Beirut’s knock­out blow?

Le­banon faced eco­nomic peril even be­fore the blast

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Abby Sewell

BEIRUT — Be­fore the mass ex­plo­sion that rocked Le­banon on Tues­day, many thought the coun­try had al­ready hit rock bot­tom.

Beirut had be­gun to re­sem­ble the scene of a dystopian film. Thanks to a deep­en­ing eco­nomic and cur­rency cri­sis that has led to short­ages of es­sen­tial items in­clud­ing fuel, the street­lights were off.

With govern­ment-pro­vided elec­tric­ity com­ing some­times only a cou­ple of hours a day, diesel gen­er­a­tors were run­ning nearly non­stop, coat­ing the city in a per­pet­ual haze of smog. The num­ber of beg­gars on the street — many of them chil­dren — had mul­ti­plied.

The only thing that could make the sit­u­a­tion worse, many thought, was an­other war.

But the blast that came, in the end, was, ac­cord­ing to all of­fi­cial ac­counts, nei­ther a ter­ror­ist at­tack nor an Is­raeli strike. Rather, it was the re­sult of an ap­par­ently ac­ci­den­tal fire that det­o­nated a stock­pile of con­fis­cated am­mo­nium ni­trate that had been stored in a hangar in the Beirut port for years — the re­sult, as many saw it, of the same neg­li­gence by those in power that had led to the eco­nomic crash.

“Now came this mas­sive cri­sis — be­cause ev­ery­thing else that hap­pened be­fore it wasn’t enough. Our state is do­ing ev­ery­thing it can to kill us,” said Gisele Nader, a vol­un­teer with Dafa Cam­paign, an ini­tia­tive that was dis­tribut­ing food, wa­ter, cloth­ing and other ne­ces­si­ties Wed­nes­day to fam­i­lies whose homes were dam­aged in the blast.

“I was here through­out the war, but I’ve never seen the coun­try so dam­aged,” Nader said.

And thanks to the pre­ex­ist­ing eco­nomic cri­sis, it may now be much harder for Le­banon to bounce back from the af­ter-ef­fects of the ex­plo­sion, which killed more than 100 peo­ple, in­jured an es­ti­mated 4,000, left as many as 300,000 peo­ple home­less and caused an es­ti­mated $3 bil­lion in dam­age.

As of Wed­nes­day, civil de­fense vol­un­teers were still comb­ing through rub­ble look­ing for the bod­ies of the miss­ing, while fam­ily mem­bers were des­per­ately mak­ing the rounds of hos­pi­tals and post­ing pic­tures on an In­sta­gram page set up to help Beirutis find miss­ing loved ones.

“If this in­ci­dent, this crim­i­nal in­ci­dent, hap­pened many years back I would tell you, it’s prob­lem­atic, but we can sur­vive,” said Jad Chaa­ban, a Le­banese econ­o­mist and ac­tivist. “But right now, this is a ques­tion of Beirut be­com­ing a failed city and a com­pletely bro­ken city if peo­ple do not mo­bi­lize very quickly and sup­port it.”

The fact that the de­struc­tion comes on top of a cur­rency cri­sis means that many prop­erty own­ers will prob­a­bly not be able to ac­cess the dol­lars needed to pay for im­ported re­con­struc­tion sup­plies. Since Septem­ber, the price of the dol­lar has risen from its of­fi­cially fixed rate of around 1,500 lira to a black-mar­ket rate that is cur­rently around 8,000.

As a re­sult, many Beirut res­i­dents are now fac­ing the prospect of months sleep­ing in apart­ments with bro­ken win­dows. Tony Naqour, an in­sur­ance of­fice em­ployee who lives in the heav­ily dam­aged area of Gem­mayze, a largely Chris­tian neigh­bor­hood filled with trendy bars and res­tau­rants that was one of the ar­eas hard­est hit by the ex­plo­sion, had joined some young men from the area to help clean the rub­ble from a neigh­bor­hood soc­cer club Wed­nes­day.

Naqour said Tues­day’s ex­plo­sion, which he ini­tially thought was a bomb dropped by a war­plane, had blasted out the win­dows of his house.

“Where are we go­ing to get glass now? The price of a me­ter is go­ing to go to $300,” he said. “So, what are we go­ing to do? Sleep in the street? We’ll stay in the house with­out glass in the win­dows and smell the stench of the garbage at night.”

Naqour’s house fared bet­ter than many. His­toric build­ings that had been left un­touched by past wars have been hol­lowed out by the ex­plo­sion, and most of their res­i­dents had by Wed­nes­day moved to stay with friends and rel­a­tives, in their fam­ily homes in the moun­tains or with strangers who had posted of­fers of hous­ing on the in­ter­net.

Some had stayed on the streets.

Randa Hayat, who was sit­ting out­side her half-de­mol­ished build­ing with her hus­band, his foot bound in a cast, said she had been out­side Tues­day evening when the blast hap­pened and, ter­ri­fied to en­ter the build­ing af­ter­ward, had slept in the blasted-out store­front next door. “We’ve been out here all night,” she said. “There are no words to ex­plain what hap­pened, no words.”

Le­banese of­fi­cials have promised aid for those dis­placed by the cri­sis and to hold those re­spon­si­ble ac­count­able.

“All those re­spon­si­ble for this catas­tro­phe will pay the price,” Prime Min­is­ter Has­san Diab said in a speech Tues­day. “This is a prom­ise I make to the mar­tyrs and the in­jured.”

And on Wed­nes­day, the Le­banese govern­ment de­clared a two-week state of emer­gency and or­dered port of­fi­cials put un­der house ar­rest while launch­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into why a 2,750ton stock­pile of am­mo­nium ni­trate had been stored in a hangar at the port since be­ing con­fis­cated from a ship in 2013, de­spite the cus­toms chief hav­ing warned of the dan­ger of leav­ing it there.

The tragedy gar­nered at­ten­tion world­wide and of­fers of in­ter­na­tional aid, with na­tions in­clud­ing France, Rus­sia and Egypt send­ing med­i­cal staff and equip­ment, and oth­ers, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia and Nor­way, pledg­ing money for hu­man­i­tar­ian sup­port.

Even Is­rael, which had ini­tially been blamed by many in Le­banon for the blast af­ter height­ened ten­sions on the bor­ders and in­creas­ingly fre­quent fly­overs by sur­veil­lance air­craft in re­cent weeks, of­fered hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance.

While the in­ter­na­tional aid will help off­set the costs of re­spond­ing to the dis­as­ter, Chaa­ban said, it will not be enough to help the coun­try out of its un­der­ly­ing eco­nomic prob­lems. Le­banon has sought $10 bil­lion in as­sis­tance from the In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund, but talks have stalled, and other po­ten­tial donors have been re­luc­tant to of­fer aid with­out an IMF deal or con­crete move­ment on eco­nomic re­forms.

Chaa­ban said that while the new aid is wel­come, “what­ever aid we get now is new aid on things that are newly de­stroyed. This will not help us get back our elec­tric­ity, our en­vi­ron­ment, our ba­sic in­fras­truc­ture, for which we needed sup­port in the be­gin­ning.”

For many Le­banese, it’s hard to see a way out of the morass. Asked how he sees the fu­ture of the coun­try, Naqour de­murred.

“I can’t tell you what’s the fu­ture ahead of us,” he said, turn­ing to the other men around him, at work sort­ing through de­bris. “What do you think, guys? What’s the fu­ture of the coun­try? Does any­one have an an­swer?”

No one did.

Hus­sein Malla As­so­ci­ated Press

AN ARMY he­li­copter drops wa­ter on the scene of the mas­sive Beirut ex­plo­sion, which au­thor­i­ties called an ac­ci­dent and res­i­dents blamed on govern­ment ne­glect.

Photograph­s by Hus­sein Malla As­so­ci­ated Press

A WOMAN ex­am­ines a Beirut restau­rant a day af­ter the blast. “I’ve never seen the coun­try so dam­aged,” even dur­ing wartime, a vol­un­teer aid worker said.

A SUR­VIVOR is re­moved from the rub­ble. The ex­plo­sion, linked to a 2,750-ton store of am­mo­nium ni­trate, killed more than 100 peo­ple and in­jured some 4,000.

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