Beirut, a Month After The Explosion: "We Were The Citizens Who Took The Brooms And Shovels And Cleaned Everything"

When the glass in his apartment shattered on 4 August, the wall collapsed and was covered in blood, Ahmad Joumaa believed he was going to die. “It was a normal day, we were watching Netflix in the living room and when we heard the first explosion and a plane noise, I thought Israel was attacking us. I was commenting on it to my roommate, but I didn’t have time to finish the sentence : everything exploded into the air “. Sitting on the terrace of the house of a friend who temporarily lends him his room, this 30-year-old Beirutian man recalls what happened just a month ago, when the explosion – according to the first investigations, accidental – of more than 2,500 tons of nitrate of ammonia in the port of Beirut devastated the heart of the city in a few seconds. The catastrophe left almost 200 dead, more than 6,500 injured and some 300,000 homeless, including Ahmad, whose flat was just a kilometer away and has been completely destroyed.

A month after the tragedy, Beirut and its inhabitants are struggling to compose themselves. In a city and country accustomed to crises – Beirut was the epicenter of the civil war (1975-1990), was rocked by the car bomb attack that killed Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and was bombed by Israel in 2006 – , those affected by the explosion live what happened between disbelief and rage. The first investigations they point to a series of negligence that encompasses the entire chain of command of the State. Until now, no one has taken responsibility directly.


The explosion served to accelerate a situation that was already extremely precarious: Lebanon is going through one of the worst economic crises in its history, with the local currency in free fall (the pound has depreciated by 78% in recent months), inflation soaring and poverty and unemployment on the rise due to the economic slowdown and the impact of measures against COVID-19. The United Nations estimates that, by the end of the year, up to 50% of the population you may not have enough to meet your basic food needs. “The explosion destroyed the country’s main food source and has brought Lebanon to the brink of a hunger crisis,” warned this week Michael Fakhri, UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food.

“Even before the disaster, people had already lost their jobs and the economy was devastated. Now they have also lost their houses. It is the last nail in the coffin and there is only one word to describe what people feel: desolation,” he says Karim el Mufti, political analyst and professor at Saint Joseph University in Beirut (USJ).

Physical damage caused by the explosion could amount to between 3,800 and 4,600 million dollarsAccording to the World Bank, a sum that Lebanon cannot afford in a time of economic failure. To this is added a crisis that is also health: the country has about 13,000 active cases of coronavirus, with a rebound in the two weeks after the explosion. Half of Beirut’s hospitals were damaged and those that endured were saturated. “The explosion caused people who lost their homes to be forced to live in overcrowded conditions, interactions during relief efforts increased, the movement of people between regions grew and the number of patients and health personnel in the centers multiplied. health, situations that could have contributed to the spread of COVID-19, “explains public health consultant Sara Chang, author of a interactive map on the spread of the virus in Lebanon.

To the health emergency due to the explosion and COVID-19, we must add the new mental health problems among the affected population: “Many people are still in shock, traumatized by the explosion, with symptoms such as anxiety, lack of appetite and sleep. We also see a lot of survivor syndrome, guilt for having survived the disaster, “explains Maya Yamout, from the NGO Rescue Me, which gives psychological assistance to, among others, victims of war conflicts with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Images of bloodied people, screaming and chaos looped through Ahmad’s mind, who still does not feel able to return to his job as a nurse for the Lebanese Red Cross. Partly as therapy, he says, he has been volunteering at Nation Station, one of the dozens of initiatives launched these days mainly by young people to assist those affected.

Aya Kazoun, 21, offers a tired smile: she has been working 12-18 hours a day without interruption for a month. The day after the explosion, she, her brother and a friend improvised an assistance center at a disused gas station. Today, about 40 volunteers – the first days there were 150 – distribute food, hot meals, medicines and clothes to more than 500 families in the neighborhood. In a country with an increasingly absent and dysfunctional state, it is the citizenry that has had to go out and lift the city from its rubble. The crowdfunding

These days they have multiplied to, in the absence of public money, finance with micro-donations all kinds of causes linked to the tragedy: door repair and houses damaged, to the rescue of destroyed businesses by the detonation or help so that foreign domestic workers who are victims of the Kafala system can return to their countries of origin.

“We were the citizens who took the brooms and shovels and cleaned everything and now we are the ones who help those affected. I am proud of the solidarity among the population, but at the same time it makes me very angry. First, because it is the duty of the Government, not ours. Second, because I feel that with our ‘efficiency’ we accelerate the forgetting of what happened, “laments Aya.

After the resignation of Hasan Diab’s government en bloc a week after the tragedy, the appointment of former ambassador Mustafa Adib as the new prime minister has not served to calm the spirits of a population on the edge due to the overlap of crises: on Tuesday, coinciding with The celebration of the centenary of the creation of Greater Lebanon, people took to the streets again in Beirut, and there have been more than ten months of protests against the corruption of the ruling class and the sectarian system that governs the country.

Adib has promised to form a government in two weeks to begin implementing structural reforms that unblock the aid promised for more than two years by the international community, but experts agree: a new executive from the same establishment that has led Lebanon to disaster will not involve substantial changes for the better. “As long as there is no real effort led by someone outside the current political class to change values ​​and implement far-reaching reforms, we expect more of the same,” says Karim el Mufti.

For the activist Lokman Slim, corruption is only one of the consequences of the perverse system of power sharing between sects and the efforts of countries like France, aimed mainly at ending corruption, fall short. “Reforms do not only mean economic, but also take out of Lebanon this nomenclature that has plundered it,” he points out to

For many, the devastating explosion in Beirut perfectly exemplifies the problem in Lebanon: no one is responsible for the disaster despite the fact that all political actors are in some way responsible and each uses it for their own benefit. “This government is fueled by crisis and now it will feed on aid that comes from outside. Even if the money is channeled through NGOs, they will find a way to keep the European taxpayer’s money and no one will be held accountable. Meanwhile, the banks they are happy to receive fresh dollars … and thus the whole system feeds on the explosion “, asserts the USJ professor.

In just over a month it will be a year since the protests that took to the streets thousands of people throughout Lebanon calling for an end to inequality and corruption and the departure of the entire political class shouting “everyone means everyone” But different forces, governmental and not, have exploited the differences between communities. “Polarization and social tension have risen to dangerous levels in a country that has just witnessed one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in human history,” points out he think tank European Council on Foreign Relations.

Ahmad Joumaa recounts his losses: he claims that in a year he has lost his parents (who, now retired, have left the country), his previous job, his car and now his home. “I feel that I have nothing left, that this country has taken everything from me,” he laments. “My generation began to take to the streets to protest in 2005, when Rafiq Hariri was killed. Fifteen years, and we have achieved nothing.”

Ahmad rejects a system in which “half of our energy is wasted thinking about things that elsewhere are basic human rights. My generation believed that it would be the one that would make their dreams come true and now everyone is desperate to leave. . me included”. Visa demands for abroad, on the rise in recent months, have exploded since the explosion.

Aya Kazoun had been protesting in the streets of Beirut for months, specifically since the beginning of the so-called ‘October revolution’. She was also beginning to fantasize about leaving Lebanon, but feels that now it is not possible. “We cannot leave the street, we must continue to apply pressure. And we will continue, because what else is left for us?”



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