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Lebanon: The Eve of the Port Explosion – First Anniversary

Beirut struggles to cope with its wounds

On the eve of the commemoration of the first anniversary of the matter explosion in the port of Beirut – the blast which erupted at precisely 18:07 on August 4, 2020, devastated the port and the Christian quarter of the Lebanese capital.  Its impact was especially felt by the communities of Gemmayzé, Mar Mikhaël, la Quarantaine, Achrafieh, Bourj Hammoud. The tragedy left over 200 people dead and 6,500 wounded; and a Lebanese people who are still hovering between rebellion and fatalism.

The gutted grain silo on the port of Beirut
Photo: Jacques Berset / ACN

Wednesday, August 4 has been decreed by the Lebanese Council of Ministers as a day of national mourning, with all work suspended in government administrations and public institutions. Large crowds are expected to gather in the port of Beirut for a ceremony presided over by the Maronite Patriarch Béchara Raï.

H.B. Mar Bechara Boutros Rai, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East for the Maronites – to preside over a commemoration celebration.

However, for ordinary people, already overwhelmed by the profound crisis that has been afflicting the country since October 2019—through the endemic corruption, a decaying public infrastructure, hospitals on the edge of collapse in the face of a continuing Covid-19 pandemic—there is still no light at the end of the tunnel.

Many nurses who formerly worked in Lebanese hospitals have already left to work abroad. The same is true of many doctors who have either left or are trying to leave. Catholic school teachers, juggling a salary that is no longer enough to even feed their families, are also resigning and hoping to emigrate. By the end of last year, over 380,000 requests for emigration papers had been submitted to the embassies of the EU countries, Canada and the United States… The future of Lebanon is indeed looking bleak!

In the streets of Gemmayzeh, a devastated Christian neighbourhood near the port of Beirut. The poorest people look for food in the garbage. Photo: Jacques Berset / ACN

A Majority Trapped in Poverty and Destitution

Well over 50% of the population now live below the poverty line; today one can even say destitution. At the Holy Family School in Jounieh, a good 20 km from Beirut, Sister Eva Abou Nassar, the school’s administrative director, confided that she has already lost around 20 teachers this past June and July. “Most of them want to emigrate, since they can simply no longer make ends meet. Their purchasing power has fallen drastically. Whereas before the crisis a starting salary of 1,525 million Lebanese pounds (LL) were roughly equivalent to 1000 US dollars, with the collapse of the Lebanese pound it is now worth no more than 75 or 80 US dollars. An experienced teacher earns twice that much, but that is still far too little. Whereas before the crisis one dollar was worth 1500 Lebanese pounds, it is now being exchanged on the parallel market for 18,500 LL.” And since Lebanon relies mainly on imported goods, everything has to be paid for in terms of the dollar: for example, “a tin of baby milk—and you need two a week—costs 250,000 Lebanese pounds. To rent a generator (since the public electricity supply only operates between two and four hours a day) costs 600,000 LL a month—while the minimum wage is just 675,000. Getting a spare part for your car can cost you between two and four months’ average salary… Some of the families here in Jounieh, a town not generally regarded as being poor, actually go out early in the morning, in order not to be seen, scavenging food from the dustbins!”

The names of the “martyrs” who were killed by the blast on 4 August 2020 are scribbled on the wall along the road alongside the port Photo: Jacques Berset / ACN

Names of the “Martyrs” Scratched on the Walls

On the wall bordering the road that runs along the edge of the port are inscribed the names of the “martyrs” who were killed by the explosion, along with photos of children, now already fading with the passage of time. And in front of the ruins of what is left of the huge grain silos that were disembowelled by the explosion of some 2750 metric tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a hangar without proper supervision since 2014—in an act of gross irresponsibility on the part of the authorities, who continue to deny responsibility and blame one another instead—there now stands an immense sculpture of twisted metal, a human form with a metal dove on the end of an outstretched arm. “It was erected by the demonstrators of the ‘Thawra’—the revolution—who have been protesting against the government since October 2019.

Port of Beirut – July 29, 2021: A huge twisted scrap metal sculpture with a metal dove at arm’s length, the work of the ‘Thawra’ (revolution) protesters who have been protesting against the government since October 2019 Photo: Jacques Berset / ACN

People just can’t take any more of the political establishment, who have been sharing the spoils between them without a thought for the needs of the people,” explains Wajih Raad, a lawyer and the brother of Father Samih Raad, who has been showing ACN representatives around the streets of the Gemmayzé quarter. The streets still bear many scars of that fateful day of August 4, 2020.

So many of the shops are now shuttered, the restaurants that once lined the streets are almost all closed. The quarter seems dead—nothing like it used to be in the years before the crisis. “The atmosphere is deeply pessimistic; people would like to be able to leave, but how?” Wajih still strives to remain optimistic, against all expectations, doggedly determined to remain hopeful: “It’s going to take several years, but we’ll get through it!” Right next door, in the Mar Mikhaël quarter, where the imposing headquarters of Lebanese Electricity stands, a ruined building, its empty windows gaping wide. Close by is a large painted mural, already peeling, with the words, “What does the future hold in store for us?”

In the Mar Mikhaël district, a large mural with the phrase: “What does the future hold?”
Photo: Jacques Berset / ACN

“Pope Francis has given us hope that we can confront this crisis, with his appeal to the universal Church not to let us go under. The Pope is not going to abandon the Church in Lebanon! We are regaining some degree of confidence, despite all the difficulties. Why should we fear others when we have our faith in Jesus Christ? The yeast may be little in quantity, but it can leaven the whole loaf!” This is the conclusion of Father Père Raymond Abdo, Provincial of the Order of Discalced Carmelites in Lebanon, who welcomes ACN to the monastery of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Hazmieh, one of the suburbs of Beirut.

Father Raymond Abdo (Provincial of the Order of Discalced Carmelites in Lebanon) in the convent of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in Hazmieh, in the suburbs of Beirut – holds up an icon of Our Lady. Photo: Jacques Berset / ACN

The international Catholic pastoral and pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) is heavily committed to supporting the Lebanese people struck by this crisis, which has lasted since the autumn of 2019, and made worse by the consequences of the explosion on August 4, 2020, in the port of Beirut.

At the Collège de la Sainte Famille Française in Jounieh, some twenty kilometres from Beirut, Sister Eva Abou Nassar (Administrative Director) Jacques Berset / ACN

In its projects for the year 2020, ACN already invested some $4,107 million in the reconstruction of pastoral infrastructure destroyed by the explosion, with an additional $3.38 million in emergency relief aid, along with other aid for pastoral support, transport, basic subsistence and more—all in all a total of almost $8.160 million.

To see more about Lebanon and the projects ACN has supported, or to give to the Lebanese people – go to: Lebanone, One Year Later...

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