One month ago today, I was drinking coffee with my wife and our four-year-old daughter, and we felt what we thought was an earthquake.
It was as though someone had grabbed our building and was shaking it with their hands.
In fact, it was an explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that decimated Beirut’s port area in a blast that travelled as far as Cyprus, 145 miles away.
In a split second, our windows shattered. The curtain protected us from most of the shards of flying glass, but the force of the blast threw my wife across the room. My daughter, unable to understand what had just happened, couldn’t stop crying.
The tragedy killed at least 180 people, injured 6,000 more and destroyed the homes of some 300,000. Citizens of Lebanon’s capital have been left with physical and mental shock.
This disaster has come at a time when the country is already on its knees, steeped in an economic crisis which means nearly half the population is below the poverty line.
Over the past decade, Lebanon has become home to at least 1.5 million Syrian refugees. But now Lebanese people are leaving the country, unable to imagine how they can carry on here.
This is coupled with the coronavirus pandemic that has brought the entire world to a standstill. Just a couple of days before the explosion, a spike in cases forced Lebanon into lockdown again.
That was abandoned as emergency response teams rushed to pull people out of rubble, and inevitably cases have gone up once more – rising by 180% according to one humanitarian aid group. We have now gone into another phase of lockdown.
But it is as though Beirut is a city on two parallel timelines. We can’t lock down the port area as it is here where the bulk of international aid is coming through: we’ve had about nine ships full of much-needed food aid. And the area around the port is still frantic with people trying to recover whatever they can.
A casual marketplace has emerged for those who have spare furniture to sell in order to pay for the rehabilitation of their homes; their buyers are people whose furniture has been completely lost.
It is rare to see people here physically distancing, or wearing masks. I often worry that people aren’t taking this virus as seriously as needed, but also there just isn’t enough personal protective equipment for everyone.
And of course they have lost everything. A silent and invisible virus is not their priority.
Further away from the port, though, the city is eerily quiet, even during the day time, save for those who have to be out and about to keep things ticking over: health workers, people selling food, taxi drivers. Between 6pm and 6am, nobody anywhere is allowed to go outside.
I lead the team at the aid charity Islamic Relief Lebanon, which has been responding to this disaster since day one. The economic situation means that even middle class people have been struggling to put food on the table. And around 80% of the country’s vital cereal supply comes through the port that was destroyed, so there have been murmurs about what will happen in the future.
Lebanon’s central bank has said it only has enough reserves for vital goods like medication and fuel for two months. We’ve already seen an increase in crime around the country and I worry that there will be civil unrest as people are forced to grapple for food to eat.
The past few weeks we have been prioritising food distribution – making sure we wear protective equipment, stand at least a metre away from others and spray down all food and hygiene packs with disinfectant.
This week we are starting to help rehabilitate people’s homes, providing new windows, reinstating electricity. I was able to hire a carpenter to do what was needed to my apartment, but this is unaffordable for many. We need to make sure as many people as possible have shelter ahead of the rainy season, which starts this month.
In a few weeks, we will begin to focus on sustainable livelihoods for people who have lost their income, like taxi drivers, barbers, carpenters and business owners who haven’t been able to work after the explosion. Some will also have been laid off due to the economic crisis and the coronavirus. Over here, we don’t get furlough or government support.
Economic crisis, pandemic, port disaster: there are three parallel emergencies going on in Lebanon right now, with each one holding back any response to the other ones. Everyone is affected on some level.
Since that evening a month ago, my daughter screams whenever she sees any footage of the explosion on TV, or whenever my wife and I are talking about it.
She is terrified to go to sleep at night and hasn’t been able to sleep in her own bed. The psychological impact of this on children will be huge. But I cannot see what is going on in her mind.
Lebanese people have historically been through a lot, and have built up a resilience. But this is being eroded. I worry that this year of disasters may prove to be too much.
Islamic Relief has been working in Lebanon since 2006, supporting refugees and others living in poverty. You can donate to helping their work in Beirut here.
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