Beirut Blast Hit 3 Disparate Neighborhoods. Now They’re United in Rage.

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BEIRUT, Lebanon — For months, the restaurateurs poured their time and money into a gamble on a new joint called “The Barn.”

Conceived as a healthy eatery in the hip, historic Beirut neighborhood of Gemmayzeh, it was set to open on Monday with organic produce and a curved marble bar. But the explosion that ripped through Beirut last week beat the opening by six days, blasting the restaurant’s metal doors into the dining room and carving a path of destruction.

Sitting in the remains, the founder, Rabih Mouawad, said the blast — which officials said was caused by the detonation of chemicals stored for years at the city’s port — showed how gravely the country needed to change.

“If there is ever a turning point for Lebanon, this will be it,” he said. “We just got hit by a nuclear bomb! If that doesn’t change things, nothing will.”

ImageA destroyed apartment in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood of Beirut.
Credit…Hassan Ammar/Associated Press

In three ravaged neighborhoods — one middle class, one poor, and one upscale — the catastrophe has united everyone in rage against a government seen as corrupt, dysfunctional and ineffectual. Dozens of conversations in these areas found residents of different classes who were already seething over the country’s failures of leadership and are now demanding change even more forcefully than before.

Lebanon had already been sinking into a bog of interlocking crises that will make recovery far more difficult. Even before the coronavirus pandemic triggered a global recession, Lebanon’s economy was shrinking, its currency was crashing and banks were refusing to give people their money. Power cuts left many in the dark, and protesters marched frequently against their leaders.

Then a huge cache of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in fertilizer and explosives, detonated at the port on Tuesday, killing more than 150 people, injuring some 6,000 and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless, according to officials.

That lent a new sense of urgency to the campaign for a change in government.

Gemmayzeh

If you ever received a postcard from Beirut, chances are good the photo on it was taken around Gemmayzeh. Just south of the port, the predominantly Christian, middle-class district is dotted with stone churches and historic homes with exposed rafters and arches facing the street.

Picturesque stairwells covered in arty graffiti run between apartment buildings. The main drag is lined with bars and restaurants where patrons, in better times, overflowed into the street through the night.

This was where Mr. Mouawad and his business partner, Chantal Salloum, tried their luck with The Barn, investing $450,000 to get it ready.

But the blast heavily damaged the neighborhood, punching through apartments, killing residents in their homes, and blocking roads with rubble and uprooted trees.

Days later, scarcely a pane of glass remained. Holes in walls allowed glimpses into once-concealed bedrooms. Red roof tiles had been scraped from old houses, their walls leaning dangerously over the street.

“We don’t want to give up and we don’t want to leave the country,” Mr. Mouawad said.

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Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But questions abounded with few answers.

How to rebuild? When would the banks reopen, and would they give out money? How would imported supplies enter the damaged port? How much would metal and glass cost now that demand was off the charts?

Across the street, Angel Saadeh, 65, was cleaning out the destroyed apartment where she had raised six children since her marriage in 1971.

“Tell the world that we need aid, not money, but nuclear bombs to drop on these politicians!” she screamed. She insulted them one by one, until her granddaughter, Melissa Fakhri, 20, mentioned a Christian warlord-turned-party leader her grandmother liked.

Ms. Saadeh said he was better than the others.

“Grandma, all of them means all of them!” Ms. Fakhri said, reciting a common protest chant.

Later, volunteer cleaners on the street chanted the classic battle cry of the Arab Spring uprisings, “The people want to topple the regime!” Ms. Saadeh ran to the window, pumping her fists.

The Quarantine

The neighborhood known as the Quarantine clings to Beirut like a forgotten annex. Named for its history as a holding area for potentially infectious travelers, it is poor, polluted and squeezed between the port, a major highway and a garbage processing facility, which sends a stench wafting through the cinder block apartments.

“The Quarantine has always been neglected,” said Fakhrideen Shihadi, a Quarantine native who oversees its tin-roofed mosque.

The cranes of Beirut’s port loom over the neighborhood, but its proximity to one of the country’s key economic arteries brought little money to the area. Plum jobs at the port, and the illicit income they generated, were divvied up between political parties to reward loyalists and fund operations.

“The port is all wasta,” Mr. Shihadi said, using an Arabic word for the family, sectarian and political connections that Lebanese rely on for jobs and services.

Lacking wasta, he got laid off from his job at a garbage company in 2017, he said, and has since worked weighing garbage at the processing facility. But as Lebanon’s economy contracted, his employer stopped paying him three months ago, he said. He kept working anyway so he wouldn’t lose the job.

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Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

Then the explosion tore through the neighborhood, shaving walls from its tenements, killing four of Mr. Shihadi’s neighbors and filling the streets with smoke and wounded people. He and his family escaped their building unscathed, but found their neighborhood wrecked.

The blast shook mortar from the ceiling of the stone church and punched in the roof of the mosque. Days later, a mournful recitation of the Quran emanated from its minaret and residents prayed on carpets on the asphalt outside.

Government assistance to residents here and in other hard hit areas has been scant.

“Aid organizations could come, but we expect nothing from the state,” Mr. Shihadi said. “Here, people help other people.”

And that’s what happened.

That morning, hundreds of volunteers from elsewhere in the city had showed up wielding brooms and shovels to help clean up. They scooped up shattered drywall in the hospital and swept glass from damaged apartments.

In an empty lot by the church, volunteers distributed water, cookies and meals donated by companies. A man in a white truck handed out ice cream.

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Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

The blast also tore through the local government hospital, known for treating children, the poor and crash victims from the highway, damaging the facility so badly that it shut down.

Dr. Michel Matar, the head of the hospital’s board, wondered aloud how the hospital, and Lebanon as a whole, could move on.

“We are not moving forward. We are moving backward,” he said. “We cannot continue like this.”

Yahia al-Osman, a laborer, sat outside his building as volunteers handed out sandwiches and cleared roads. Little remained of his fourth-floor apartment.

“We were dying here before the explosion,” he said. “What will we do after it?”

Downtown

The graffiti starts before you reach downtown, west of the port.

“The revolution of the people.”

“Bring down the rulers.”

“Danger: Corruption.”

After the country’s devastating, 15-year civil war ended in 1990, Beirut’s downtown was rebuilt, with investments from the Persian Gulf and wealthy Lebanese, as a showcase meant to reclaim Lebanon’s reputation as the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”

Cobblestone streets around a famous clock tower next to the Parliament echoed Paris, and the neighborhood filled up with banks, travel agencies and a glitzy pedestrian mall teeming with luxury brands.

But the area never fully took off.

Most Lebanese couldn’t afford the apartments or restaurants, and political turbulence and fear of Iran-backed Hezbollah, the militant group and political party, scared off wealthy tourists, making parts of the area feel like a ghost town in recent years.

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Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

Anti-government protests erupted last fall, with demonstrators demanding the ouster of the political elite they accuse of wrecking the country. The security forces responded by ringing the Parliament with barricades and concertina wire, keeping citizens out while legislators in armed convoys zoomed in for sessions that rarely addressed the country’s mounting problems.

As the Parliament has become more fortresslike, the surrounding streets have been covered with graffiti and damaged in clashes with the security forces.

Then the explosion hit downtown, shattering the windows of the luxury shops and apartments and bringing angry protesters back to the streets. Over the weekend, the area became a battleground of tear gas, fires and flying rocks as angry protesters tired to shake a political order they felt had failed them.

Days earlier, young people who saw the blast as the latest product of the state’s many ills had gathered in nearby Martyrs’ Square, under a giant raised fist reading “homeland.”

A makeshift shrine near a statue honored those who had died in the blast. Their photos showed men in military uniforms, a smiling woman by the seaside, a man in tuxedo and a fire crew with a woman paramedic.

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Credit…Diego Ibarra Sanchez for The New York Times

Hassan Hijazi, 19, a car mechanic, and Karim Shamiyeh, 19, a waiter, relaxed after helping blast victims clean their homes. They were mad that their money had lost its worth, that young men like them without political connections struggled to get good jobs and that government neglect had led to a tragic explosion.

“We can’t continue unless we put our hands together and get rid of all the politicians,” Mr. Hijazi said. “But I don’t know how we are going to do it.”

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