No accountability for deadly Burj al-Barajneh electrocutions

Originally published on Feb 18th 2012 for The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon

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BURJ AL-BARAJNEH, Lebanon: In some of Burj al-Barajneh’s narrow alleys, thick tangles of electrical cables dip so low it can be hard to navigate, especially when toting an umbrella.

But staying dry seems a minor concern in Beirut’s most populous Palestinian refugee camp, where rainwater and power lines are a fatal combination. Some 20 people have died from electrocution in Burj al-Barajneh in the last three years, and while the cause of their deaths is clear, the solution to the problem is less so.

Most people dodging rain, water on the uneven ground and the wires Friday seemed to know of someone who has been electrocuted, if not here than in the nearby Shatila camp.

“Everyone is scared,” said Rasha Firawi, who pointed toward the street where she said a man had been killed recently. “He was walking down this road, a wire fell, touched his head, and he was electrocuted and died.”

Stepping out of the drizzle for a moment and making her way under the lines, Firawi said that “when it rains, it’s a great risk for people walking under these wires … and no one is [held] responsible.”

The question of responsibility is as tangled as the wires themselves. UNRWA, which supplied the figure of 20 deaths, told The Daily Star that the unsafe electricity network “is a great concern for the agency.” But it explained that the power “network is the property of Electricite du Liban and UNRWA does not rehabilitate such infrastructure. In spite of that, UNRWA is exerting every effort with all stakeholders to alleviate this high risk.”

EDL could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts, but although its plants provide electricity to Burj al-Barajneh, by all accounts it does not enter the camp or maintain the cables.

Instead, the camp’s Popular Committee, which is made up of representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization and often acts as a default municipality, administers the electricity. A source from the committee told The Daily Star that camp residents pay “maintenance fees” of LL5,000 per household each month to the committee. If a household wants more than the 10 Amperes, they pay accordingly. A committee representative behind the till at a minimarket holds the notebook with the names and amounts of electricity fees each household has paid.

But the source said the Popular Committee does not pay EDL because of an understanding with the company that dates back to 1982, when the Palestinian Liberation Organization leadership left Lebanon. Since then, EDL has sent the camp’s electricity bills to the PLO and UNRWA stamped “unpaid,” knowing they will not be reimbursed.

Two sources from the Popular Committee said it installs and maintains the lines, a claim that doesn’t seem to correspond with the UNRWA’s official stance that the network is EDL’s property.

In reality, except for emergency situations, camp residents must maintain their own lines. Perched at the top of a ladder with a friend to keep him balanced, Ibrahim’s head was barely visible through a multicolored wire snarl. Armed with yellow electrical tape and pliers, he was fixing a cable, adding to the mass of tape, plastic and bread-bag ties that hold the mass of wires together in a precarious arrangement.

Even with water dripping on his head, Ibrahim, who did not want his last name published, said fear wasn’t an issue for him. “I don’t have a choice whether I do this or not … I’m not scared because I’m used to it.”

On-the-spot maintenance appears to be how Ahmad Ali Yakoub died three years ago when his family’s power line fell on a truck parked under their building. According to his aunt, Raghda Yakoub, the 14-year-old, whose picture she proudly displayed, tried to lift the cable with a shovel, it fell on his chest, and he died instantly.

With accountability unclear, families and victims are not sure who to blame, and more deaths like Yakoub’s are likely.

Firawi blamed the committee. “Many times people have asked [them for help], but no one does anything.”

Wael Habed said its UNRWA’s job to fix things, but thinks they don’t have the money to do so. He admitted his fear, asking, “Who isn’t scared of the electricity here?”

Even when the weather is good, in much of the camps water pipes run alongside or twisted with electricity wires in yet another risky equation.

“We tried to organize this recently, and we separated the electricity and water lines from each other, but things didn’t work out. And an electrical fire happened in one of the houses here,” said Fadi Abed al-Majid.

“Every two or three months, at least one person dies.”