A year later, Beirut bombing victims still struggle to return home | Beirut explosion news | World Weekly
Beirut, Lebanon – Maysar Al-Suleiman and his family fled the carnage of war in Syria to Lebanon in 2014, only to narrowly avoid death in the Beirut port explosion that devastated parts of the city a year ago.
Al-Suleiman, his wife Hasna, and six children lived in the semi-industrial neighborhood of Karantina, a stone’s throw from the port where the August 4, 2020 explosion killed more than 200 people and injured 6,500 others. Many in Lebanon blame officials for storing hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate in the port, triggering and causing the explosion.
The massive force of the explosion caused the doors and glass to fly out of the windows in Suleiman’s house and part of the roof collapsed.
“If I had not gone out with my children and my pregnant wife to the doctor, God knows what would have happened,” Al-Sulaiman told Al-Jazeera.
Suleiman and his sons were playing soccer in an empty yard in the nearby Ashrafieh district when the explosion occurred. The glass pierced his body, inflicting chronic pain in his left leg and shoulder, which he still struggles to move.
He once worked in the port of Beirut and is struggling to find work that does not exacerbate his injuries. He relies on money borrowed from friends and family and aid from humanitarian organizations, but struggles to rent; The Suleiman family has moved their homes three times since the explosion and now resides in a largely unfurnished apartment in Ashrafieh.
The last landlord was at least lenient with his inability to pay rent on time.
“Bless him,” he said, “he is an honest man.” “But we live on very little. We have two beds from former tenants that accommodate children, but I sleep on the floor.”
The family does not expect to be able to return to their old home in Karantina anytime soon. The owner there told them he was in no hurry to spend money to fix the property amid Lebanon’s severe economic crisis – the Lebanese pound having lost 90% of its value since late 2019, along with rising prices.
And Suleiman’s family is far from alone in not being able to return home after the explosion.
Rebuilding a fragile city
Initially, about 300,000 people became homeless after the Beirut port explosion. Some have managed to repair the damage or move to a new apartment elsewhere, while many have moved in with relatives.
But in some cases, people were living in damaged empty buildings.
The Lebanese government relied heavily on NGOs, civil society, and the private sector to map and respond to blast damage. About 50 percent of the 77,000 damaged buildings have been repaired, according to contractors’ union chief Maroun El Helou. NGOs say thousands of people remain homeless, and the deepening economic crisis has made finding new housing more difficult.
“The explosion has shattered many families physically, financially and mentally,” Rabih Torbay, project leader for the humanitarian organization Project HOPE, Rabih Torbay, told Al Jazeera. The average minimum wage in the country is now 675,000 Lebanese pounds, or about $30 per month.
Lebanon has been without a full government for nearly a year, and blast victims and aid groups say the cash-strapped country has been largely absent from relief efforts in the aftermath of the blast. Prominent Lebanese parties have failed to break the political deadlock to form a new government and implement the reforms needed in order to unlock billions of dollars in foreign aid.
Instead, humanitarian agencies have tried to help people affected by the blast, by providing cash to help them pay rent and cover high food prices.
“The Beirut port explosion exposed the vulnerability of the city and the vulnerability of its buildings,” Elie Mansour, chief planning and infrastructure engineer at UN-Habitat, told Al Jazeera, adding that humanitarian agencies were striving to improve housing, access to health care, and other livelihoods. Standards.
“So far the assistance in all humanitarian sectors has been minimal, let’s be frank.”
With rampant corruption and financial mismanagement, the international community has been reluctant to disburse large sums of money to the Lebanese authorities, transferring the money primarily to UN agencies and international organizations.
Last December, the World Bank, the European Union, and the United Nations launched an 18-month response plan for the Beirut bombing called the Reform, Recovery, and Reconstruction Framework (3RF). The Lebanese authorities are required to pass and implement a number of reforms, including laws that enhance the independence of the judiciary, reform the inefficient electricity sector, and expand social security services.
But implementation of the framework has been painfully slow, as Lebanese leaders scrambled to end the political deadlock and secure funding to deal with the fuel and electricity crisis.
In the meantime, not much debris from the explosion has been removed. The United Nations and other international agencies are using empty space in Karantina to process and separate rubble and tainted glass using machines donated by the Finnish government.
On one side is a pile of 16,000 tons of glass and about 7,000 tons of sorted rubble. Towering next to it is a huge pile of 120,000 tons of unsorted debris.
“We discovered after testing that there is a lot of asbestos, so our workers cannot sort without wearing protective clothing,” Mansour said. “And to this day, about 25 or so pickup trucks come in full of rubble every day.”
Piles of debris are still in the harbor, but the UN engineer says the Lebanese army is tasked with taking care of them.
“These rubble is contaminated with all kinds of … ammonium nitrate and other hazardous materials that are stored there,” Mansour said.
Architect and urban designer Abdel Halim Jaber says the economic crisis in Lebanon has put tenants of damaged properties in a more difficult position and more vulnerable to falling victim to gentrification.
“There are tenants who cannot afford to live more with the devaluation of the currency – especially since most contracts are in US dollars,” Jabr told Al Jazeera.
“And even if their buildings are restored, there are owners who want to find tenants with more purchasing power.”
Not only did residents face evictions soon after the explosion, but real estate brokers also flocked to neighborhoods, trying to buy wrecked homes to demolish in order to build lavish towers.
Many residents rely on a single law that prevents them from being homeless. In October 2020, the Lebanese Parliament passed Law No. 194 stopping evictions and the sale of real estate for all properties in the three neighborhoods destroyed by the explosion for two years.
Architects and urban activists such as Abir Saksouk of the Public Research Group say the law is far from perfect, but it is the only protection for the many vulnerable residents in blast-stricken neighborhoods, many of which have already been rapidly renovated and redeveloped over the past decade.
“There may be a social catastrophe,” Saqsouk told Al Jazeera. “These are communities with a rich history, from port workers from all over Lebanon to Armenians, to migrant workers and Syrian refugees.” Saksouk and her colleagues continue to document evictions and threats from landlords to this day.
Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud said he is committed to protecting residents from evictions. Abboud and his office did not respond to repeated inquiries from Al Jazeera.
For now, the law – and perhaps the poor economic outlook for Lebanon – has deterred much real estate investment.
But a year after the eruption, urban recovery in Beirut is still stalled, and this is cause for concern.
“The situation is in trouble now, we know there is some speculation,” Jabr said.
“Our primary concern now is how the population is coping, and to what extent we can reshape the social fabric of these communities.”