Beirut: What Happened? What is it like now?
[Warning: Photographs in this article by current affairs photographer, Hussein Baydoun, are graphic and may upset some readers.]
Six months ago an explosion shook my home city, Beirut. I was in Oxford and I spent the next few weeks in a desperate blur, frantically calling my family and friends and trying to get them help. While the explosion saturated the news during August and September, updates have gradually diminished. Yet the effects of the explosion, coupled with the challenges faced by COVID, are still an everyday reality in Beirut.
In early January, the editor of Quaere Living asked me to write a piece on the reality of living in Beirut right now.
Who I spoke to*
While I speak regularly to family and friends, I wanted to get a very clear and broad picture of what is happening. As a result, in addition to my family and friends, I interviewed Dr Amal El Hajj from the Hotel Dieu Hospital and Dr Samer Mansour from Makassed Hospitals.
I also interviewed two Beirut based Lebanese journalists; Giselle Raad, a senior television/print news correspondent, and Roula Rashid, the editor of one of Beirut’s most popular online news platform.
All of the people I interviewed are Lebanese and were in Beirut at the time of the explosion and have been living in Beirut ever since.
I interviewed each person multiple times via phone and zoom over a period of 18 days between 25 January and 11 February. What follows is a compilation of what they told me.
I would also like to thank Hussein Baydoun, Lebanon's leading current affairs photographer, who generously donated the use of his photographs for this article.
On Tuesday the 4th of August at 6.05pm, a small explosion could be heard across Beirut.
“It sounded unthreatening…like fireworks”, Raad told me.
Then at 6.08pm, a second explosion went off at the port of Beirut. The second explosion shook Beirut to the core. Scientists have estimated that this explosion was the most forceful non-nuclear, human-made explosion ever recorded. The explosion was felt in neighbouring countries and has created a crater that is 43 metres deep.
The Loss of Life and Damage
Officially, 204 people died in the explosion and over 7500 were injured. Today, more than 70 people are still missing, presumed dead.
More than 300,000 people have been left homeless. More than 80,000 buildings were damaged; from shattered windows to complete destruction. Of those 80,000 buildings: 62,000 were residential buildings; 14,848 were commercial buildings; and 20 were public buildings. Financial experts estimate the damage to be approximately US$15 billion.
Before the explosion, Lebanon’s economy was at breaking point with 400% inflation; making previously good salaries worthless. Lebanon’s currency, the Lebanese Pound, suffered sharp depreciation. All banks had closed in April 2020. People with savings could not access their money. The national debt exceeded US$123 billion; the equivalent of US$17,000 per person.
At the time of the explosion, Lebanon was essentially bankrupt.
The Aftermath - Hospitals
“After the first shock, we had to help ourselves. We knew we couldn’t wait for government help. We started clearing rubble and looking for survivors.”, Rashid told me.
“Usually, the number of scooters in Beirut is really annoying, but after the explosion, people used scooters to carry the wounded to the nearest surviving medical centre.”, said Rashid.
“Hospitals were overwhelmed within an hour of the explosions.” Dr Mansour told me.
“Four of the major hospitals ceased to operate and another three smaller hospitals were only able to operate at half capacity.”, said Dr El Hajj.
“There were 500 injured people that didn’t have access to medical care.”, said Dr El Hajj.
The Aftermath - People
“After the explosions, people were wandering the streets, looking for loved ones.”, said Raad.
“I was out reporting along with other news teams when a mother came up to one of my fellow reporters and said, ‘Have you seen my son? My son is a decent, lovely boy with hazel eyes, have you seen him’, it was absolutely devastating.”, Raad told me, “her son was found dead, under rubble, a day later.”
“The day after the explosion, people from all over the country left their homes and towns with brooms and shovels and headed to the streets of Beirut. Ordinary people led the clean-up.”, said Raad.
“In the days and weeks after the explosion, we were all in a collective state of PTSD. Walking the streets, you’d come across people walking, wide eyed and alert for danger, or others, who would just burst into tears randomly. Beirut is a city of windows, and every window in the whole city was shattered during the explosion. In the days after the explosion, so many people found comfort in clearing up the shards of glass that were everywhere.”, said Rashid.
“People I know who had survived the civil war, now sleep with their lights on…they are too afraid to go to sleep in the dark, “ said Rashid.
“Even today, you can see Beiruties having flash backs when they spot a glass shard embedded in the concrete of the pavement.”, said Rashid.
The Aftermath – International Help
“What we didn’t anticipate was the overflowing kindness from the international community”, said Raad.
“The day after the explosion, the Lebanese flag was projected on monuments across the world. People were acknowledging our pain, it gave us comfort.”, said Raad.
In the days after the explosions, governments from all over the world sent field hospitals, medicine, food, and much needed glass and building materials. Charities and civil organisations, funded by donations from the public, gifted Lebanon with money.
That money helped to stop the dramatic depreciation of the Lebanese pound and still provides a stabilising influence today.
The international effort was organised efficiently. Forms were distributed to people with damaged properties so that they could ask for help and support.
Lebanese citizens living around the globe (migrant Lebanese exceed the nation’s population by millions) sent all the money they could spare to their families in Beirut. Craftspeople found themselves busy for the first time in months.
An army of the Red Cross volunteers along with staff from Unesco saved lives, rescuing trapped people and looking after the displaced and the injured.
By the 20th of November, the Red Cross had provided 9,800 vulnerable families with the first round of direct financial support. By January 2021, most of this group had received another instalment of direct financial support. The total amount of support for each family was US$2100. While this may not seem like much, it was enough for those families to avoid homelessness.
In addition, the Lebanese Red Cross provided blood units, hygiene kits and food parcels to more than 200,000 people.
The People In Need organisation selected 37 essential businesses to bring back to operational capacity, as well as fixing as many windows as they could. Many other organisations generously helped.
The scale of the disaster meant that all help was meaningful but still left many people suffering.
The Aftermath - Today
“Today, many thousands of people, including families, are still homeless.”, said Raad.
“Some luckier people have found cheap, sub-standard properties to rent. But they are not safe, having been damaged in the explosions. Other people are temporarily living with family members.”, said Raad.
“You have to remember that this is all happening during COVID. So you can imagine how COVID has ripped through the population now, adding to everyone’s hardship.”, said Raad.
“Children have been especially effected by the horror. The explosions destroyed 159 schools. But, because corona virus cases were escalating at a terrifying rate, the government decided to keep all schools closed for the rest of the academic year. The problem is that not all children have a home at the moment and even the lucky ones that do, aren’t really equipped for home schooling. Children have lost out on all fronts in Beirut.”, Raad told me.
“Today is Beirut, the population is in trauma. So many people have lost their jobs. Even for people with jobs, salaries don’t buy anything anyway because of the inflation.”, said Rashid.
“With lockdown, domestic violence against women and girls is rife.”, Rashid told me.
“Incidents of theft has escalated – things like milk powder, nappies and food – robberies that show just how desperate people are right now.”, said Rashid.
If you are able to help the people of Beirut survive, please donate to the Red Cross' Beirut Emergency Appeal
This Article is dedicated to the memory of my uncle, Ghassan Ouraiby, who died from the injuries he sustained during the explosion on the 4th of August.
*At the request of the sources for this article, all names have been changed.