Beirut Is a Disaster and Residents Say Their Government Has Disappeared

Citizens in Beirut are removing debris, rescuing trapped victims, and counting the corpses while they wait for a government response.
August 6, 2020, 3:15pm
Volunteers clear debris from outside a destroyed residential building in Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020.

BEIRUT — Public rage in Beirut is mounting as people continue to wait for officials to spring into action two days after a catastrophic blast killed at least 157 people and injured about 5,000. One resident called government negligence around the fertilizer stockpile thought to have caused the disaster “an act of war.”

Simon Haddad, a 27-year-old computer programmer living in Beirut, said he hasn’t seen government representatives helping on the ground; it’s the civilians who are cleaning up the city.

“It's a disaster, humanitarian disaster, and it's been how many hours since the strike? It's been maybe, like, 10 hours or more. And we haven't seen any movement from the government,” Haddad said. “What's next? What are we meant to do?”

Haddad spent Wednesday with friends and relatives cleaning and removing debris in the city, over half of which has been damaged or entirely razed. Decimated buildings, rubble, and glass filled the blood-stained streets.

“We're sweeping. We're removing glass from the debris from the road,” Haddad said.

Haddad said he saw “women and children crying, blood everywhere” in the aftermath of the explosion, which turned Beirut’s main port into a smoldering crater. He said hospitals that weren’t destroyed by the blast are at capacity, and there’s a critical need for blood donations to support injured survivors.

Lebanese leaders, including President Michel Aoun, have linked the explosion to a waterfront warehouse that had been storing 2,750 tons of unsecured ammonium nitrate — a highly explosive chemical found in bombs and fertilizers — since 2014. Officials have vowed harsh consequences for those found responsible for the oversight, and several port officials have since been placed under house arrest.

“There is no way that we could have 2,700 tons of explosives and materials in the port close to where people live and there’s no one saying anything about it,” Haddad said. “This is criminal. This is an act of war. It’s terrible.”

Days later, the most visible official presence on Beirut’s streets was French President Emmanuel Macron. Residents swarmed Macron, demanding help and insulting Lebanese leaders while the French president toured the devastation.

Macron told Aoun that Lebanon needs to address corruption and  introduce reforms, and said “aid will not go to corrupt hands.”

Beirut resident Hisham, who asked to only be identified by his first name, is also on the ground searching for his missing friend. Hisham said he received footage of the fires that preceded the blast from his friend, Joe Akiki, over WhatsApp, but hasn’t heard from him since.

Akiki, 23, worked at the port and was on a roof, “standing between the warehouses and the explosion,” he told VICE News. Hisham said he and his friends have been searching for Akiki since the blast and even reached out to every hospital in Beirut.

“If anyone knows in which hospital he is and can assist us, we’ll be thankful to them,” Hisham said.

Medical volunteers like Bilal Abuzaid are also patrolling the city in search of people who are reportedly missing, and based on his observations, current death toll estimates are low.

“We had about 200 corpses yesterday, and about 2,500 injured people,” Abuzaid said, adding he managed to save five or six people who were caught in the debris.

There’s a good chance more dead bodies will turn up the longer Abuzaid searches, he said.

People across the city are also mobilizing to offer shelter, food, and water to victims, Abuzaid said. (At least 250,000 people are newly homeless as a result of the catastrophe.) And government officials have sent civil defence teams and heavy equipment, including haul trucks, to support the mass clean up.

“It’s a very massive disaster,” Abuzaid said. “I couldn't imagine this huge destruction. I mean, I saw it in movies, but I couldn't imagine what it feels like. It is very scary.”

“We will pass it because Lebanese people will be together, Inshallah,” he said.

Mounting unrest against government corruption and incompetence has marked Lebanon as the country sinks deeper into crippling economic and political crises, caused in part by a depreciating currency and the COVID-19 pandemic. VICE News reported that similar patterns of government ineptitude likely caused Tuesday’s disaster, at least in part.

“The fact that the government turned a blind eye to a massive stockpile of ammonium nitrate unsafely stored in an area close to residential neighbourhoods is simply not acceptable by any standards, and this speaks to the corruption rampant in Lebanon,” British-Lebanese analyst Lina Khatib told VICE News.

The Port of Beirut and customs office is particularly known for being one of the most corrupt institutions in the country, according to news reports.

Cover: Volunteers clear debris from outside a destroyed residential building in Beirut, Lebanon, on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. (Hasan Shaaban/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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