Six months ago Beirut blew up, now Lebanon is on the brink of collapse

H

aloed by the lights from their mobile phones, the medical staff at St George University Hospital picked through the dead to carry injured patients and colleagues on bed sheets through the ravaged remains of the nine-storey building.

Outside, a tidal wave of wounded coming out of the building crashed into the wave of wounded coming in from the surrounding neighbourhoods. 

In the middle, dazed medics, still stained with blood, set up a makeshift triage centre in the car park to treat both. 

Just moments beforehand on that night exactly six months ago one of the largest non-nuclear explosions of our time raged through central Beirut. Several thousand tonnes of poorly-stored explosives in the city’s port had ignited, sending a ring of pressure across the city that clawed fronts off buildings, ripped open roofs, and in the hospital, destroyed operating theatres, wards and intensive care units. 

In the middle of the nightmare, Rolla Farah, a chief nurse at St George, was given the impossible task of trying to safely evacuate the wounded coronavirus patients without infecting everyone around them. 

“We had to wait for special ambulances to transfer them in the middle of that. You can’t imagine,” she says.  

Half a year on from the devastating explosion which killed more than 200 people, injured several thousand more and destroyed nearly a quarter of a million homes, St George hospital, and its staff like Farah, are once again on the frontline of the latest mess of disasters to confront Lebanon

The country is careering towards total collapse as it buckles under the weight of a tripled-headed crisis: the aftermath of the blast which has left swathes of the capital in rubble, an unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases overwhelming the healthcare system and a financial crash that has pushed more than half the country of 7 million people under the poverty line. 

The international community has promised to support Lebanon whose rupture could ignite the tinderbox region. The tiny Mediterranean country is also home to nearly 2 million vulnerable Syrians and Palestinian refugees who are already struggling in extreme poverty. 

Its economy is inextricably intertwined tied to the economy of neighbouring war-torn Syria, which heavily relies on the Lebanese banking sector. 

And there are no signs of any of the extreme pressures easing up for Lebanon. 

The country’s caretaker government has had to impose a three and half week round-the-clock curfew – one of  the world’s toughest lockdowns – to try and stem the spread of Covid-19. But the absence of robust financial support programmes has sparked nationwide hunger demonstrations and in Lebanon’s poorest city, Tripoli, there have been bloody clashes between protesters and security forces.

On the brink: Inside Lebanon’s battle to survive

Furious citizens are also still demanding answers about the causes of the blast. An investigation into the explosion which changed and shattered so many lives has stalled since the country’s prime minister was charged with criminal negligence in December. 

With no end to the relentless misery in sight,  the country has been pushed to the very brink.

And so those at St George say they are once again left to bear the burden as the country lurches from “crisis to crisis”.

Despite only being partially repaired from the explosion and struggling amid shortages of foreign currency needed to purchase supplies, the hospital is now a main coronavirus treatment facility. It is overflowing. 

Since lockdown measures were controversially lifted during the Christmas season, Lebanon’s daily Covid-19 caseload has broken the country’s records. Now 300,000 people have been infected and more than 3,000 have died. The mortality rate from virus cases is climbing.

The staff of St George describe treating Covid-19 patients in their cars, on chairs in the waiting room and even on the pavements as they lack space to give people beds. 

The Red Cross said on Wednesday that Lebanon’s Covid-bed occupancy rate was more than 100 per cent. 

“We are at full capacity at the moment. Our non-Covid emergency room is now taking Covid-patients that are critical since there is nowhere else to put them,” says Farah while bits of the ceiling damaged in the explosion hang limp above her. 

“A third of the nursing staff are Covid-positive. We are really understaffed, working overtime and exhausted.

A sick patient in Beirut’s overflowing coronavirus wards

(Bel Trew )

Little hope of justice

Heavily pregnant, Sarah Copland was feeding her two-year-old son Isaac in his high chair, when at a few minutes past 6pm on 4 August she heard an unusual boom coming from the direction of Beirut port. 

The United Nations officer from Australia, rushed to the window to check what was going on outside but saw nothing. 

She was walking back to her son, when the explosion ripped her off her feet and threw her to the ground. 

“My husband came running in, we grabbed Isaac from his high chair. We didn’t know if it was a terrorist attack, or if the city was being bombed,” she says. 

It was then they realised their son had been speared in the chest by a piece of shattered glass from their sliding door. 

“When we got to the bathroom, we saw how injured he was and ran outside to find help. It was unreal. There were people lying in the street, there was glass and devastation everywhere,” she adds. 

From that minute on she says “it didn’t feel real, it felt like a movie”. 

Relatives in Beirut hold portraits of the victims six months on from the blast

(AP)

Isaac, a bubbly and much-beloved toddler, died hours later, becoming one of the youngest of 211 victims of the Beirut explosion. 

Copland, herself injured, would spend days in hospital in Beirut before being evacuated home to Perth. 

She later miraculously gave birth to her second son, Ethan. But six months on the family is still struggling to come to terms with their grief and fears the disaster will be forgotten by the world.  

“It is the hardest thing that I have ever gone through in my life, I know I will never get over what happened,” she says, her voice cracking with emotion. 

“I just feel for so many people stuck in Lebanon. They don’t even get a chance to recover from one crisis before facing another crisis.”

She said she is concerned that attention turned quickly away from the Lebanese capital, despite the fact that so many people, including her own baby, died. 

“It is important the world continues to remember what happened in Beirut.”

That feeling of grief is keenly felt across the devastated capital where many are also angry at the lack of answers and justice. 

Afif Merhej, 41, says his brother Kaiser, 36, a security officer in the port had “no idea what he was walking into” when he started his night shift that fateful evening. 

The father-of-two’s last message was to a friend to say he had been called to investigate a fire which had broken out on hangar 12, a warehouse the authorities knew held thousands of tonnes of dangerous explosive materials. 

However, Kaiser had no idea and said he thought it housed fireworks. 

Six months on, the grieving family are bitterly disappointed in the progress of the investigation and fear politics may hinder any attempts to reach the truth. 

“I want everyone responsible to be charged and for the judge not to miss out on a single person,” Afif tells The Independent on the verge of tears.

Fury at the lack of answers, and the government’s poor response to the aftermath of the explosion, which saw citizens man the clean-up operation, led to nationwide protests last year that resulted in the entire cabinet resigning. 

Six months on, Lebanon’s ruling parties still cannot agree on the formation of a new government, which has left the country in political limbo and hindered the delivery of foreign aid. The investigation into the blast has been stalled since 17 December. 

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch called for an independent international investigation into the blast warning the domestic probe has been hampered by serious process violations and attempts by political leaders to stop it. 

A beached cruise liner lies on its side in Beirut’s destroyed port

(EPA)

According to testimonies and documents seen by The Independent, port and customs officials, senior members of the security services, the prime minister,  several current and former ministers and the president of the country knew about the dangerous stockpile of ammonium nitrate in the port but did nothing about it.

The paper trail stretches back to 2014 when the materials, which are used to make fertilisers and bombs, first arrived in Beirut aboard a Moldavian-flagged ship. It shows Lebanese officials repeatedly warning about the dangers of the explosive materials.

Up until two months ago only 37 low-to mid-level security, port and customs officials had been charged, sparking mounting criticism of investigating judge, Fadi Sawwan, for not holding senior political figures to account.

But then on 11 December Sawwan took the extraordinary step of charging caretaker prime minister Diab, former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, as well as Ghazi Zeiter and Youssef Fenianos, both former ministers of public works.

The move to charge the ministers sparked fury from the country’s myriad and powerful political factions including condemnation from Hezbollah. 

Since then all of the three have refused to appear for questioning and maintain their innocence. Diab has called it “diabolical” to single him out for charges. The caretaker interior minister said that he would not ask the security forces to arrest them, even if the judiciary issued arrest warrants.

In January the court of cassation ruled Sawwan can resume his investigation while it reviews calls to replace him. 

For the victims of the blast, the paused investigation just means more heartbreaking questions left unanswered.  

Total descent into the abyss

Omar Tayba, 29 was not exactly destitute. But after failing to hold onto several part-time jobs and following an unsuccessful stint trying to find work in Turkey, he snapped.

The tidal wave of rage that boiled in Beirut rolled out of the capital across the country taking hold in Lebanon’s poorest city Tripoli, 80km to the north, where Tayba lived. 

For the last few weeks, a haze of teargas and the stutter of gunfire has covered Tripoli’s main protest square, as rallies have descended into clashes between protesters and phalanxes of soldiers.

Last Wednesday Omar headed out to join them and never came back. 

“My son got involved in the protests because he was angry,” his father Farouk tells The Independent from his impoverished Tripoli neighbourhood.

A nurse tends to her sick father in a coronavirus ward at the Rafic Hariri University Hospital

(Bel Trew )

“He had tried to find a way to sustain himself but with the economic situation it’s hard to find a future.”

Lebanon has long been in the grips of an unprecedented financial crisis anchored in decades of chronic mismanagement and corruption.

That reached a crescendo in the pandemic and after the August blast which left billions of dollars in damage and, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, caused 70,000 people to lose their jobs. Over the last year, the Lebanese lira has lost 80 per cent of its value and some food prices have more than quadrupled. According to the United Nations at least 55 per cent of the country now live under the poverty line, meaning they live off just a few dollars a day. The economy has shrunk by 20 per cent over the last year. 

In real terms that means many can no longer feed their families and even the middle class are relying on charity handouts to survive. 

That is most keenly felt in Tripoli, where poverty and unemployment rates have always been high. 

The northern city is no stranger to protests, and was central to an uprising which first erupted in 2019. But a wave of unrest re-erupted last month after the government enforced a three and half week round-the-clock curfew because of coronavirus – effectively locking in families at home and cutting financial lifelines. 

Roughly half of Lebanon’s workforce relies on daily wages mostly paid in local currency.

The caretaker government acknowledged the financial pressure and said last week it was giving 230,000 of the poorest families 400,000 lira a month, or less than $50 at the market rate, to help them make ends meet. 

But many of Lebanon’s population – like Omar – are still falling through the cracks. And so he decided to join the protests. 

At some point on the night of Wednesday 27 January he was hospitalised with a bullet wound to his back. He did not make it, his father says on the verge of tears. 

“We just want justice for our son,” he adds. The security forces admitted they had used live rounds but said it was in self defence after rioters had become violent. 

Armed security forces during one of the demonstrations

(Bel Trew )

His death has only fuelled more rage in Tripoli where protests have continued and a municipal building was even set on fire. 

“There are no jobs, we have nothing, no food. The government is using violence, we are starving to death,” shouts Sara, a protester who joined the rallies on Friday. 

“All we want is to find something to eat, that’s all.” 

But there is little hope on the horizon.

Omar Nader, an economist and director Beirut’s Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, predicts that Lebanon’s Central Bank will within weeks run out of its foreign currency reserves needed to sustain an expensive subsidies programme for key staples like wheat, medicines and fuel. 

Prime Minister Diab told Reuters in December that Lebanon can ration $2bn left of reserves for subsidies and make it last at least six more months. 

Nader thinks Mr Diab’s prediction is overly optimistic. 

The Independent reached out to the prime minister’s office for comment about the situation in Lebanon and received no immediate reply. 

“When the subsidies are cut the prices will skyrocket.  This will be the beginning of the full collapse,” Nader tells The Independent

He said the inability to form a government is also preventing the unlocking of foreign aid sorely needed to help Lebanon out of this mess. 

Nader said there were other problems too. He believes the country will soon be unable to purchase much-needed fuel meaning the country will lose power in the grip of winter. There were already 20-hour blackouts in some areas of Lebanon immediately before the blast last summer. 

And so Nader concludes that the wave of protests in Tripoli are a “rehearsal of what is coming next”.

“Multiply that across the regions in the country. Multiply that when the Covid-19 is over and more people will take to the street”.

“When all of this happens it will be a total descent into the abyss.” 

Police officers are seen during a Beirut protest days after the blast

(Reuters)

In the Covid-19 ICU ward in Beirut’s Rafic Hariri University Hospital, medics battle to keep alive a colleague, a nurse, who is unconscious and on a ventilator. The 39-year-old’s baby was born dangerously prematurely by caesarean because she was so sick with the virus.  

The newborn is intubated. There are fears the nurse, whose name has been withheld for privacy reasons, might not make it. 

Outside the coronavirus entrance to the government medical centre, anxious families gather for news of their loved ones. A young man in a mask openly sobs with his head in hand. 

The day The Independent visited was the worst ever day for fatalities, the hospital’s director Dr Firass Abiad later told us. Seven people were dead by the afternoon. 

Despite the pleas for the lockdown to be lifted because of poverty and hunger, in the Covid-19 wards the exhausted medics say the measures are the only line of defence they have against the deadly virus. 

“I’m so tired, sometimes I want to cry,” says one red-eyed nurse whose father is currently hospitalised with coronavirus in the hospital’s ER.

Another male nurse adds: “We just want people to stay home for just one month. 

“If we can keep the lockdown we might have a chance.” 

Dr Abiad acknowledges that amid the financial pressures the strict curfews are not sustainable and says the vaccine rollout may be the only way out of the crisis. 

Soldiers on the streets of Tripoli

(Bel Trew )

But even that may be a pipe dream in Lebanon. The authorities confirmed it will receive its first batch of vaccines later this month, but there are questions over how the entire programme will be funded given shortages of foreign currency.  

The only hope for Lebanon might once again be a bailout from foreign nations. French president Emmanuel Macron, who had been spearheading international efforts to rescue Lebanon, has said this week he will visit the nation for a third time since the August blast.

But without a government in place, it is hard to see how money will flow in given that most foreign countries have vowed to condition aid on reforms that cannot be delivered by a caretaker cabinet. 

Meanwhile, protesters are prepping for more protests in the coming weeks. 

Those still grieving from the blast hope the world will not forget what happened all those months ago or the crisis taking hold in Lebanon right now. 

“It is just such a travesty for the world to just move on,” says Copland, her voice edged with tears. 

“Isaac deserved a chance of life and that was taken from him. That is the same for everyone who was killed in the blast. That chance was taken from them.” 

“We can’t forget that.”

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