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Rebuilding Beirut: Who Will Pay?

Written by Heather Collier

With Lebanon in the midst of a health, economic and food crisis, it is no wonder that it is a republic that has been brought to its knees. Lebanon remains a country that has suffered decades of unrest; religious divides and generational trauma. It is clear now more than ever that there is a limit to its resilience.

The main aim, of course, is to rebuild the capital; to restore homes and livelihoods. Not only in the hearts and minds of the Lebanese people – but their entire political infrastructure. Citizens are calling for reformation of government and a drastic regime change, one that they hope has never been seen before in its history.

Many fear that the state is now profiting off of the destruction and want to make one thing clear – Beirut is not for sale. Families of those killed in the blast have been forced to pay petty debts such as outstanding parking fines before they can have the bodies of their loved ones handed over. The President of Iran Hassan Rouhani has cautioned that the explosion “must not be politicized”. That now appears impossible.

At around 18:07 (LT) on the 4th of August, what was believed to be fireworks or ammunition set alight within Beirut’s port. 35 seconds after the initial blast; a second explosion takes place – sending an immense shockwave throughout Beirut; tearing through the city centre and surrounding neighbourhoods. It is said to be one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions ever recorded; with the vibrations being felt as far as Turkey, Israel and Cyprus.

The source of the explosion was traced back to Warehouse 12. Located southwest of the main docks; the warehouse was stockpiled with 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had ignited; unleashing a toxic red cloud into the air. After laying in waiting for 6 years, the nitrate was detonated – causing a chain reaction of widespread chaos.

The death toll continues to rise with 180 people confirmed dead; an additional 30 missing and more than 6,000 injured. Over 300,000 people have been left homeless with around 80,000 believed to be children. With damages estimated at $15 billion; grain and other food supplies running gravely low and the pound plunging; the future of Beirut does not appear bright.

Days following the disaster; police clashed with youth-led protests outside the Lebanese parliament. Riots broke out amongst demonstrators who demanded a thorough investigation into the storage of the ammonium nitrate as well as radical changes to electoral laws. There is a mounting sense of anger; a vengeful revolt against the rampant corruption that is entrenched within the political and ruling elite. The general consensus is that the destruction could have been prevented; with workers and activists alike raising their concerns. The government was warned and alerted to the dangers the storage posed multiple times over the span of 6 years – including a private letter that was received by parliament only a matter of weeks ago.

After announcing his resignation, Prime Minister Diab admitted during his address that the problem extends far deeper than the current cabinet; claiming “the system of corruption is bigger than the state”.

For decades, no one has been held accountable for any form of misconduct exercised within government despite continual public outcry and damning accusations made by journalists. The public have continued to challenge the government’s negligence, which has also sparked mass speculation regarding the real cause of the explosion.

President Michael Aoun spoke openly about the transportation of goods at the port, claiming, “I have no authority to deal with the port directly. There is a hierarchy and all those who knew should have known their duties to do the necessary”, which begs the question: if Aoun does not have the authority to monitor the port, then who does?

Dr. May Shadiaq, Minister of Administrative Progress stated that “Beirut’s port and airport is completely controlled by Hezbollah”; a Shia Islamist militant group that has been active in Lebanon since 1985. With only 20-50,000 reservists, they are considered to be stronger than the Lebanese Army and are responsible for carrying out multiple terrorist attacks around the world. Hezbollah’s whereabouts is currently unknown, but many wonder whether they had any influence over the ammonium nitrate remaining at the port – or whether the government had deliberately stored it there with no intention of ever moving it.

“Storing explosives is a planned operation by Iranian intelligence that has been carried out in numerous countries” says Dr. Ranif Khori, Professor of Law and International Relations; implying that the warehouse has always had the potential to be used in some form of terrorist attack or act as a prime target for a missile strike. There is still much to be learned about the explosion; but with a Hezbollah-backed government on the brink of total collapse and officials dropping like flies, who is left to pick up the pieces?

Lebanon is ranked 4th in the world in mathematics and science and is renowned for its stunning landscapes, rich archaeology and historic Roman sites. Yet these are facts that are not immediately known to large parts of the Western world due to a lack of thoughtful coverage.The Western media maintains complete dominance over global media narratives. Arnab Goswami, the former editor-in-chief of Times Now, cited that as of 2015 the U.S. and U.K. dictate around 74% of all media output, with Asia contributing only 3%. Our media shields us from the positive attributes of the Middle East whilst equally failing to adequately report on the atrocities taking place there. The Yemen crisis and the ongoing conflict in Palestine are yet to be front page news; whilst images of refugees reaching our shores are plastered everywhere we look — all designed to alienate and vilify. We have become desensitised to wars that are not our own, without ever stopping to question whether it is our own country that has exacerbated this very suffering.

Vital reports are often pushed to the forefront when it is far too late. Lebanon’s economy came to a standstill last year due to a lack of action regarding poverty and reckless borrowing that sought only to benefit the top 1%. The main uprising can be traced back to October 2019 when the Lebanese government announced they were planning on imposing new taxations in and around Beirut, including gasoline, tobacco and even calls made on WhatsApp. Now combined with the strain of COVID-19; it is evident that there was already major economic disruption and gross mismanagement prior to the explosion.

In order to create real change; it is crucial that we continue to educate ourselves, spread awareness and donate to reputable causes and organisations instead of partaking in flurries of performative activism. World leaders and donors led by French President Emmanuel Macron have pledged a financial rescue package to stabilise the economy and reconstruct Beirut, but will this urgent need of funds take precedence over political reform and long-term humanitarian aid? After crying out for so long, there is still hope that this could be a turning point for Lebanon and an opportunity for rebirth. If not now, then when?

Image credit: @aatmeh on pexels

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