August 06, 2020 at 12:09AM
Beirut after the blast: the crunch of glass, acrid smoke and stairs slick with blood
THE CLOCK had just struck 6pm when the world shook. From Sassine Square, one mile (1.6km) from the blast, it seemed like a car bomb or a gas explosion—a disaster, but a localised one. Only on the drive down towards the Mediterranean did the scale of the devastation become clear. Streets were blanketed with broken glass that rained down from battered buildings. At a busy inter-section three women sat in the median holding scraps of fabric to bloodied heads. Beirut was an assault on the senses: the crunch of glass under tyres, the wail of sirens, the acrid smell of smoke.
The explosion at Beirut’s port on August 4th was apocalyptic in its magnitude. Residents of Cyprus felt it. Seismological monitors in Jordan registered it as the equivalent of a minor earthquake. The shock-wave left much of Beirut’s city centre in ruins. By the next evening the death toll was over 100, a number that will surely rise as rescuers dig through the rubble. Another 4,000 people were injured. The financial cost will run into the billions, in a country that can ill afford to pay.
The cause seems to be negligence, a mind-boggling degree of it, even by the debased standards of Lebanon’s government. In 2013 Lebanon seized a cargo of ammonium nitrate, used in fertiliser and in explosives for mining and quarrying, from the MV Rhosus, a Russian-owned vessel plying the seas from Georgia to Mozambique. The chemicals, all 2,750 tonnes of them, were stored in a warehouse at the port. (The Oklahoma City bomber in 1995 used just two tonnes of the stuff to kill 168 people.) Some officials warned of the danger of keeping a giant bomb next to a population centre. Their pleas were ignored.
It is still unclear what ignited the stockpile. Local media suggest that workers were welding nearby. Whatever the cause, it sent forth a towering fireball and a shock wave that slammed across half of Beirut. A sickly plume of reddish smoke lingered over the city long into the night. Scientists interviewed on television warned residents to shut their windows and wear masks because of toxic fumes laced with nitric acid.
The country’s intensive-care wards were already near capacity because of a recent spike in covid-19 cases. None was prepared for the influx of thousands of urgent cases in a single night. At Saint George hospital, a kilometre from the port, the damage was so severe that doctors had to halt surgeries and evacuate the building. Four nurses were killed by the blast and 15 patients on respirators died when their machines shut down. Other patients, clad in their hospital gowns, some with IV lines still attached to their arms, sat bleeding and shocked in a car park across the street. “It’s apocalyptic. There’s no other word for it,” said a neurosurgeon at the hospital.
In a nearby apartment building the stairs were slick with blood left by residents fleeing their ruined flats. Inside, doors were blown off their hinges; furniture took flight. An estimated 300,000 people, 5% of the country’s population, were left homeless by the blast. Some found shelter with family or friends. Others had nowhere to go. They swept broken glass off their furniture and bedded down for the night in flats without windows or doors or electricity. The city looked no better the next morning. Workers with brooms swept up glass until it overflowed dumpsters and piled in heaps on the kerb. Pedestrians looked up nervously as they walked, lest falling debris land on their heads.
Repairing the damage would be a tall order in good times. These are not good times in Lebanon. The economy has all but collapsed since October. Its currency, the pound, had been pegged for decades at 1,500 to the dollar. But the country has run short of dollars to maintain the peg and finance its yawning trade deficit. It can no longer sustain a years-long Ponzi scheme that saw the central bank (Banque du Liban, or BdL) borrow dollars from commercial banks in exchange for above-market interest payments. The pound now trades close to 8,000 on the black market, an 80% devaluation from the official rate. The government defaulted on its debts in March for the first time in history.
For most Lebanese life has become a seemingly endless succession of crises. Inflation is running at more than 50% and close to 200% for food. A 500-gramme jar of Nescafé can cost 10% of the monthly minimum wage; a kilo of beef goes for 15%. The army stopped serving meat to soldiers to cut costs. On June 30th the government raised bread prices by a third, the first increase in a decade. Half the country now lives below the poverty line, and three-quarters may need aid by year’s end.
Fuel shortages have led to interminable midsummer blackouts: power cuts in Beirut, normally three hours a day, stretched up to 20 hours in July. Back-up generators ran out of diesel or broke down from overuse, leaving many Lebanese in hot, dark apartments. Ogero, the state telecoms monopoly, has warned of internet outages if it cannot power its routing stations. The main public hospital treating covid-19 patients had to shut wards and turn off air-conditioners because of the black-outs. Petty crime was already on the rise, even before the explosion that left thousands of apartments open to intruders. One man held up a pharmacy at gunpoint—for nappies. Another robbed a pedestrian, then came back to apologise, saying he needed the cash to feed his family.
The government, installed in January, was meant to be a technocratic one that would tackle the economic crisis. It has accomplished almost nothing. After the default it asked the IMF for a financial agreement worth up to $10bn. Several months and 20 meetings later there is no progress towards a deal—because Lebanon is still negotiating with itself.
The cabinet and the parliament are bickering about the size of the financial sector’s losses. In an economic plan released in April, the government estimated a net loss of 157trn pounds between the BdL and commercial banks. (The plan optimistically envisions an exchange rate of 3,500 pounds to the dollar.) That was the starting point for talks with the IMF. But the country’s bankers are furious about the government plan, which would clean up balance-sheets by wiping out shareholders and the largest depositors. They released their own accounting that estimates losses at less than half the official figure, largely thanks to an even more unrealistic estimate of Lebanon’s future exchange rate. “It’s the same kind of financial wizardry that got us into this mess,” says Henri Chaoul, a former financial adviser to the government.
Mr Chaoul resigned in June in protest over the impasse. The IMF is still talking with the cabinet: they held a meeting on July 10th focused on the electricity sector. But the fund has warned that negotiations can progress only if Lebanon agrees on one set of numbers, or if the cabinet pushes through a few meaningful reforms as a show of good faith. Neither has happened. “It’s criminal,” says Alain Bifani, a former director-general of the finance ministry, who also quit his job in protest.
Add to this, now, the devastation of the Lebanese capital. Damage at the port alone will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fix. Among the buildings destroyed was Lebanon’s main grain silo, leaving the country with less than a month’s supply of wheat. Homeowners wonder how they will find the cash to pay for new glass or aluminium window frames. Business owners, barely eking out a profit before the disaster, say they will call it quits rather than rebuild. The government pledged to investigate, and to find the culprits within five days—enough time to name a scapegoat, but not to conduct a serious inquiry.
There is rage in the streets, but also resignation. Lebanon has endured much in its modern history: a civil war from 1975 to 1990, occupations by Israel and Syria, a ruinous war with Israel in 2006, and myriad other conflicts and attacks. The Lebanese prided themselves on their ability to pick themselves up and rebuild their society. This moment feels different. The economic model has failed; so too the power-sharing system that kept the peace between the country’s religions after the civil war. As the country sinks, its venal political class seems oblivious. Gone is the optimism of October, when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand the overthrow of an entrenched regime. Now those who can leave could dream of nothing more.
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2020/08/05/beirut-after-the-blast-the-crunch-of-glass-acrid-smoke-and-stairs-slick-with-blood
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