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Saving Beirut’s destroyed climbing wall | Lebanon



When I first heard of the Beirut blast on August 4 that killed nearly 200 people and injured more than 6,000 others, I immediately messaged climbing friends in Lebanon. “Are you okay?” I asked Charlie Sifri.

“Yes we’re all safe but the climbing gym is destroyed. We’re lucky Flyp was closed or we’d have perished,” Charlie responded.

I had met Charlie and Beirut’s climbing community in January while reporting on anti-government protests. Climbing for me was a respite from long workdays – for them, an escape from a country in turmoil. Making friends is common in the climbing world and I made them at the Flyp gym. 

That week of the blast, the Lebanese government allowed businesses to reopen after months of COVID-19 restrictions. But an electricity blackout and a lack of fuel – on the day of one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in modern history – forced Flyp’s owner Diala Sammakeih to keep the climbing wall closed, a decision that saved many lives. 

Flyp is one of three climbing gyms in Beirut, bringing together like-minded people with a love for the outdoors. “A safe haven,” as one of the climbers called it, away from Lebanon’s political instability and its severe economic crisis.

The gym started with just 20 climbers and now there are 150 [George Emil/Al Jazeera]

Diala’s home, which looks onto the blast site at Beirut’s port, wasn’t spared either. The mother of three spent that day “bringing out dead neighbours until 11pm, including a fellow climber’s brother”. It wasn’t until the next day that she saw the extent of damage caused to her business. Flyp’s neighbourhood, Karantina, was one of the most severely hit by the explosion.

Less than 1.5km from the epicentre, the climbing gym’s roof caved in despite it being structurally unsafe. One hundred climbers volunteered from across the country to clear debris and save what they could.

Interior designer Laura Karam said: “The place is destroyed. The ceiling and walls peeled off. Glass and metal everywhere. We’re lucky we weren’t there when it happened. But it’s been amazing to see the climbing community come together. We had to do something.”

‘Where’s the government?’

Diala, among other climbers, blames corruption for the situation thousands of Lebanese are in. As many as 300,000 people in the capital were made homeless. With no financial help from the government so far, she is unsure what the future holds for the climbing complex that will cost thousands of US dollars to rebuild. She wants to return to business as usual but is doubtful of receiving any form of compensation. 

Her anger like many Lebanese is palpable. “As long as the politicians have roofs over their heads, they don’t think we’re important. Can you imagine the army even asked us to remove the debris on the roads in front of the climbing gym? I told them where’s the government to do it?” 

After 25 years in the corporate world, Diala risked a career change despite unemployment at an all-time high because of the economic crisis. She set up Flyp in 2019 with a friend to create a community for climbers unable to travel often to Lebanon’s mountains. It started with just 20 new climbers and now there are 150. She saw a gap in the Lebanese market as climbing gained popularity worldwide. The sport is being included for the first time in 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

At an emotional and financial loss, the Lebanese climbing community rallied around Diala. First they needed to raise money, so they created a crowdfund  and reached out to climbers globally. Donations flooded in from professional world champion climbers to grassroots gyms in Europe, the United States, and the Middle East.

[George Emil/Al Jazeera] - DO NOT USE A climber scales a rock face at Tannourin El Tahta [George Emil/Al Jazeera] 

Laura Karam, who has experienced several bomb blasts in Lebanon, knew what to do on August 4 but nothing prepared her for the aftermath that would hit her family and climbing friends. She put her social media skills to good use and started contacting people in the climbing world.

“The response has been nothing but positive from the international community,” she said. “It means so much to us. It’s heartwarming. Many may not have heard of us but they still reached out.”

Lebanese climber Jad Khoury shared that sentiment. He explained: “In Lebanon, we don’t have this idea of crowdfunding like other countries. We donate in person but well-known climbers like Sam Elias from the US came on board and it’s helped a lot.”

The rock climber who shared the Flyp appeal with thousands of followers on social media told Al Jazeera he was motivated to do something because of his “deep connection to Lebanon through family and friends and personal experiences”. During a trip to Lebanon in 2015 to meet relatives, he helped bolt a number of tough routes on the limestone cliffs of Tannourine, in northwest Lebanon.

Jad Khoury is among a group of original climbers that put Lebanon on the international climbing map [Al Jazeera]

Jad Khoury is among a group of original climbers that put Lebanon on the international climbing map [Al Jazeera]

‘Expanding sport’

Jad who’s been climbing for more than a decade said outdoor climbing routes have tripled in the last 10 years. He’s part of a group of original climbers that put Lebanon on the international climbing map. Professional climbing athletes such as Nina Caprez, Thomas Berger, Brittany Griffith, Tom Bolger, and Boone Speed have all climbed Lebanon’s crags.

Austrian David Lama sent the first and hardest 9a route in the Levant region. Before his death last year, Lama described the route he and Jad named Avaatara as “blue-and-orange limestone and the intense green of the plants, immediately made me think of the surreal landscape in the movie Avatar”.

The origins of climbing there started when the French army bolted new routes in the 1990s. There are 15 crags and 470 routes to climb, but mostly during the warmer season.

Jad described losing one of the three climbing walls in the country as “a big loss”.

“Yes, it was a business but it added value to an expanding sport here. It helped feed into the bigger climbing community nationwide, in making climbing accessible to people of all ages in Beirut.”

[George Emil/Al Jazeera] - DO NOT USE

The origins of climbing in Lebanon started when the French army bolted new routes in the 1990s [George Emil/Al Jazeera]

‘Being human’

Crowdfunding for Flyp has for the first time brought grassroots communities across the Middle East together. Climbers from countries including Jordan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates have raised funds and are still spreading the word. Laura Karam highlighted how another climbing gym in Beirut, URock, held a fundraiser for Flyp.

“I haven’t seen it with other communities. It’s always about working as a team without competition. Climbing is about being human, about the mountains and the rocks. It’s the individual journey – you climb and feel drained but your body feels good. I have non-climber friends who have become interested since the pandemic. They see how it’s helped me cope,” she said.

Diala is determined to reopen Flyp and said the climbing gym is needed now more than ever. A happy place for adults, kids, those with special needs, and the 48 university students working for her who have been able to cover their tuition fees as a result.

Defiant, she wants to send a clear message to Lebanon’s ruling elite. Despite facing hyperinflation and a currency that has lost 80 percent of its value, money raised will help build a small climbing space “to send a message of hope that even though everything is destroyed, we are resilient”.

“Tired but we still have to go on,” said Diala. “Lebanon’s climbers have been amazing despite what we’ve been through. This shows you how important this place was for them.” 

Both Jad Khoury and Laura Karam tell me before we end our conversations the crowdfund has introduced global climbers to Lebanon’s natural beauty, for those who want to climb its tufas and stalactites on its limestone mountain walls.

[George Emil/Al Jazeera] - DO NOT USE

Climbers from countries including Jordan, Egypt, and the UAE have raised funds to rebuild Flyp gym [George Emil/Al Jazeera]

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Minister Rukutana charged with attempted murder, remanded




The state minister for Labour, Gender and Economic Development Mwesigwa Rukutana has been remanded to Kyamugorani prison in Mbarara district.

Rukutana appeared before Ntungamo Grade One magistrate Nazifah Namayanja this afternoon from where he was charged with seven offences related to attempted murder, assault, malicious damage, and threatening violence.

Rukutana was captured in a video that went viral on social media showing him grabbing a gun from one of his bodyguards and started shooting at a vehicle belonging to supporters of his political rival Naome Kabasharira. At the time of the incident, Rukutana had just lost the Rushenyi country NRM flag to Kabasharira.

The prosecution alleges that on September 5, 2020, at Kagugu village in Ntungamo district, Rukutana and others still at large assaulted Julius Niwamanya and threatened to kill or injure him together with three others. The others are Stuart Kamukama, Dan Rwibirungi, and Moses Kamukama. 

It is also alleged that Rukutana also willfully and unlawfully damaged a motor vehicle registration number UAR 840X Toyota Rav 4 type which belongs to Moses Muhumuza.

According to the Judiciary public relations officer, Jameson Karemani, Rukutana has not taken a plea of these charges against him since they can only be tried by the chief magistrate who was not in court today.

As a result, the magistrate decided to send him to Kyamugorani, awaiting his return to court on Tuesday.      

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Lira district headquarters closed over COVID-19




Lira district headquarters have been closed after one staff tested positive for COVID-19 last week. 

On Monday morning, district staff were blocked at the gate with only the deputy chief administrative officer, his secretary and the receptionist allowed access to their offices. 

Paul Samuel Mbiiwa, the deputy chief administrative officer says that only heads of department will be allowed at the headquarters while the rest will work from home. He adds that the restriction will help to curb the spread of the virus.

“You see corona is not a joke. We have taken a step at fighting it and that is why you are seeing the staff outside. Even in my office here I do not want people to come if there is anything we can discuss on the phone.”

Francis Okello Olwa, a senior community development officer who doubles as the district spokesperson says that the entire district offices will be fumigated and closed for two days.

Health authorities in the district are planning to take samples from all the staff because they could have interacted with the one who tested positive. Currently, there are 19 COVID-19 patients under treatment at Lira regional referral hospital.     

On Sunday four health workers at the hospital tested positive for COVID-19. Dr Patrick Odongo, a senior medical officer at the hospital also succumbed to the virus.  

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Museveni issues ultimatum to police boss




Museveni flagged off distribution of motorcycles for NRM chairpersons

President Yoweri Museveni has given Inspector General of Police (IGP) Martins Okoth Ochola a chilling ultimatum: You either do your work or I will do it myself!

Museveni disclosed the ultimatum he gave to the IGP today Monday at the NRM secretariat at Plot 10 Kyadondo Road in Kampala where he was flagging off the distribution of motorcycles to parish chairpersons of the ruling National Resistance Movement party across the country. 

“I told the IGP that if the police doesn’t do their work, I will do it myself by arresting the police officers themselves,” Museveni stunned his audience as he commented on the electoral violence that marred the NRM primaries held on Friday last week. At least 4 people were killed across the country during the primaries. 

“There was violence in Bukono county [Namutumba district] where people were beaten. I got information that police has not done much work. Some (policemen) have been arrested and given police bond; there is no police bond for somebody who has attacked Ugandans!,” Museveni added. 

Museveni vowed to deal with all persons who messed up the party primaries.  In some parts of the country, there were massive regularities where candidates who had been defeated ended up being announced winners. In some places like Namutumba, Isingiro, Ntungamo, Jinja, Katakwi, among others, there was violence that led to the killing and wounding of civilians. Museveni said that they are going to make sure that all those who participated in these irregularities and violence are held to account. 

Museveni said although the violence was orchestrated by the politicians, the police personnel are to be held accountable for failing to contain it.

Last week, police spokesman Fred Enanga warned police personnel especially those guarding VIPs against being drawn into the politicians’ political wrangles, reminding them that they would face the music if they did. With the president now threatening to go and conduct the arrests of errant policemen himself, IGP Ochola is likely to move fast to avert the spectacle. 

Museveni wondered why police would shoot at unarmed people who were fighting amongst themselves: “That policeman must be arrested; even the ones who are threatening people you will go to jail for that if we get evidence,” a seemingly incensed Museveni said.

He also said that the state minister of Labour, Gender and Economic Development Mwesigwa Rukutana who was captured on camera attempting to shoot people over the weekend in Ntugamo after he lost the  Rushenyi primaries, will be charged with threatening violence and attempted murder. 

 “This game is finished,” Museveni said.

Rukatana has since been charged and remanded to Kyamugorani prison in Mbarara district in western Uganda. Museveni called upon all those dissatisfied with the election results to write petitions to the regional panels of elders which he said are going to be constituted to hear all election complaints.

“We are going to get three respected people who are not part of the struggles, then we shall go and audit village per village and we shall discover. If you have committed forgery, the registrar or the politician who ordered,  you all shall go to jail. The game is finished; the voting is by lining and if you miss-add, you are ‘miss-add’ yourself,” Museveni said.

Museveni’s speech came shortly before that of Justine Kasule Lumumba, the secretary general of the NRM who called upon the president to reign over some senior people who with impunity were freely changing the results of the elections.

“Some of our staff were lured into changing declaration forms on the way forgetting that people who had participated at the village don’t need to write; they registered the record in their faces…Some have done things with impunity… in Butemba county Kyakwanzi district, one of the candidates who got 3,000 votes brought in soldiers, cordoned off that place and was declared a winner and off they went away,” Lumumba said. 

The ball is now in Ochola’s court to get the police to execute their duties professionally and with impartiality. In March 2017, President Museveni warned Ochola’s predecessor Kale Kayihura to clean the police force of wrong elements. As months passed with no visible sign of police officers shaping up, Museveni resorted to other security agencies who started arresting rogue senior police officers and charging them in the military court for various crimes.

Kayihura was then removed from office, arrested and jointly charged with the errant officers in the army court. To avoid similar fate, Ochola is likely to use a firmer hand on the police officers so that by the time of the February 2021 elections, there is no laxity in the force’s execution of its mandate to maintain law and order.

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