The cataclysmic explosion which ripped through Beirut on Tuesday is just the latest disaster to strike the city once known as the ‘Paris of the East’
Rescuers searched for survivors today at the port after the blast sowed devastation across entire neighbourhoods, killing more than 100 people, wounding thousands and plunging Lebanon deeper into crisis.
Bullet holes remain studded into walls around Beirut, a reminder of the brutal and bloody civil war that ended 20 years ago but more recently, Lebanon has been preparing to face a new enemy.
Though Lebanon’s coronavirus numbers are low in comparison to harder-hit nations – just 5,000 cases and 65 deaths so far – the country’s weakened infrastructure is already struggling to treat those in need.
Since October last year, protesters have taken to the streets to call for change in the country. The demonstrations focussed around perceived corruption, the rolling blackouts which leave some areas without power for 22 hours each day, and austerity measures among other key issues.
Lebanon depends largely on wheat imports to secure its food supplies, as domestic production only accounts for around 10 per cent of the country’s consumption. The blast yesterday, which happened at a port which also stores 85 per cent of the country’s cereals, has ruptured a critical supply station to feed the people of Lebanon.
The country, once known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’, is also crumbling under the pressure of a currency crisis which has seen an 80 per cent devaluation of the Lebanese Lira compared to the dollar.
Despite the relatively low numbers of confirmed cases and deaths from the virus in Lebanon, medical professionals are concerned that any increase would be near-impossible to deal with given the current shortfalls in infrastructure.
‘Intensive care rooms at Rafik Hariri University Hospital are now full and, if the situation remains the same during the coming days, the hospital will not be able to accommodate the cases requiring intensive care,’ Dr Osman Itani, a pulmonologist and intensive care specialist, told Arab News on Sunday.
‘The number of cases currently exceeds 100 per day, and this is a big problem that cannot be addressed by the health system as it is beyond its capacity.’
Lebanon’s low rates are likely to increase in the future, the Guardian reported, adding that recent spikes could strain the already-struggling healthcare system.
Sporadic protests have popped up across the country since October last year, with demonstrators demanding answers to the inadequate infrastructure, alleged corruption, austerity measures and the deep financial crises that have rocked the country for decades.
Since Lebanon’s civil war the country has been the victim of chronic electricity shortages. State provided electricity (Elecricite du Liban) is cut off for three hours a day in Beirut. Outside the capital, blackouts can be far longer.
Recently, power has been provided for as little as two hours each day.
The result of the protests, which brought the Lebanese economy to a standstill, was the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of former PM Rafic Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005.
Rather than helping the situation, little has changed since Hariri’s departure, with blackouts worsening and a devastating currency crisis, which saw the Lebanese Lira devalued by around 80 per cent pegged to the dollar.
According to official statistics, cited by the Guardian, 35 per cent of Lebanese are unemployed and almost half of the population live under the poverty line.
In recent months, officials have noted a rise in ‘hunger crimes’, where desperate thieves will hold people up for money for essential items, such as baby formula, diapers, and food.
A security official who asked not to be named said that broader crime rates during the first half of 2020 reached a six-year peak, especially murders and robberies.
The rise appeared to be driven by the deepening economic crisis, said the official, who was not authorised to speak on the issue.
Police were noticing a ‘new kind of theft that involves mainly baby milk, food, and medicine’, the source said.
The source added, ‘more than one victim has said the perpetrators apologised while robbing them’.
Tens of thousands of Lebanese have lost their jobs or part of their salaries, while a crippling dollar shortage has sparked rapid inflation.
The Lebanese pound, though officially pegged to the dollar at 1,507, reached a peak of more than 9,000 to the greenback on the black market in early July.
With Lebanon heavily reliant on imports, the price of medicine, baby milk and food has reached record highs.
The price of a relatively cheap brand of diapers has shot up from 15,000 Lebanese pounds (£7.61) to 34,000 pounds (£17.26) per pack.
And the cost of a tin of baby milk has climbed from 23,000 (£11.68) to 35,000 pounds (£17.77) on average, with some brands selling for as much as 45,000 pounds (£22.85).
Lebanon’s main grain silo at Beirut port was destroyed in the blast along with the wheat inside, leaving the nation with less than a month’s reserves of the grain although other vessels with supplies are on the way.
The explosion was the most powerful ever to rip through Beirut, leaving the port district a wreck of mangled masonry and disabling the main entry port for imports to feed a nation of more than 6 million people.
The Beirut silo was capable of holding 120,000 tonnes of grain, said Ahmed Tamer, the director of the port of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second biggest city.
The port in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second biggest port, is not equipped with grain storage facilities but wheat could be transferred to warehouses one mile away, he said.
At the time of the blast, the Beirut silo held no more than 15,000 tonnes of wheat as some millers had unloaded cargoes directly because of a delay in issuing letters of credit for payment, Ahmed Hattit, the head of the wheat importers union, told the local Al-Akhbar newspaper.
Hattit said existing reserves of flour were sufficient to cover market needs for a month and a half and said there were four ships carrying cargoes totalling 28,000 tonnes of wheat that had not docked at the port yet.
Lebanon is trying to immediately transfer four vessels carrying 25,000 tonnes of flour to the port in Tripoli, an economy ministry official told news channel LBCI
Along with the economic and political strife the country has faced, a brutal civil war still remains in living memory for many Beirutis. The Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, saw 120,000 Lebanese killed and over a million exiled.
More recently, the Iranian proxy Shi’a militia Hezbollah joined the side of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War, with fighting occasionally breaching the border and missiles landing on the Lebanese side.
The influx of Syrian refugees to its neighbour, around 1.5million displaced people, has left the country weighed down by the economic and social burden.
The demographics of Lebanon, a country of 4.5million, has been inexorably changed by the influx of so many Syrians.
‘We’ve had some dark days in Lebanon over the years but this is something else,’ Rami Rifai, a 38-year-old engineer, said about the blast yesterday.
‘We already had the economic crisis, a government of thieves and coronavirus. I didn’t think it could get worse but now I don’t know if this country can get up again. Everyone is going to try to leave. I will try to leave,’ he said, his voice choked by tears.
The blast, which appeared to have been caused by a fire igniting 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate left unsecured in a warehouse, was felt as far away as Cyprus, some 150 miles (240 kilometres) to the northwest.
The scale of the destruction was such that the Lebanese capital resembled the scene of an earthquake, with thousands of people left homeless and thousands more cramming into overwhelmed hospitals for treatment.
In the areas closest to the port, the amount of destruction caused by the long years of civil war between 1975 and 1990 was achieved in a second by a blast that levelled buildings within a radius of several hundred metres.
One resident of Mar Mikhail, one of the most affected neighbourhoods, said she saw bodies strewn in the middle of the street, apparently thrown off balconies and rooftops by the blast.
Many people were watching and filming with their phones after an earlier and smaller explosion was heard in the port and ignited a fire.
The resulting footage, which was widely shared on social media, shows a ball of fire and smoke rising above Beirut and a white shockwave engulfing everything around it.
The mushroom-shaped explosion – which seismologists said was logged as the equivalent of a 3.3 magnitude quake – and the scope of the damage drew nuclear analogies in many people’s accounts of the tragedy.
‘The Apocalypse’ read the headline of L’Orient-Le Jour, the main French-language daily in Lebanon, a country that has seen its share of explosions in its recent past, but none quite this big.
The embattled government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab described the circumstances at the port that led to the explosion as ‘unacceptable’ and vowed to investigate.
‘Those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price,’ he said.
Messages of support poured in from around the world for Lebanon, whose economy was already on its knees after defaulting on sovereign debt earlier this year.
A crippling devaluation has sent poverty levels soaring to an estimated 50 per cent of the population and for a country so heavily reliant on imports, the obliteration of the main port signalled more hardship ahead.
Criticism of the government was already rife on social media, where Lebanese users argued that a disaster of such magnitude could only strike in a state whose institutions are crippled by incompetence and corruption.
Late Tuesday, thousands of families drove out of Beirut to take their families to safety, but many others were left stranded without a roof, unable to go anywhere or unwilling to leave their gutted homes open to looters.
The rescue effort was slowed at night by the lack of electricity, which was already intermittent at best in much of the city before the explosion.
The security forces sealed off a huge area around the blast site, turning away residents trying to reach their homes to assess the damage.
Johnny Assaf, an estate agent whose home and office were destroyed by the blast, said he lost everything except his life.
‘I saw the mushroom first, then the force of the blast swept through my office. It sent me literally flying halfway across the office until my head hit the printer,’ he told AFP, nursing a hastily bandaged arm.
‘In hospital they stitched me up without anaesthesia and then stopped before they were done because too many serious injuries were being rushed in. I saw people die in front of me,’ he said.
Hospitals that had already been stretched to the brink by a spike in the number of coronavirus cases in recent days were pushed to new limits by the influx of wounded and forced to turn many away.
Saint-Georges hospital was badly damaged by the explosion and lost several members of its staff.
The Red Cross said on Wednesday morning that more than 100 deaths had been confirmed. It also reported around 4,000 injured, prompting fears that the death toll could rise significantly.
In a country where smallholders have been unable to withdraw even limited amounts of cash from banks since the start of the year, there was little hope of compensation for those whose property was destroyed.
Crippled by debt and political paralysis, Lebanon, which was due to celebrate its centenary next month, looked ill-equipped to tackle the new crisis.
Grassroots solidarity was still alive however, with initiatives swiftly set up on social media to help people locate missing loved ones or assist victims with free accommodation.