never welcomed in Christian areas such as Geitawi. Hamra, already crowded, has seen its population swell by an estimated 25 per cent. Housing and food costs have risen, and the number of beggars on the streets has skyrocketed. It’s not a burden the Christian and Shia areas of Lebanon are helping Hamra bear.

Fourteen years ago, when Israel invaded the mainly Shia south of the country – hoping to disarm and dismantle Hezbollah – areas such as Hamra and Geitawi were left unscathed as bombs fell on the Shia-populated southern suburbs of Beirut. I felt an astonishing sense of whiplash when, after reporting from the devastated south of the country, I’d drive back to Hamra and see people sitting outside in cafés, almost oblivious to what was going on a few hours’ drive away.

In the Christian areas now wondering about the lack of solidarity among their fellow Lebanese, people danced and drank until dawn in 2006, while the Shia south burned.

Then and now, moving between the Sunni, Shia and Christian areas is like visiting three different countries. Three different Lebanons. That, some believe, is where the country is headed next.

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“It has gone beyond any imaginable thing,” Mr. Hamadeh, who is Druze, said of the escalating political and economic crises. “The survival of Lebanon as a state, independent within its borders, is at stake. We could have, in two or three months, a divided country. ... It’s not that we will have two states – but four or five.”

People walk in a damaged area of Gemmayzeh, which used to be the hub of Beirut's nightlife.

Most of the people I met during a week of reporting in Lebanon spoke of the growing possibility of violence. The country’s problems – a collapsing economy, political gridlock, the COVID-19 pandemic, looming food shortages and now the port disaster – are too many and too large for anyone to see a way out.

The only unworried analysis came from Mohammed Obeidi, a political scientist best known for his connections to the leadership of Hezbollah. “Nothing will happen,” he confidently predicts when we meet in a café inside a deserted Beirut mall. Mr. Obeidi casts himself, and Hezbollah, as being on the side of those who want to see change in the country, and an uprooting of the corrupt elite. Though, of course, “all of them means all of them” can’t apply to Hezbollah.

Mr. Nasrallah erred, Mr. Obeidi said, by allying himself with corrupt politicians such as Mr. Aoun and parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri. But that doesn’t mean Hezbollah should be held culpable for the disaster in the port. (Mr. Obeidi said Hezbollah, which controls a land border with Syria in the south of Lebanon, didn’t need to use the port to smuggle weapons, as it has been accused of doing.)

“Hezbollah is responsible because they participated in the governing group … but [Hezbollah] are not corrupt,” Mr. Obeidi said. “It’s disproportionate to put all these people in the same basket.”

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(Mr. Aoun’s supporters use a version of the same argument – just because the system is corrupt doesn’t mean the President is. “It’s unfair to say he’s responsible for everything that happened,” Alain Aoun, an MP and nephew of the President, said. “And the solution is not [President Aoun resigning and] the country going into a void.”)

Mr. Nasrallah’s Aug. 14 speech was indeed “a warning” to the protesters, Mr. Obeidi said. “The other parties don’t have the ability or the will to get involved in a war with Hezbollah. ... The youth, who don’t know the history, would find out that it’s not a joke to get involved in a war.”

But Michel Moawad, the son of Lebanon’s assassinated president, said the country cannot carry on as before, with Hezbollah – and by extension Iran – dominating the rest. “We need the neutrality of Lebanon. We cannot be part of the Iranian axis, and have an economy reliant on U.S. dollars and Arab and Western support,” Mr. Moawad said in an interview at his family’s home, shortly after resigning his post as MP to show his solidarity with the protesters calling for wholesale change. “Hassan Nasrallah was very clear in refusing everything I’m saying. But what is the alternative? The alternative is hunger and chaos.”

Michel Moawad is the son of René Moawad, who was briefly Lebanon's first post-civil-war president until he was killed in a car bombing in 1989. The younger Mr. Moawad quit parliament in protest after the port explosion.

Nayla Tueni, chief executive of the an-Nahar newspaper, is another former parliamentarian who lost a parent to a car bombing. She worries about Lebanon's cycle of violence and exile repeating: 'The older generation are saying that even during the war, it was not as tough as now.'

In many ways, Lebanon’s future will be decided outside the country’s borders. French President Emmanuel Macron will visit Beirut on Tuesday, promising to offer a new vision of how Lebanon should be run.

In a speech on Sunday, Mr. Nasrallah pushed back against the “hypocrites and liars” and vowed to “support reforms that go as far as possible.” Meanwhile, the sectarian political factions that have ruled Lebanon appeared closer to settling on a candidate for prime minister: the Lebanese ambassador to Germany, Mustapha Adib.

How far Mr. Macron gets in reforming a country that France once ruled will depend less on what Lebanon’s various leaders want to do than on what their foreign patrons will allow them to do.

Will Hezbollah’s backers in Iran and Syria be willing to make compromises? It seems unlikely while the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, who support Christian and Sunni groups in the country, are ramping up a campaign of pressure against Tehran.

While the geopolitical struggle plays out, many Lebanese are heading for the exits. Flights into Lebanon since Aug. 4 have often been half-empty, while flights out have been crammed, leading to chaotic scenes in Rafik Hariri International Airport, the country’s only functioning link to the outside world.

It’s a routine that has played out repeatedly in recent history. The Lebanese diaspora is estimated to be twice the size of the country’s 6.8 million population. (The 2016 census found 220,000 Canadians who claimed Lebanese descent.) Many left during the civil war, then returned after Taif – only to leave again following the assassination of Mr. Hariri and the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

Now a new exodus appears to be under way. “The older generation are saying that even during the war, it was not as tough as now,” said Nayla Tueni, the chief executive officer of the an-Nahar newspaper. Her father, Gebran Tueni, was among those killed in a string of assassinations in 2005. “You want to stay strong and be a believer, but sometimes you are weak and you wonder ‘do I have to pay this price? Do my kids have to pay this price?’ ”

Even at Nation Station, the bravado about making change blends with despondency. “We’ve tried revolution, we’ve tried social activism. If people vote for the same people [in the next election], then enough,” said Ms. Abou-Abdo, the kitchen manager. “We can say we tried, and you will see me in Canada.”

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The work of distributing food continues at Nation Station.

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