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'People just want to burst into tears': Beirut blast sends shockwaves through Lebanon

A large area of the Lebanese capital sits under rubble today following the blast less than 48 hours ago.

Parts of Beirut's Central District was destroyed in the blast.
Parts of Beirut's Central District was destroyed in the blast.
Image: DPA/PA Images

“WHERE THE BLAST occurred, it’s the downtown area, the central business district right in the middle of town. So that area has now effectively been cut off while they do the search and rescue,” said Catherine Whybrow shortly after driving in to Beirut this afternoon.

A large part of the Lebanese capital sits under mountains of rubble today, less than 24 hours after a huge amount of ammonium nitrate, an agricultural fertiliser, in a Portside warehouse ignited and enveloped kilometres of busy city streets. 

The radius of the blast is thought to have extended several kilometres from the warehouse, blowing out windows, ripping out balconies and in some cases, leaving just the core shell of high-rise residential and commercial buildings. 

“We were able to skirt around it but what we were finding as we were getting closer to the site that just all the windows were blown out, there was glass everywhere, all over the footpaths and the sides of the roads, and this is kilometres away as we were approaching the site,” Whybrow, Country Director for Lebanon with Concern Worldwide, told TheJournal.ie

A major search and rescue operation is underway in Beirut today, with more than 100 people already confirmed dead, and over 4,000 injured from the explosion. The death toll is continuing to rise this afternoon. 

“Ordinarily we would drive right through, right past that area but it’s all been blocked off at the moment because remember that it only happened at six o’clock yesterday afternoon and it’s currently 3.30pm, it hasn’t even been 24 hours,” Whybrow said.  

“The first 48 hours are essential for search and rescue, so it looks like they’ve blocked off that entire area, the Lebanese authorities, for search and rescue but also because there are so many injured and Beirut traffic is notorious [so] it has cleared the roads for ambulances.”

The blast near the Central District of Lebanon’s capital is but the latest in a serious of major challenges for the country. 

This explosion occurred against the backdrop of a deep financial crisis that has meant many residents cannot withdraw money from banks; a refugee crisis that has worsened over the past decade, and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic – Lebanon has seen Covid cases increase ten-fold in recent weeks.

It has left locals feeling overwhelmed, disheartened, and above all, helpless.

“In my Lebanese and Palestinian friends, there just seems to be this overwhelming sense of shock but also of sadness. A couple of people have told me they just want to burst into tears, that is the sense of disempowerment and the feeling because Lebanon has been through so much.

This is almost like a last-straw-situation and they’re thinking ‘what else could happen?’

“A friend I was talking to last night, he’s a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, so he grew up here, he said people keep asking me ‘are you ok?’ and he said ‘well I’m not hurt, I’m not injured, I don’t know anyone that’s injured but I’m not ok, don’t ask me if I’m ok, I’m not.

“There’s been the Syrian refugee crisis for the last ten years and then the protests started, the political crisis last October, then the financial crisis – people can’t withdraw money they’ve got in their own bank accounts because of liquidity controls – and together with Covid and the lockdown, businesses are just closing on a weekly basis.”

Latest figures show there are 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Decades of corruption, poor governance, and political turmoil has also limited access to vital resources including clean water, sanitation, and even electricity – some citizens have access to just three to four hours electricity per day.

“This country is so heavily dependent on imports and when the local currency devalues by 80% no one can afford anything. It really is like what else are we going to have to take.

I didn’t notice any smells or dust today but what really does really strike you is just all of the windows and smashed glass, and also wrought iron has been twisted and that’s mixed in with the glass as well.

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The effect of the explosion in Lebanon will be felt long into the coming months and years but major concerns linger in the immediate short-term as Lebanon attempts to control the spread of Covid-19 while also treating those injured in the blast. 

“There has been a spike in coronavirus cases but Lebanon actually didn’t report any coronavirus cases yesterday,” said Whybrow. “It has been consistently at around 150 cases per day but it didn’t report any yesterday because I imagine the entire health system is completely absorbed with this. 

“And that’s the other risk, hospitals being inundated with patients at a time when coronavirus is around and starting to spike.”

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