Dec 3rd, 2020, 11:47 AM

Will Lebanon Ever Recover from the Beirut Explosion?

By Maria Atallah
A city in ruins. Image credit:Patrick Baz / AFP
A city in ruins. Image credit:Patrick Baz / AFP
The explosion on August 4, 2020 destroyed much of Beirut. How did we get there?

"There was a big sound, the walls shook and then the windows exploded," says my grandmother Laudy, 80 years old, in her home in Beirut. She was fortunate enough to escape injury from the blast, but there was glass all over her living room for weeks. She could barely sleep following that fateful day. 

August 4, 2020 is a day no Lebanese citizen is ever likely to forget. That day, more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the Beirut city port, the blast was felt all the way to neighboring countries including Cyprus. The devastating detonation blew away half of the city, killing 200 people and injuring more than 6,000, according to The Guardian. It is impossible to describe the sheer intensity of the blast which devastated a city of four million people, destroying everything in its path.

This catastrophic event struck when Lebanon was already struggling with an unprecedented economic crisis, with half of its population living under the poverty rate. Millions of Syrian and Palestinian refugees occupy camps across the country. The country is crumbling under the corruption of its governing elites, who have been in place since the end of the long civil war that ended in the early 1990s. 

Images from the blast. Image credit: Patrick Traboulsi on Reuters/AFP. 

This horrifying tragedy also destroyed four of Lebanon's hospitals, a devastating blow to public health during the Coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of people were rendered homeless. Worst of all, the government knew it was going to happen and it did nothing to prevent it.

According to Der Spiegel, the explosive materials had been stored in unsafe conditions next to fireworks in the Beirut port since 2013 after 2.750 tons of ammonium nitrate were confiscated by port authorities from a ship on its way to Mozambique. The Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, knew about the dangerous cargo and told officials to "do something about it," an order which was never carried through. Aoun never followed up on the situation.

The government's responsibility is evident and has been exposed extensively. Aya Majzoub, a Lebanon researcher for the Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian: "Ministers have admitted knowing of the existence of the explosive material, along with the president and prime ministers, but there hasn't been any attempt to investigate their role and responsibility. The entire process lacks credibility because you're scapegoating lower-level employees instead of trying to find out where the responsibilities lie in the entire political system."

This tragedy exposes decades of endemic corruption and chaos plaguing Lebanon since the 1990s. Before the beginning of the Civil War in 1975, Lebanon was an affluent country. Beirut was called the "Paris of the Middle East" where celebrities and royalty came to enjoy the warm climate and party on their yachts. It was a time of prosperity that very few Lebanese still remember today.

"Everyone was proud to be Lebanese in those days," recounts my grandmother. "Everyone wanted to come to Beirut and experience our unique culture," she says nostalgically, on the verge of tears. This heartfelt testimony is echoed by a CNN article, "1960s Beirut: What Became of Lebanon's Jet-Setting Playground?", which paints an idyllic picture of life before the war. 

Luxury Beirut Hotel in the 1960s. Image credit: Saint Georges Hotel.

The glamour of the 1960s gave way to the horror of the 1970s. In 1975, Lebanon became engaged in a brutal civil war, based on religious confessional divisions, which lasted for 15 years. According to Hauhbolle Sune of Science Po in Paris, "During 15 years of fighting, around 90,000 people lost their lives [...] and it is possible that the real number exceeds 100,000. Of the 90,000 killed, close to 20,000 are individuals who were kidnapped or disappeared and who must be assumed dead as they have not been accounted for. Nearly 100,000 were badly injured and close to a million people, two-thirds of the Lebanese population, experienced displacement." 

Palestinians and Muslims and Christians and Western Powers all fought for control of the small country, vying for its strategic position between Israel, Syria and the Sea. After the war ended in 1990 the same warlords which had led massacres during the war took over the government, declaring themselves ministers and presidents. The current president, Michel Aoun, was branded a war criminal for his acts during the war and lived in exile in France for decades before being pardoned. This is the government Lebanon has today. War criminals, terrorists such as Hezbollah and thieves who seized the opportunity to steal the population's money. 

Tanning on the Beach before the war. Image credit: Beirut Sporting Club.

These events led to today's Lebanon in 2020. The economic crisis is so bad that the government defaulted on its $2 billion debt to the IMF. This resulted in unrest and people took to the streets, calling for a new independent government and an inquiry into the corruption in governmental institutions which had funneled billions of taxes abroad. It only got worse from there. The government resigned, but so did the next one. According to AlJazeera, Lebanese banks, terrified at the idea of everyone withdrawing their savings, imposed illegal withdrawal and transfer policies. People are effectively blocked from their own bank accounts, cannot send money to their children studying abroad and many are struggling with simply paying their rent. Meanwhile, the new Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, is a multi-billionaire. 

Foreign governments have tried to help Lebanon recover from its troubles, but the political elite has been stalling. When the IMF and France requeest reforms to prevent corruption, the government resists because it knows the names of ministers and people in power will be revealed. They even refuse to form a new independent government because they are clinging so tightly to power. The international community has been clear: without reforms and a new independent government there will be no aid for Lebanon. 

Reconstruction of the port. Image credit: Alkis Konstantinidis on Reuters.

Since the Beirut explosion, the international community has been generous, coming to the aid of the victims and providing first-aid supplies. UNICEF has been an essential help in these dire circumstances. UNICEF Lebanon Representative, Yukie Mokio, said, "Providing children and parents with psycho-social support is a vital step in helping people rebuild their shattered lives. While the immediate scars are starting to heal, thanks to extraordinary efforts on the ground, the deep wounds — both visible and invisibe — of children and families in a country experiencing multiple emergencies will require sustained solidarity, commitment and support."

French President Emmanuel Macron has been one of the most involved world leaders calling for international aid, even visiting the site of the catastrophe two days afterwards. However, calls of an investigation into the cause of the blast are being ignored by the government. The Guardian reports: "About 1,000 injured of bereaved have approached Nada Abdelsater, an international lawyer based in Beirut, demanding international assistance in the inquiry. 'The Lebanese authorities remain a primary suspect, albeit not the only one', Abdelsater said.' Therefore, the victims view the Lebamese system as having a fundamental conflict of interest in that it is the accused and the judge." 

A woman sits among the ruins of her Beirut apartment after the explosion. Image credit: AFP.

The victims of the blast have been abandoned by the very people who led them to their ruin. It is difficult to imagine a bright future for Lebanon, or even any kind of recovery.

My grandmother, sitting on her little balcony in Chiah, a suburb of Beirut, told me, "The government will never give up power, and we will have a crisis after another. I am sorry for Lebanon and for the young, educated Lebanese fleeing the country, looking for better opportunities. I, however, will die in the same country I was born."