Lebanon cannot afford to rebuild Beirut alone as it struggles with the toughest challenge in its history, the country’s economy minister has warned, urging nations like the UK to help “prevent a catastrophe”.
Raoul Nehme told The Independent Lebanon had sustained “billions of dollars” of damage from Tuesday’s massive blast after 2,700 tonnes of poorly-stored explosive material caught fire and detonated at Beirut’s main port.
As many as 145 people have been confirmed dead so far and at least 5,000 injured in what experts have described as one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in modern history.
The shock wave ravaged the centre of the capital, leaving over a quarter of million people homeless. Dozens remain missing.
And there is mounting anger on the streets as it emerged that customs officials had repeatedly warned of the need to dispose of the highly combustible material. A security report in late 2019 apparently identified problems with the hangar holding the ammonium nitrate in question.
On Thursday citizens held anti-government protests to coincide with the visit of French president Emmanuel Macron, who during a brief trip to the Lebanese capital promised to help coordinate intentional aid – provided the authorities crack down on corruption.
Mr Nehme said he sympathised with protesters’ demands but that it was hard for the current government, which has only been in power for six months, to resolve “30 years of mismanagement” amid the coronavirus pandemic and now the explosion.
“The situation right now is extremely bad, the damage is not only in central Beirut but a radius of 25km. It’s practically on par with the reconstruction efforts after the civil war,” he told The Independent.
“We don’t have a full damage cost yet, but we are speaking of billions of dollars. We cannot afford to do this alone; it will be catastrophic if Lebanon doesn’t get international help.”
He thanked countries including the UK and France that have offered assistance, adding he hoped that the aid would “materialise quickly”.
Lebanon was already reeling from an unprecedented financial crisis before the blast which has destroyed hundreds of businesses as well as the main hub for imports to the country.
Mr Nehme said that the explosion had also left Lebanon with just one month left of wheat, after 15,000 tonnes were destroyed along with 10,000 tonnes of corn stored in a silo which was torn in half.
He said that they are expecting two months’ supply of wheat to be delivered to the northern city of Tripoli which will alleviate the pressure. But he warned of further financial woes on the horizon, as the secondary and tertiary impacts of the destruction from the blast are felt.
“Today we are facing the toughest challenge we have ever faced. Even during the civil war, we didn’t face this,” he said.
Volunteers from across the country have descended on Beirut to help clear up the debris, crowds of people which quickly erupted into an anti-government protest as Mr Macron toured the worst-hit parts of the city. Protesters chanted for “revolution” and called upon the government to resign.
Antoine el Khoury, part of the “Red Line” protest movement that has organised some of Lebanon’s recent political demonstrations, told The Independent the people had been “robbed blind” and no longer trusted the authorities to handle the reconstruction effort.
“We want to make sure President Macron knows that this government is corrupt… he should help the Lebanese people directly, not through them,” he said.
Mr Macron, for his part, vowed the aid would “not go to corrupt hands”. He told the crowds: “I will talk to all political forces to ask them for a new pact. I am here today to propose a new political pact to them.”
But tensions were high at Beirut port, the epicentre of the blast, where bulldozers had started going through some of the rubble by the smouldering crater.
There officials told The Independent eight workers were still missing, while two had been confirmed killed.
Families of the missing gathered at the seafront in hope that their vanished loved ones would be found.
“It’s been two days and they have finally brought the bulldozers to see if the workers are trapped,” said Nahme Bteich, 32, whose cousin Joe Akiki was among those unaccounted for.
“Every family of a missing worker is so angry, we needed them to start earlier. We need the authorities to help us.”
Mr Bteich said he last heard from his cousin just moments before the blast, when Joe sent a video of warehouses on fire to a WhatsApp group of friends. The family hope he managed to get to underground storerooms in time and is still alive.
“None of them knew they were working next to something so dangerous. The problem is the whole system, everyone is corrupt and wants to hide their mistakes,” Mr Bteich added.
Next to him another young man was informed that morning that his cousin Jihad Omar, a 60-year-old retired army officer, had been found dead after vanishing on Tuesday while fishing near the port.
I have lost all hope for our future after this catastrophe
Relative of a port worker killed in the blast
“I am furious, I feel like crying,” the young man told The Independent, asking not to be named.
“I have lost all hope for our future after this catastrophe, I see nothing for our generation,” he added.
Back in the destroyed residential areas, the thousands of volunteers armed with brooms and shovels helped stunned residents clear their bombed-out streets and homes.
The anger was palpable, with many calling for a new revolution and new government.
“The hypocrisy is mad,” said Zahra Serraj, 22, who had travelled the 85km from Tripoli to help.
“The government told the protesters to stay home over safety concerns due to the coronavirus, while they just left thousands of tonnes of explosives to blow everyone up.”