Last summer an explosion rocked Beirut. This month we asked our correspondent, who reported for us in the days following the blast, to return to those streets to meet the people rebuilding the Lebansese capital.
Since the devastating blast at the port of Beirut, Nour Salhab has learnt a lot – chiefly, that if you want change in a place that always seems to repeat the same mistakes, you have to make it yourself. “I feel Lebanon is a country that needs a lot of work to get where we want to get to,” she says. “If we want the country to improve, and we want people’s lives to improve, you need to do something about it.”
At the age of 25, Salhab already knows plenty about taking action. For six years, she has been one of 5,500 Lebanese Red Cross volunteers, most of them under 30, who organise more than 80 per cent of the country’s emergency ambulance response, because there’s no public ambulance service. Immediately after the explosion on 4 August 2020, Salhab recalls that she “drove like a crazy person” from Beirut’s Clemenceau neighbourhood, after seeing the clouds of the explosion, to Gemmayze, one of the worst-hit areas.
The death and destruction caused by the blast were unimaginable. In seconds, nearly 3,000 tonnes of highly flammable ammonium nitrate exploded, wiping out city blocks for miles around. But for some, the betrayal in its aftermath has been even worse. More than 200 people were killed that day, and their relatives, along with the thousands injured, were promised that those responsible would be held to account – within five days. Documents surfaced showing that, for more than five years, successive governments had been warned of the danger of allowing the cargo to remain at the port, but did nothing. More than six months on, the investigation has stalled, and the lead prosecutor, who attempted to indict several high-profile political figures, has been dismissed. Meanwhile, as ministers try to score points behind the high walls of parliament, the country is on the brink of collapse.
Thousands of Lebanese have fled, seeking a better life in any country that will have them. But many more have stayed, either by choice or necessity, determined to rebuild their country. Salhab is one of them. After the explosion, she and her colleagues worked round the clock for three weeks. There was no respite: almost as soon as the last of the survivors had been found, Lebanon was hit with an enormous spike in coronavirus cases, pushing damaged hospitals and overwhelmed staff to their limit.
Volunteers have had to increase their number of shifts and, with icu bed capacity at more than 90 per cent, handling the emotional impact on patients who are rejected from one hospital after another is a new part of the job. All they can do is try to keep the patient, already low on oxygen, from panicking as they try to seek out an available bed.
It has taken its toll. “Honestly, I’m tired, physically and mentally,” Salhab admits. “But sometimes you get patients and they look at you as someone who’s there for them, and they say things that warm your heart.”
City residents aren’t just suffering a health crisis. The areas hardest hit by the blast were densely residential, and getting people back into their homes has been a priority. Mohamad Ghotmeh, a Beirut engineer, has been doing what he can to help with the skills he has. “I started as a volunteer, by doing assessments of the damaged houses, finding a roadmap of how we can help people.” In the weeks after the explosion, he visited more than 100 homes, advising owners on the repairs that were needed to make them habitable and feeding back the reports to ngos raising funds to help. Initially, home- owners were given little more than wooden boards with padlocks to secure their front doors and plastic sheets to protect the shattered windows.
“Almost as soon as the last of the survivors had been found, Lebanon was hit with an enormous spike in Covid-19 cases, pushing damaged hospitals and overwhelmed staff to their limit”
After giving his services free of charge for more than a month, Ghotmeh’s contracting company, cti, began working with Beirut ngos, offering reduced prices to keep the costs as low as possible and spread donated funds as far as it could. So far, it has repaired nearly 40 homes in the blast zone.
But ngo funds are limited and can be used only to fix the structural elements of buildings, to make them secure to live in. For people who lost everything in the blast, the insides of their homes look nothing like they did before, and they can rarely afford to restore them.
The blast came in the middle of a devastating economic crisis that has left more than half the country living in poverty. As they attempted to raise money to rebuild their businesses, some Beirut entrepreneurs realised that starting from scratch was an opportunity to re-envision their role in the wider community.
Brant Stewart, founder of Mavia Bakery in Gemmayze, initially couldn’t see how they would save the business in the wake of the blast – insurers have been struggling to cover the costs, and payments are on hold until an official judgement is made about the cause of the explosion. But an online fundraising campaign drew in money from around the world within days. “When we realised we were getting a lot more money than we needed,” Stewart says, “we decided to shift focus.”
“It frees us up to think about bigger issues: revitalising the restaurant scene in Beirut; food security; building lasting infrastructure. It’s our duty now to help others around us”
By the end of that week, he and his all-female team of Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian cooks had started a soup kitchen, making up to 75 meals a day for people in the affected areas. But it didn’t feel like enough. “This all made me start thinking about food security in Lebanon and how we can have a real impact in the short, medium and long term,” Stewart says. Now, he’s using the extra funds to reinvest in feeding Lebanon’s most vulnerable – and providing work, too. He has secured land in the Bekaa Valley to plant new varieties of wheat and see what grows best in an attempt to reduce Lebanon’s dependence on imports; the destruction of Beirut’s wheat silo in the blast further exposed the fragility of food security.
Meanwhile, Mavia continues to support the community. Once pandemic restrictions loosen and cafés and restaurants are allowed to reopen, the bakery plans to supply its neighbours with heavily subsidised food items to sell as they try to get back on their feet.
“We feel so lucky to have received support from outside Lebanon to rebuild,” Stewart says. “It’s given us so much stability, which frees us up to think about bigger issues: revitalising the restaurant scene in Beirut; food security; building lasting infrastructure. It’s our duty now to help others around us.”
Kamal Mouzawak has made community support a key element of his reconstruction efforts, too. Before the blast, Mouzawak had already decided to incorporate the farmers’ market and restaurant arms of his Souk el-Tayeb food business in one space, and the converted warehouse was nearly ready to go. The explosion all but flattened it. Two days later, an international charity asked for help cooking for the victims of the blast. Within days, his team was preparing meals in their ruined restaurant, Tawlet, and had started an online fundraiser that made $200,000 (€167,000) to help rebuild.
It wasn’t just human lives that were torn apart by the explosion. Kamal Al Khatib volunteers for Animals Lebanon, to which desperate owners have turned for help in finding pets that ran away when their homes exploded. In the wake of the blast, Al Khatib found animals in drainpipes, in lift shafts and trapped under broken ceiling tiles. “I’ve rescued animals stuck in car engines, in tunnels, up trees,” he says. “But no one is prepared for this kind of rescue.” After two months, he was still finding pets lost in the blast. Now, he supports the hundreds of stray animals living on the streets; the numbers have swelled even more in recent months as families turn out pets that they can no longer afford to look after.
Mouzawak relaunched his Beirut business in October, in a devastated part of Mar Mikhael, an area that badly needs shops to reinvigorate it. The restaurant and farmers’ market are back, and now there’s a deli, too. And as a testament to the generosity of spirit after the blast, the complex now has a permanent community kitchen, preparing 2,050 free meals a day for residents trying to get back on their feet, and employing nearly 100 people from the area. “The most important thing for us was to come and bring life back,” says Mouzawak. “If we’re going to come back, we’ll come back at ground zero, we said.”
Beirut is returning to life – but slowly. Repeated Covid-19 lockdowns at the worst possible time have stalled both business recovery and rebuilding efforts. But as he watches, and helps, with the reconstruction of the city, Mohamad Ghotmeh sees signs of hope. “I feel that the Lebanese people have a strong belief in making Lebanon a better country,” he says. “And if they’re given the chance, they can make miracles, because we have a lot of talent and integrity.”
A little over a year ago, Lebanon’s anti-government protest movement found one of its emblems in the phoenix; a statue was erected in Beirut’s central square, built from the pieces of protest tents burnt down by forces determined to quash dissent. This is a very different country today than in those heady days of hope. But the statue still stands, as does the message behind it: Lebanon will rise again, stronger this time, and more equal. The people trying to rebuild the country with little other than their talents and a positive attitude have a mighty challenge ahead of them. But they are determined to try.
To see the original story, check out the October 2020 issue of Monocle – free to read in our online archive for all subscribers.