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‘Beirut is destroyed, my heart is broken’: Locals in despair over Lebanon blast

Buildings in the Gemmayze district of Beirut after the previous day's explosion, August 5, 2020.
Buildings in the Gemmayze district of Beirut after the previous day's explosion, August 5, 2020. © Mohamed Azakir, Reuters
7 min

Lebanon is still reeling from Tuesday’s explosion in the port of Beirut – a further tragedy on top of the severe political, economic and health crises racking the country. FRANCE 24 spoke to locals about the devastation they have encountered and the despair they are feeling.

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The gigantic blasts in Beirut’s port on August 4 caused monstrous destruction, apocalyptic scenes, and a heavy human toll – with at least 137 dead and around 5,000 injured, shaking Lebanon to the core.

The explosions piled a tragedy on top of crises. Lebanon is suffering from an acute economic crisis, with its currency in free fall and an accelerating poverty rate – while the Covid-19 pandemic has accentuated a healthcare crisis in the country. At the same time, successive waves of protests since 2016 have demonstrated the lack of trust in the Lebanese government – in which power has been divided on sectarian lines since the country’s 15-year civil war ended three decades ago.

“This is the last thing Lebanon needed, with the country already at the end of its tether,” said Fadi, a civil engineer who was thrown back by a metre in his flat by the blasts. “We already thought we’d hit rock bottom – but now this explosion’s happened we’re wondering when things will stop getting worse.”

‘We didn’t sleep all night’

The Lebanese woke up on Wednesday morning to calamitous scenes. The damage reached a radius of several kilometres around the port, which was almost completely razed. Homes have been devastated and windows blasted out in the heart of the metropolis. Some buildings collapsed completely. “It’s like an earthquake struck us,” said Beirut City Council chairman Jamal Itani.

In some hard-hit districts of Beirut – such as Achrafieh, Dora and Gemmayze (renowned for its nightlife) – the streets are littered with debris and crushed cars. The sheer extent of the destruction has revived memories of the 1975-90 civil war, which remains at the forefront of Lebanon’s collective memory.

“We didn’t sleep all night; our home is damaged, our door and window are gone – we’re just crying; there’s nothing else we can do,” said Maya, a Beirut lawyer. “My city – the city of my childhood and of my children – has been blown away, innocent people have died. I have never experienced such a shock, even though I’ve lived through war. Beirut is destroyed, and my heart is broken.”

Many businesses were destroyed in the city centre, close to the port. The blast, described by local media as “Beirutshima,” – in a mordant reference to the 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima – also damaged property in Beirut’s inner suburbs, more than 10 kilometres away from the port.

Some 300,000 of the capitals 2 million residents have been made homeless thanks to the explosion, Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud said. The blast “destroyed or damaged nearly half of the city”, he added, noting that the damage could cost “between three and five billion dollars”.

Many people remain missing and rescuers are still trying to find victims amongst the debris at the port; the human toll from the blast – caused by the explosion of a warehouse containing 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, according to the authorities – risks increasing.

Hospitals in the capital – some of which were damaged by the explosion – were already under pressure because of the coronavirus and lack of equipment to tackle it due to the economic crisis. They have been forced to send many victims to hospitals in the city’s suburbs and more remote areas.

“We’re facing a catastrophe of exceptional magnitude for the first time in decades,” George Kettaneh, secretary-general of the Lebanese Red Cross, told FRANCE 24.

‘I don’t see how Lebanon will be able to recover’

Many Lebanese are fearful about the social and economic consequences of this tragedy, in a country with already abysmal levels of public debt – especially seeing as the port of Beirut risks being paralysed for a long while, despite being the main place of entry for a country that imports 80 percent of its goods. Flour shortages are likely to be a particular problem in the immediate future, after grain silos near the port were ruined, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation said.

“How are we going to live without our lost loved ones?” said Maya. “Who will repair all the damage? How will we feed ourselves? The country is in a bad state, the people feel destroyed – and I don’t see how Lebanon will be able to recover from this tragedy.”

“It’s one disaster after another in Lebanon, a long descent into hell,” Fadi added. He said he is a patriot in love with his country, but he is seriously considering emigrating along with his family. “We can’t live in Lebanon any more; it’s now impossible,” he put it. “We’re fighting for survival.”

Many nations have offered Lebanon aid – including France, which has long historic ties to the country. President Emmanuel Macron travelled to Lebanon on Thursday, while sending urgent disaster aid. For its part, the EU will send 100 specialised firefighters to help deal with the devastation, and is ready to send additional aid as needed.

“This tragedy comes at the worst possible time for Lebanon, when the government is not responding to the demands of the people who have been protesting against it since October,” Ziyad Baroud, the country’s former interior minister, told FRANCE 24. “In light of the economic and health crisis, the people of Lebanon will have to face many challenges, with little means to face them.”

Anger is brewing against Lebanon’s political leaders on social media, with many accusing them of being responsible for Tuesday’s disaster through incompetence.

“The political class has been stealing from us and lying to us for years – depriving us of electricity, slowly killing us,” Maya said. “It’s their incompetence that’s killing us, with this explosion.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

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