BEIRUT: Ever since the railway stopped running several decades ago, the train yard at the foot of the steep slope to which the impoverished neighborhood of Karm al-Zeitoun clings has lain empty. Despite the efforts of local residents, it is often strewn with trash, and at night fills up with suspicious characters, according to neighbors. Meanwhile, the children of the neighborhood are forced to cross the yard and then a busy highway to reach the nearest playground in Jisr al-Wati.
Leila Najem was born and raised in Karm al-Zeitoun and her house overlooks the yard. Last Friday, she witnessed the standoff that occurred between MP Michel Pharaon and local residents on the one hand, and police sent by the Railroad Administration, which falls under the of Public Works and Transport Ministry on the other.
The dispute occurred when the lawmaker and his supporters showed up with equipment to transform the site into a recreational area. Police claimed they did not have proper permission and eventually succeeded in ejecting them amid claims of political interference.
The plan to remake the area into a recreational park with two basketball half-courts, a small football field and a garden area has been a long-standing promise of Pharaon’s and enjoys popular support from the locals.
“We, the people of the neighborhood, have been asking for them to do something [with this land] for 18, 20 years,” Najem said, adding that she didn’t care which political figure or party carries out the initiative if it benefits the neighborhood.
“If I’m sick and you want to come give me medicine, should I ask you where are you from and who do you follow and what’s your religion? Is this logical?” she asked, noting that the area’s residents came from various religious and ethnic backgrounds.
“The people of this neighborhood don’t care about their politics, they [politicians] can sort that out among themselves,” she said.
“Look at how peopleare living on top of each other. Which is better: to have this be a garden for old people and children with a nice view, or a trash heap?”
Her neighbor, Georgette Khoury, said the garbage left in the lot attracts rats, which then enter people’s homes, and children play on the main street near a dangerous blind corner.
“They make a huge problem over such a petty thing,” she said of the political dispute.
Bashir Karam was also born and raised in Karm al-Zeitoun, where he works as a mechanic.
“I didn’t have a place to play, but I want my son to have one,” he said.
Ziad Nasr, who took over as director of the Railroad Administration in early 2013, defended his decision to call the police because the work being carried out was illegal. “We did our duty,” he told The Daily Star.
Documents obtained by The Daily Star indicate that several requests have been submitted over the years to have land transferred from the Railroad Administration to the municipality, so that it can be developed as a public recreational space.
The first, from 2000, bears the signatures of both the mayor and the governor of Beirut and is addressed to the director-general of transport. Another, stamped 2006, is addressed to the planning council inside the municipality, requesting clarification of the plot’s demarcation.
The most recent request, dated March 21, 2012, addressed to caretaker Public Works and Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi and bearing the signatures of March 14 MPs Nadim Gemayel and Serge Torsarkissian in addition to Pharaon, was apparently never formally approved. Aridi could not be reached for comment.
Nasr admitted that a request had been submitted, but claimed the lot numbers for the two plots listed were incorrect and the minister “clearly said he did not grant them permission.”
“They got confused,” Nasr said of the parties who submitted the application.
Caretaker Telecommunications Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui, a Catholic from Ashrafieh widely seen as Pharaon’s primary rival, has been outspoken in his criticism of Pharaon’s actions, which he likened to the theft of public land. Pharaon, for his part, has accused Sehnaoui of exerting pressure on Aridi to delay the project until after the elections, in order to prevent Pharaon from taking credit for the project.
A political source active in Beirut accused the Railroad Administration of planning to rent the yard to the nearby dealer of Kia cars to use as a junkyard, a claim echoed by local residents. Nasr vehemently denied the allegations, and a lawyer for the Kia company declined to comment.
“We are doing everything possible to take this land legally,” the source said, adding that neither the basketball courts nor the football field was a permanent structure, and thus could easily be removed in the unlikely event that the train system was rebuilt.
For now, the source said the neighborhood and concerned political figures were forming a committee to follow up on the issue and hope to reach a political solution.