Saving Lebanon's war-damaged beach
05 December 2006
by Martin Patience
As Beirut's only public beach it would be normally crowded with pleasure-seekers. But instead the once-white sands were blackened by an oil slick.
"It was freaky," says Mokhtar, referring to the first time he walked on the beach. "I had seen oil spills on the television but I never expected to one here in Lebanon."
During the early days of the month-long war between Israel and Lebanon's militant group Hezbollah, Israeli planes bombed the Jiyeh power plant - 30 km (19 miles) south of Beirut - releasing up to 15,000 tons of oil into the Mediterranean Sea.
Days later, the oily waves lapped onto Ramlat al-Beida beach. Crabs slick with oil scuttled across the black sands. Piles of dead, rotting fish, could be seen everywhere.
As part of the Green Line Association, an environment group based in Beirut, Mokhtar and a core of 40 other volunteers set about assessing the extent of the oil slick.
There were grave concerns from environmental groups that if left attended the oil spill would cause greater harm to the Lebanese environment, particularly to the country's turtles and fishing stocks.
The Lebanese government, preoccupied with trying to arrange a ceasefire between the two warring parties, initially did little about the oil slick.
"I just knew that we had to do something," says Mokhtar, a high school student, "because if we didn't, nobody else would."
Green Line's assessment of the oil slick was an ambitious undertaking. The two-week-long project involved visiting every beach in Lebanon's 225 km-long coast.
At the various beaches, the groups of volunteers would dig with spades to discover how far the oil had sunk into the sand, determining what type of clean-up was needed.
Oil on the top of the sand could be removed by volunteers wielding spades.
But the oil that had sunk more than a few inches under the sand would require a bulldozer to help clear it away.
In the early days of the assessments, Mokhtar joined the teams and took photographs and filmed the scenes of devastation on a small digital camera.
As the group's press officer he wanted to create a "snowball effect" about the oil slick. He hoped that by showing that something could be done about the environmental disaster, Lebanese citizens would chip in with help and support.
"But it was difficult during the war because everyone was focusing on the fighting," says the slender-built teenager.
Born and brought up in the centre of Beirut, Mokhtar is fluent in Arabic, French and English - and is learning Spanish.
His father owns an interior design business, while his mother makes a living from painting. The young volunteer first got involved with Green Line at the urging of one of his aunts in the summer of 2005.
Mokhtar's interest in environmental issues was first whetted by TV documentaries and magazine articles. "I saw that Lebanon's environment was endangered," he said.
Out of school hours, Mokhtar would devote a few hours every week to Green Line and another organisation where he volunteered.
"I think volunteering makes you feel better about yourself," he said. "Your self-esteem builds and you grow in front of other people."
When the oil spill occurred it was during Mokhtar's three-month summer school break enabling the teenager to dedicate himself full-time to the organisation.
With the assessment of Lebanon's beaches well under way, Green Line began the clean-up of Ramlat al-Baida.
The organisation bought white overalls, face-masks, rubber gloves and boots to protect the clothes and skin of the volunteers working on the beach.
On the first day, a team of 40 people dug with spades in the stifling humidity shifting the oily sand onto prepared plastic sheets.
For a few days, a bulldozer was drafted in, to move the sand.
Volunteers also dragged oil absorption booms onto the beach and laid them at the water's edge.
Once removed the sand was deposited at sites around Beirut where it will be stored until it is sent to Europe to be cleaned. Lebanon does not have the facilities to do the job.
After two weeks of back-breaking work, the Lebanese government moved in to clean the beach. But not before Mokhtar and his fellow volunteers had cleared 300 metres of the 1.5 km stretch of sand.
"We did something for our beach," said Mokhtar with a sense of satisfaction. "We showed people that we were not going to leave it."