Beirut picks up the pieces after deadly port explosion
In the early evening of the 4th of August, Lebanon’s capital was rocked by a massive explosion that occurred in a warehouse at the Port of Beirut. The explosion, which generated shock waves equivalent to that of a 3.3 magnitude earthquake, was triggered when an estimated 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate was set alight by a fire that had started in the warehouse.
The deadly blast is one of the largest ammonium nitrate explosions ever recorded, and occurred just days before a UN-backed court was set to announce the long-awaited verdict on the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
At the time of publishing (12th August), Lebanese authorities have announced that at least 220 people have been killed, more than 5000 injured, and an estimated 300,000 people left homeless. Lebanon’s once vibrant capital has also been declared a disaster zone.
Beirut’s Governor Marwan Abboud struggled to hold back tears as he visited Beirut’s port in the aftermath of the explosion.
“I have never in my life seen a disaster this big. This is catastrophic”, Governor Abboud told reporters.
“We could barely survive before, and now we have this disaster. We have to stay strong”.
Georges Kettaneh, the Secretary General to Lebanon’s Red Cross, echoed similar sentiments - describing the event as a “huge catastrophe” that has left “victims and casualties everywhere”.
Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun has vowed to hold those who are responsible to account and stressed that local authorities will examine whether the explosion was triggered by ‘external interference’. However, calls for an international probe into the cause of the deadly explosion were declined by President Aoun.
As internal investigations begin, search and rescue groups have been combing through the rubble in the port’s vicinity in a quest to search for the hundreds that are feared missing. And on the streets of Beirut, residents came together to clear the damaged cars, shattered glass, and other debris that littered the city’s streets in the aftermath of the blast. But as Beirut begins to come to terms with the unprecedented destruction caused by the explosion, anger is rapidly mounting among residents.
On the 8th of August clashes between protestors and security forces erupted in Beirut, replacing the smoke that previously filled Beirut’s skies due to the explosion with tear gas, flying rocks, and rubber bullets. Chanting “Revolution! Revolution! Revolution”, thousands of protesters took to the streets to express their frustrations with the economic and political system of their nation. By the 10th of August, public anger had simmered so high that Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced the resignation of the entire Lebanese government in a televised address.
“Today, we follow the will of the people to hold accountable those responsible for this disaster that has been hiding for seven years, and their desire for real change from the corrupt destructive state”, announced President Diab.
“In the face of this reality, we take a step back to stand with the people to undergo this battle of change with them… I am announcing today the resignation of this government.”
“May God protect Lebanon”
As residents continue to pick up the pieces of Lebanon’s shattered capitol, many are growing increasingly concerned about the impacts that both the explosion and the cabinet's resignation would have on an already fragile state.
“We must act quickly”
UN agencies have warned of an impending humanitarian crisis if there is not enough international assistance in Beirut following the deadly explosion. The Port of Beirut stood as not only one of the busiest ports in the Eastern Mediterranean, but as an integral reserve of Beirut’s food supply. Prior to the explosion, Lebanon was facing a food security crisis that was closely connected to the economic crisis that was simultaneously facing the nation. This resulted in an increased reliance in food imports.
“Nearly 85% of food in Lebanon is imported – much of it coming through the country’s largest port, which now lies in ruins,” says Abdallah Alwardat of the World Food Programme (WFP).
As Beirut’s grain now lays strewn amongst the rubble, humanitarian organisations have called for international assistance in reviving the supplies that were ravaged by the explosion. Thus far, over £220 million has been raised for Beirut, and humanitarian experts and volunteers from all over the world have arrived on the ground to assist.
With over 5000 injured, Beirut’s hospitals are facing an immense challenge as they attempt to deal with both the coronavirus pandemic and treating victims of the explosion - all whilst dealing with shortages in medical supplies, power cuts, and limited funding. Residents fear that Beirut’s medical institutions, which are among some of the best in the Middle East, will be stretched to the breaking point.
To avoid collapse, Beirut’s hospitals are having to turn away patients with non-life-threatening wounds so that they can aid those with severe and life-threatening injuries.
The Beirut explosion also comes at a time when economic forecasts from The World Bank warn that Lebanon’s economy is in freefall due to factors such as: years of rampant corruption, a Lebanese pound that has lost 80 percent of its value, and the accumulation of debt. Lebanon’s economy took a hit with the coronavirus outbreak and has now been hit again by the Beirut explosion which is estimated to wipe up to 25 percent off the nation's GDP.
“The damage is too big. We estimate the direct and indirect material damage to be around $10-15 billion. This is the biggest crisis Lebanon has gone through in modern times”, Beirut’s Governor Marwan Abboud told reporters.
With Beirut’s existing socio-economic and political situation likely to be inflamed by the latest tragedy, citizens are calling for a period of “sympathy and solidarity” rather than one of “political finger-pointing and debate”. The people of Beirut, who are known for their resilience, are now holding on to hope that change will arise from the ruins.
Cardiff JOMEC grad and aspiring journalist based between the UK & Kenya.