How are the Lebanese doing? The Beirut Port Explosion, a year on.

Lebanon was dreading the month of August. Last year witnessed a catastrophic explosion, one that reflected the symbolic death of Lebanon. Now, a year later, much has changed: and not for the better. Fatima Dia explores the state of the country — and the people trying to save it.

On August first, while attempting to write this very article, gunshots were heard in my neighbourhood. We quickly fell into action, as we usually do — it wasn’t the first time. Neighbours belonging to opposite sects in the country clashed, in a matter of revenge killing. Things got out of control, and by the time the sun set, numerous army tanks made their way to our neighbourhood to put a stop to the situation. My family and I gathered some of our things, including our passports (just in case), and stayed at my partner’s house for a few hours. Things de-escalated, and we went back home. In the afternoon, the streets were filled with armed men running around. Later at night, people were sitting at cafes. 

This extreme sea-saw between a steady calmness and a chaotic mess has always been characteristic of living in Lebanon — this was one of the many reasons for the October 17 revolution back in 2019. But the intensity, and the audacity, with which it happens has increased tenfold, and the situation in the country has only further deteriorated since August 4. 

What happened last August?

In the afternoon of August 4 last year, the port of Beirut suffered two consecutive explosions allegedly caused by a fire in a warehouse containing fireworks. In a sick domino-effect, the first explosion then sparked the second massive one that we're now well acquainted with: the gigantic apocalyptic blast followed by a shock wave that was felt almost across all of Lebanon, and across the sea, in Cyprus, 240km away.

More than 200 people died, more than 7,000 people were injured, and approximately 300,000 people were left homeless due to property damage expanding almost 20km from the epicentre of the explosion. The first 6km was categorized under “severe damage”, up to 10km as “moderate” and the last 10km as “light”. UN and governmental reports said up to 50,000 houses were impacted severely, moderately, or lightly. Reports showed heavy damage to approximately 15,000 establishments in Beirut, especially small businesses in a number of areas. Several public and private health centres and hospitals that were already overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients were also severely damaged by the explosion. Overall, Beirut suffered US$15 billion in property damage. 

The weeks after the explosion held a series of events characterized by foreign aid, Lebanese diaspora in action, and the Lebanese themselves taking to the streets to clean the debris. They helped as much as possible with food donations, temporary housing, and medical needs. 

A memorial and prayer placed on the windshield of a car in Gemmayzeh, Lebanon, on August 6, 2020. Gemmayzeh was one of the areas that was severely damaged from the explosion. Photo by Hadil Dia (mindshapedbox)

The probe into the Blast

The ammonium nitrate that exploded was stored unsafely at a warehouse in the port for years, and the common slogan after this information was made public was “They knew”. A year before, the Oct. 17 revolution was brought to a stop due to the world-wide pandemic, but the anger towards the corrupt government simmered just beneath the surface. The fact that the explosion could have been easily prevented — had port authorities and the government taken proper actions — only caused more public anger and distrust. The overwhelming majority of the Lebanese people did not believe the judicial system would conduct an independent and just investigation. A year later, this fear still stands.

The local probe has so far failed to show any real progress, and political leaders have refused an international investigation.

In the most obvious form of postponing the truth, the country’s parliament and security agencies have called upon the “immunity” clauses in the constitution— they’re“safe” from being investigated.

Despite said immunity obstructing the road to justice, the current judge, Tarek Bitar, and his team claim to have completed about 75% of the case, including finding out who was responsible for shipping the ammonium nitrate and who unloaded it in Beirut back in 2013 — although that information has yet to be made entirely public. Last year, sources reported that the shipment was onboard a Moldovan-Flagged ship coming from Georgia to Mozambique. New reports this year have said that a Mozambican factory confirmed it had ordered the chemicals and never received them.

Lawyer Youssef Lahoud told France 24 that the “weak point” of the investigation is that they have yet to determine what triggered the blast. The public saw the fire first, but what started it is disputed across the country. Last year, security in Lebanon said welding work started the fire, but experts have deemed it baseless.

Lahoud also told France 24 that they have asked several countries to help with providing satellite images at the exact time of the blast, but so far only France has responded, saying they had no satellite angled onto Lebanon at that time. The investigating authorities in Lebanon did not rule out a possible attack as the trigger, but French and American experts believe that’s unlikely after sampling water and soil from the port.

On July 29, Reuters reported that Lebanese authorities are “ready to lift immunity”, but Parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri has yet to declare when or how. An FBI probe from October last year was made available to Reuters this year, and it was concluded that only one fifth of the ammonium nitrate shipment that unloaded in Beirut in 2013 had exploded — insinuating that much of the shipment had gone missing.

All in all, a year later, the Blast victims and the Lebanese public in general have yet to receive a glimmer of justice, and distrust of the country’s leaders only increases.

An old building with a fallen balcony in Gemmayzeh, Lebanon, August 6, 2020. Many of these buildings were Beiruti heritage, having been around for more than 100 years. Photo by Hadil Dia (mindshapedbox)

Economic Collapse hitting all sectors

Following the Blast, Lebanon catapulted into one of the world’s worst economic crises in the past 170 years, according to the World Bank. The World Bank’s Lebanon Economic Monitor called the country’s economic downfall a “Deliberate Depression” in 2020. By October 2019, the country had spiralled into a financial crisis that resulted from a sudden stop in capital inflows, systematic malfunctions in the banking sector, including a government default on a $1.2 billion Eurobond redemption, the first ever sovereign default for Lebanon, according to the LEM. Soon after, the pandemic reached the borders of Lebanon and the country imposed a nationwide lockdown. Then came August 4.

A year later, the LEM reports that the current crisis ranks among the “top 10, possibly top 3, most severe crises globally since the mid-nineteenth century.” The report also states that for over a year, the county’s authorities have failed to improve the situation in any way with “deliberately inadequate policy responses”.  

The World Bank stated this is a “severe prolonged depression”. The real GDP growth contracted by 20.3% in 2020, inflation “reaching triple digits”, and the exchange rate value continues to decrease. As of now, the Lebanese pound has lost almost 95% of its value, and more than half the population has plunged into poverty.

In addition, the port of Beirut dealt with 82% of Lebanon’s imports and exports, and was the country’s economic lifeline, as described in an article in Arabian Business. The explosion not only flattened a fundamental part of the country’s economy, but it also worsened some already vulnerable areas. The World Bank reported “low-grade infrastructure, dysfunctional electricity, water supply shortages, inadequate solid waste and wastewater management, weak public financial mismanagement, large macroeconomic imbalances, and deteriorating social indicators”.

The majority of the Lebanese population don’t get more than two hours of electricity per day, there are petrol and gasoline shortages for vehicles and private generators, and food prices have quadrupled. UNICEF reported alarming percentages about Lebanese families the past year: 15% of families stopped their children’s education, 25% can’t afford tools for online learning, 30% have at least one child who skips a basic meal, and 77% lack enough food.

The World Bank also highlighted the next steps needed towards recovery, like building a better business environment and institutions under good governance on top of physical rebuilding. Due to the country’s history of “insolvency” and lack of foreign exchange reserves, international aid and private investment would be needed — however, they’re unlikely to happen without the proper governmental, social, and financial reforms needed to put a stop to the country’s corruption.

An elderly man stares out of his balcony onto the street of Gemmayze, where civilian volunteers cleaned the streets from the debris, on August 6, 2020. Photo by Hadil Dia (mindshapedbox)

What about our mental health?

The Institute for Development, Research, Advocacy and Applied Care (IDRAAC) reported that 1 in 4 Lebanese adults are at risk of developing a mental disorder at some point in their lives.

IDRAAC told Reuters that the number of patients increased fourfold since the financial crisis in October 2019, and even more people sought help after the blast in their walk-in clinics. Prior to the Blast, about 80% of the walk-in patients were refugees — now they’re mostly Lebanese.

The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy reported earlier this year that Lebanese people still feel the “invisible impact” of the Blast. Nightmares, fatigue, anxiety, and depression are all still prevalent in survivors. The Institute’s analysis also showed that an estimate of 100,000 children directly impacted by the Blast also show signs of post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorders.

Despite the absolute need for mental health services, the sector is highly privatised and inaccessible to the majority of the population. Also, the topic of mental health in Lebanon is still stigmatised, and as the Tahrir Institute stated, a large majority of the population was likely to not seek help because of it.

The rise of online help through social media, and the presence of NGOs such as Embrace Lebanon, BeBrave Beirut, and Elgorithm, has proven to be more crucial than ever.

“After August 4 I feel like there wasn’t much of a choice,” said Luma Makari, founder of NGO Elgorithm that helps provide schools with access to digital mental health programs. “All of our mental healths were collectively affected and it was something that needed to be brought to light and discussed.”

Embrace Lebanon works towards the accessibility of mental health care in a country where that has “long been overlooked,” as their spokesperson said. The NGO created Lebanon’s first national helpline for emotional support and suicide prevention (1564) in 2018.

“Now, more than anytime, mental health is taking a front seat in our community,” they added. “We have been hit by several shocks this year, and have witnessed an increase in the sense of solidarity and communal support, and our ability to be kind to one another and stand by each other.”

As a response to the Blast, Embrace launched the Embrace Mental Health Center (EMHC) “to provide direct, affordable, and quality mental health care to persons experiencing mental illness in Lebanon,” said their spokesperson. This service alongside the Lifeline and Embrace’s Awareness and Outreach Interventions (A&O) have provided the public with more accessible help.

“[These services] have shown a dramatic increase in terms of calls received to 1564, appointments scheduled at EMHC and significant increase for A&O sessions to schools, scout groups, universities, and NGOs,” they said, adding that this “only shows the increasing need by the community to access credible mental health services to help [people] alleviate the struggles they, and all of us, are going through.”

Anniversary Effect

Feeling anxious, irritability, reliving moments, inability to sleep, emotional shutdown; these are signs of the Anniversary Effect. In Psychology, the term is defined as a “unique set of unsettling feelings, thoughts or memories that occur on the anniversary of a significant experience.” As we reach the one year mark since the Beirut Port Explosion, seek help, surround yourselves with loved ones, and grieve however you feel is necessary.

“Of course [we have hope],” said Embrace Lebanon’s spokesperson. “We are committed to ensure that mental health and access to care is positioned as a basic human right that must be met for all persons, through awareness, advocacy, and dignified mental health services across the spectrum of care.”

Written by Fatima Dia 

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