Deeply Wounded City A Portrait of Beirut After the Explosion

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Following the devastating explosion in the port, anger with the political elite is growing in Beirut. People there are trying to pick up the pieces, but many of them have nothing left to lose.

By Christoph Reuter, Thore Schröder und Lorenzo Tugnoli (Photos)

Sometimes, it’s just a trickle. But it never stops – the tinkling, jangling and crunching of glass splintered into hundreds of thousands of pieces. Even a week after the gigantic explosion on Aug. 4, which sent a powerful shockwave racing through Beirut initially at 2,500 meters per second, the city is still filled with the unceasing sound of shattering windows and glass panes.

Thousands of helpers and neighbors are sweeping up the shards as bulldozers push the shimmering blue turquoise piles together. Sometimes, entire glass facades collapse into the streets from several floors above. These are the sounds of a deeply wounded city.

That day, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly combustible ingredient in both fertilizer and explosives, detonated in the port of the Lebanese capital, the result of a chain reaction of unfathomable incompetence by the state, its security apparatus, the army and public agencies. The violence of the explosion ravaged the houses and apartments of around 300,000 residents. The death toll, according to the Beirut Bar Association, stands at 240 people, with more than 6,000 injuries.

Every evening since then, stone-throwing demonstrators have been marching toward parliament, and have been met with tear gas from the police. Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government resigned on Monday after just seven months in office, remaining in an acting capacity until a new government is chosen. “Corruption is bigger than the state,” Diab said in parting, “and the state is paralyzed by this (ruling) clique and cannot confront it or get rid of it.”

There were protests and resignations last fall as well, when the criminal pyramid scheme of the central bank imploded, sending the Lebanese currency into freefall and plunging the country into its worst economic crisis in decades. Thousands of people protested back then as well, for months on end. Prime Minister Saad Hariri was forced to resign, but things did not improve.

For decades, Hezbollah, the Shiite militia party, has been warning of the threat posed by Israel. At first, most of those who survived the explosion instinctively thought it had been caused by a rocket, by an Israeli air strike. It was all the more painful to realize that it was once again the complete indifference of the Lebanese elite that had plunged the country into ruin. “It sounds strange, but I would have preferred an Israeli missile,” says a businessman from southern Lebanon who came to Beirut to help out. “The reality is so humiliating.”

All of the illusions that the Lebanese may still have had about their country were shattered just like the picture windows of the high-rise apartments looking out onto the sea. Hezbollah and the others who hold power are refusing to make concessions, and they’re the ones with the weapons. But ever since the city recovered from the initial shock, rage has been growing. Even those who never wanted to give up on Lebanon, despite it all, are now losing hope. Calls for revolution are even coming from former mayors and from palace owners.

“It Makes No Sense Anymore”

A man is apoplectic as he demolishes the last intact window frame in a courtyard on Monday morning and screams at a small truck as it drives off. “I’ll throw it into the street! I’ll throw everything into the middle of the street,” he screams, until his wife calms him down.

The truck is the first sign of life from the city administration, six days after the catastrophe. But the driver is refusing to cart away debris that is not piled neatly on the side of the road. Residents have to do that part.

“This cursed state does nothing to help the people, nothing,” fumes Pierre Aisa, once the long-time mayor of the swanky Beirut suburb of Baabda, where the country’s president has his seat. Now, he is taking care of his 85-year-old mother-in-law who survived the detonation with injuries.

These days, conversations often end in anger and bitterness. Many mention violence as a last resort. The architect Ely Boustany owns one of the oldest homes in Mar Mikhael, one of the badly damaged areas of the city. He spent two years restoring the place. “We sent away all of the real-estate sharks who wanted to buy it, tear it down and build an apartment building,” he says, carefully making his way up a half-destroyed staircase.

He shows off the deep red walls in the salon, precisely restored to their original appearance, and in the next room, the calligraphic quotes about Beirut from the legendary singer Fairouz and from Lebanese poets. “We wanted to restore a nugget of Beirut history as a hotel. It would only have had four or five rooms, but it was my passion.” The hotel was to open at the beginning of this year. “But then came the economic crisis, and we hoped we could open in the summer. Then came corona. And now this.”

Following the explosion, he says he called the city administration, the culture office and building officials. “I spent two days on the telephone to ask for help. Then, some nitwit from the city came by and said that the house was old and built of sandstone – no wonder it collapsed. That was it.”

He pauses quietly and swallows hard, searching for words. “It makes no sense anymore. If you want to buy the house, go ahead.”

Completely Obliterated

Gemmayze, the worst-hit neighborhood just across from the port warehouses, is Christian, but it has always been a microcosm of Beirut. Poor new arrivals would find shelter near the port while the superrich, like the Sursock family that resettled here from Constantinople in the 18th century, built their palaces on the hill demarcating the southern edge of the district. Ten or 15 years ago, Gemmayze became trendy, with bars and restaurants opening up all over. But the living, prewar relics remained, such as the corner store of Nasri Dekmak, who specialized in repairing chandeliers. Or Super Out, a shop that still sold used cassette tapes. And then there was Roupen Sulahian, whose father opened a prosperous company in 1952 selling ball bearings for large machinery. It was based out of a building that had remained unchanged since then – until Tuesday evening.

It has now been completely destroyed. Sitting among the wreckage of his life, Sulahian speaks hesitantly at first, then more energetically, about all that the business and his family had lived through. It’s a way of illustrating what this now means. “During the civil war, the ‘Green Line,’ the front, was just 100 meters from here.” A piece of shrapnel from back then is still stuck in the molding of a cabinet. “But we stayed open, because business was good! Back then, there were more than 300 large companies in the country. We were the official representative of FAG, the West German ball bearing producer.”

His grandfather came to Beirut in 1932, he says. “As a small boy, he was smuggled in from Gaziantep in a basket on the back of a donkey during the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottomans. We have worked hard for three generations to build up a good livelihood. Lebanon was my homeland, I never wanted to leave. But now?”

He escaped the explosion unscathed, he says, because he closed up shop at 2 p.m. that day and went home. “We’ve hardly had any customers since the economic crisis,” he says. “Of the 300 large companies, only 22 remain. The others have given up over the decades.”

High above Sulahian, 67-year-old Robert Sursock is sitting in a halfway intact pavilion surrounded by his park-like garden as a half-dozen Germans in protective clothing and helmets knock on his door. The disaster experts from THW, a German government aid organization, and International Search and Rescue (ISAR) are going door-to-door to check buildings for structural integrity. Torgen Mörschel, a matter-of-fact structural engineer with an eye for detail looks at the meter-long cracks in the palace’s load-bearing walls, whose façade is bowed outward. The weight of the roof is the only thing lending it much stability, says Mörschel, “but a strong wind could be enough to relieve that pressure, which may cause the wall to buckle, whereupon the collapsing roof could destroy everything.”

The Sursock Palace has survived 160 years, a decade-and-a-half of civil war and two world wars almost untouched. It is Beirut’s landmark palace. Now, its fate hangs on a gust of wind. Roderick Sursock nods. He, too, will later say that only a revolution and violence can get rid of this system.

Aid from Abroad

Thousands of volunteer helpers have been streaming into the streets since the explosion. Armed with brooms and buckets, they carry debris and shards of glass out of apartments. Many of them are from Beirut, but others are from Saida in the south or Akkar way up north. Municipal governments from smaller towns like Keserwan and Jounieh have sent bulldozers and dump trucks, while soup kitchens and first-aid stations are being operated by Caritas and small NGOs. They have set up open-air sites where neighbors can list the items the need most urgently. The Real Estate Developers Association is passing out plastic sheeting that can be used to temporarily replace shattered windows, and Orienthelfer, a German aid agency, has moved its field kitchen – which they received from the German military – from a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley to Beirut, along with a few Syrian refugees. They are now delivering meals to the elderly and infirm in their half-destroyed apartments.

At midday on Sunday, Father Eli from the mountain village of Bkfeir sets up an improvised altar right in front of the hulking ruin of the Lebanese electricity agency. “To offer solace,” he says. “Especially here! Especially now!” The singing of the small congregation competes with the tinkling and jangling of glass in the surrounding area. “Father, we ask for your mercy.” A young man with a full beard and a Che Guevara T-shirt crosses himself incessantly.

Professional aid workers from France, Germany, Italy and Britain arrived within the first two days. The British took charge of dividing the city’s neighborhoods into sectors of responsibility so they wouldn’t get in each other’s way. The Italians and French are searching the port for the dead while the Germans are primarily operating in the hills to the south.

On Thursday of last week, French President Emmanuel Macron strode through the Rue Gouraud, Gemmayze’s destroyed main street, where he was cheered on by locals, who decried their own president as a “terrorist” and chanted “Revolution!” They saw him, it seemed, as their savior. Six days later, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas came to inspect the damage in the port area.

Where Is the State?

Indeed, it feels as though everyone is doing their part. Everyone, that is, except the Lebanese state. Soldiers and police are merely warning passersby not to come too close to buildings in danger of collapse. Or they are pressuring homeowners to sign papers making them responsible for the condition of their houses as soon as they set foot inside.

There hasn’t been even the smallest gesture of reconciliation, no state effort to help all those who have become homeless. None of the people who became billionaires through state-tolerated corruption have spoken out or even made a donation. It is as though the blast wave from Tuesday blew away the last illusions of volition and aptitude among the ruling class and their supporters in the state institutions.

For the residents of Gemmayze on that Tuesday of the explosion, tiny decisions and coincidences determined whether they lived or died. A Syrian worker named Saïd left the port shortly before 6 p.m. A Red Cross employee named Ayman picked up his car at 6:01 from a parking lot that just seven minutes later, was transformed into an inferno of twisted metal.

Jessica Bazdjian, a young nurse, decided to show up for her nightshift at the St. George Hospital in the Geitawi neighborhood one hour early. She had just passed through the entrance when the blast wave hit the hospital. “Her coworkers say that she was struck by the large glass door,” says her sister Rosaline. Just four minutes earlier, Jessica had sent her mother a WhatsApp message as she did every day: “I made it to work.”

The rest of the family felt the blast from their home in the suburb of Bsalim, and Jessica could suddenly no longer be reached. They all headed into the city, parking their cars once they hit the traffic jam on the outskirts and riding on motorcycles driven by strangers the rest of the way. “When we got to the clinic, everything was dark and destroyed,” says Rosaline.

Badly wounded patients were being treated in the streets, lit up by mobile phones, says Rosaline, who recognized her sister by her white trainers. “The ground around her was covered in blood. Jessica had a hole in her neck.” Dead at 23. Her colleagues fought hard to save her, twice injecting her heart with adrenaline. Even a week after Jessica’s death, the Bazdjians still hadn’t heard anything from the Lebanese state. “But we had to pick up her body early the next morning,” says her father George. “They didn’t have electricity in the hospital for the dead. The people up there in power didn’t even take care of that.”

Hundreds of people showed up to the memorial ceremony on Monday evening for the four nurses who died, sitting in the ruins of what had been a 385-bed hospital. The blood on the ground had turned mostly black. Two priests, one Roman-Catholic and the other Greek-Orthodox, conducted services, with the families of the four victims sobbing quietly in the first row. Images of the dead were set up between dahlias and bouquets of roses next to an icon of St. George, the dragon slayer.

A piano player played a score from the movie “The Piano.” “We wish we could have done more, much more,” said a colleague in her eulogy. “We failed, but we were simply overwhelmed.”

“Something Isn’t Right”

Amid the destruction, the death of one person sometimes meant others were able to survive.

When the Beirut Fire Department dispatcher on duty in Qarantina, the poor neighborhood east of the port, received the first calls from police that Tuesday at 5:55 p.m., saying that something was burning in the port, he wanted to know more. “I made it clear to them that I would not be sending any firetrucks until we knew what was burning,” Raymond Farah said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “An officer from state security called back and said it was just a warehouse with fireworks. So I gave the dispatch order.”

It seemed like a routine call. Nine firemen and a paramedic jumped into the truck and the ambulance and raced the short distance to the port, waved through the gate by armed guards. Farah was in constant radio contact with the responding firefighters. “They said something isn’t right. The fire is huge and it sounds crazy.” They asked him to send reinforcements, so Raymond Farah sounded the alarm, with all available firefighters grabbing their helmets and putting on their heavy jackets. They were running down the stairs to the trucks when the blast wave hit the building. Scalding hot air, the pressure from the blast and myriad bits of glass and stone shot through the top floor.

It was safer down below in the garage. Farah, who was unhurt, helped the injured and then waved down a moped rider on the street, who took him down to the port. “When we had managed to make our way through to near the epicenter, not a firetruck or ambulance could be seen. It was as though they had evaporated.” He began searching desperately for his people. “But the biggest thing we found was about the size of a hand.”

The incorrect information provided by the port security guard led to the death of the first 10 who responded, but also saved the lives of the 100 or more who would have immediately been dispatched for a massive fire. And it was only because of the last call from the fireman on the scene that they all ran downstairs where it was safer.

None of the guards at the port was aware of the deadly danger that lurked, says Raymond Farah. “If they had known what was being stored there, they all would have run away. Only the very top of the command chain was aware.”

And they had been since 2014, when the ammonium nitrate from an abandoned freighter called Rhosus was brought into port. The port administration had repeatedly demanded it be removed. Now, the Interior Ministry, the customs agency, state security and the army are all trying to pass the buck to the other.

An investigative team from state security had sent an alarmed memo to the offices of the president and prime minister two weeks before the Aug. 4 explosion, something the recipients don’t deny. President Michel Aoun says he told the security agencies to “do what is necessary” and said, “I’m not responsible.” He also said he had no authority to deal with the port directly. Prime Minister Diab, who has since resigned, also said that he immediately passed the warning along.

But nothing happened.

Then something did happen – just enough to trigger the catastrophe. To at least fix the holes in the warehouse, a team of Syrians was sent out to weld them shut, a member of state security told the news agency Reuters. But, the official said, nobody bothered to tell the Syrians the warehouse was full of tons of ammonium nitrate along with confiscated fireworks.

A spark from the welders ignited the fireworks. The heat from that fire detonated the ammonium nitrate.

Call for donations

Anyone who would like to donate to the relatives of the firefighters who have died can do so through this link.

Der Spiegel

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