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A woman waves a Lebanese flag against the backdrop of the now-destroyed port of Beirut. (Photo: Houssam Shbaro/Getty Images)
A woman waves a Lebanese flag against the backdrop of the now-destroyed port of Beirut. (Photo: Houssam Shbaro/Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyAugust 13, 2020

A city betrayed: a New Zealander on the devastation in Beirut

A woman waves a Lebanese flag against the backdrop of the now-destroyed port of Beirut. (Photo: Houssam Shbaro/Getty Images)
A woman waves a Lebanese flag against the backdrop of the now-destroyed port of Beirut. (Photo: Houssam Shbaro/Getty Images)

The blast that took at least 171 lives in downtown Beirut last week was the latest in a long line of official failures that have pushed the Lebanese people to the brink of despair, writes Kirsten O’Regan. 

As I began this essay, my partner was trying to fall asleep in our Beirut apartment. He had swept our bed of shattered glass and was wearing a mask, at my request. Hours earlier, he had hit the floor when the Beirut port exploded and the world turned upside down. Now, after the initial chaos of the blast, he was resting under blown-out windows that opened onto our dark, debris-strewn street, just minutes from the crater that was once the port.

Beirut is a world unto itself. Its packed nightclubs and flourishing art scene; its sterile, ostentatious downtown; its high ceilings and tiled floors, bougainvillea crawling across sun-bleached stone; the impoverished suburbs to its south.

On August 4, that world blew up. Almost 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at Lebanon’s crucial port ignited then detonated, causing one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. The boom consumed the port, sending a wave of pressure outward that swept through residential neighbourhoods like a hurricane – shattering windows, turning walls to rubble, killing at least 171 people and injuring 6,000. Hundreds of thousands of Beirutis no longer have a secure place to sleep. Over a hundred people are reportedly still missing.

Smoke rises above wrecked buildings at Beirut’s port, devastated by an explosion a day earlier, on August 5, 2020. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images)

My partner, less than a kilometre from the blast site, survived with scratches. Our apartment was wrecked. And we’re the lucky ones. We can gather our possessions from our rented apartment and move to safety; not so easy for Lebanese who were already suffering from the local currency’s free-fall, and in an instant, lost a lifetime’s work and investment in a home or business.

Lebanon has limped onward, through war and economic collapse and Covid, as a kleptocratic and inept ruling elite have steadily bled the country dry. Now, criminal mismanagement has resulted in a disaster on a scale that is hard to fathom. Who will rebuild Beirut now?

A ruined building in the Karantina neighbourhood of Beirut, prior to the explosion. (Photo: Kirsten O’Regan)

Typically, people mis-imagine Beirut. It is not a perennial war zone. It is a city, like and unlike any other. It is a place people live, although under increasing strain.

Beirut is the clack-clack-clack of the bean-sellers call; it is the trailing sparks of a delivery guy hurtling by, embers for arguileh (shishah) dangling from one hand. It is a local fruit vendor brushing away a payment. It is Palestinian children playing in a dilapidated school in the makeshift neighbourhood their parents and grandparents built from the wreckage of their upturned lives. It is an old man dozing in the hole in the wall shop he sells olives from – just olives, and olive oil that he produces himself, in a great black press he sets up, in season, on the street outside his store.

Beirut is the soft-intense light of the Mediterranean, the haze of extreme heat bouncing off butter-yellow facades. It is elegant triple-arched windows and breeze-block grime. It is endless buildings gathered into the green arms of Mount Lebanon, the soft-steely voice of Fairuz crackling from radios, baskets being winched down from rickety balconies, flocks of pet pigeons circling lazily in the evening light. It is a shiny toxic sea; a soupy bowl of fatteh; a Campari spritz on grimy steps on a balmy evening, sweat trickling behind your knees. It is techno and poetry and fig trees growing through cracks in the highways. It is not to be romanticised. Beirut is corruption and conspicuous consumption and kindness and decay. And now, it is a disaster zone.

Musicians perform on Gouraud St in the Gemmayzeh district of Beirut (Photo: Kirsten O’Regan)

The city has long been a place that people leave from: Lebanon’s only airport is there, the land borders – to Syria in the north and east, and to Israel in the south – largely impassable. So, people leave from Beirut and have done for years. But last year, as the city’s streets pulled larger and larger crowds, shouting for the fall of the government, it also called people home. The optimism and uncertainty of the thawra, the revolution, was a revelation. People were on the streets asking for better, asking for dignity, asking for change.

But this year, that optimism has collapsed. Before the blast, the mood in Beirut was already one of despair. Hyperinflation had crippled purchasing power. Covid sped the collapse. Food insecurity was going up – and now Lebanon’s only large grain silo has disintegrated in the conflagration at the port. The country’s currency, the Lebanese lira, has depreciated by 80%, leaving half of all Lebanese below the poverty line, struggling to secure basic sustenance. Banks, grappling with their own insolvency, have withheld customers’ savings. State-provided electricity has reduced to only a handful of hours a day.

This slow decline has now been punctuated by disaster. My partner has a salary in US dollars and a passport that can get him out, if the airport is functioning. Most Lebanese, whose life savings have shrunk to almost nothing, are unable to leave. They are forced to queue for whatever amount of cash the bank is willing to give them. Friends in Lebanon have been eating a lot of beans. They’ve been struggling to sleep, as their generators cut off in the middle of the night, leaving them to sweat wakefully in the sticky summer heat. For those even more vulnerable – the over 900,000 Syrian refugees; the Palestinian community, already mired in poverty; migrant domestic workers suffering in isolation as their employers’ money slowly dries up – conditions were already farcically adverse.

Now, an even more disastrous humanitarian crisis than previously imagined is on the horizon.

Lebanese demonstrators following the resignation of the Lebanese government, August 11, 2020. (Photo: Houssam Shbaro/Getty Images)

The extent of the damage is devastating. Residents and business owners have lost all they had. The port – which is responsible for 60% of Lebanon’s imports (which, in turn, account for an astonishing 80% of Lebanon’s overall consumption) – is an indentation. A major hospital has been eviscerated. The Beirut of my everyday is irrevocably altered: the bookstore and café I’d go to work in, the language school where I stumbled through my Arabic courses, the hipster coffee place I used to live next to, the yoga studio down the road. My personal Beirut geography is shattered – and with it, much of Beirut’s built heritage.

But these material losses fade into the background when set against the trauma of those who experienced the blast, the devastating loss of life, and the mass injuries. The additional hardship this disaster will bring to those who have no place else to turn – some of whom have already suffered generations of trauma – is harrowing to contemplate.

Other countries have provided emergency aid, but the sheer need is immense. And, as a headline of local newspaper The Daily Star put it, “Lebanon’s officials are its worst enemies.” Most donors refuse to more fully invest in economic recovery and reconstruction without reform that would assure them their funds will not be consumed by Lebanese authorities’ insatiable corruption.

Lebanese have mounted new, angry protests against their failed government and political elite. Yet ordinary people have also spearheaded the clean-up of the city. They’re sweeping the streets and picking up broken glass. They’re taping up windows and straightening out furniture. A group of youth volunteers left my flat nearly good as new, minus any doors or windows.

A street scene in Gemmayzeh (Photo: Kirsten O’Regan)

My parents visited Beirut last October, just as the protests got underway. I was nervous about them arriving in an unstable moment, but revolutionary Beirut was a beautiful place to be: happy, irreverent people milled through the Gemmayzeh district – now unrecognisable, devastated by the explosion – singing songs of defiance.

After the blast, my mother sent me a picture of a Beirut graffito from that time. In big, bubbly letters, it spelled out “HOPE.” Now, there is a graffito on a concrete wall overlooking the wasteland of the port. It reads: “my government did this.”

There are a million ways you can help. Lebanese are calling for any relief funds to be routed through NGOs rather than through the black hole that is their government.

You could buy an awesome risograph poster, or a dope photographic print, or simply donate to vetted organisations providing emergency relief. If you’re interested in particular populations, think about supporting affected trans folk, the migrant worker community, or Beirut’s elderly. Assistance to the Lebanese Red Cross will support the first-aid response, while contributions to the Lebanese Food Bank will work to combat hunger. You can also donate to help fix up Beirut’s devastated hospitals.

And you can determine never to take our luck as New Zealanders for granted. We have institutions that can respond to our demands, a government that provides services, civil society that is pointing the way. Don’t be complacent. Times are tough here, I know. But times are almost unbearably hard in Lebanon right now. New Zealand dollars can stretch far there: any amount will make a difference.

Keep going!