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Beaches, black marketeers and migrant millionaires - the tragedy of Beirut

Reporter Niall O’Connor visited Beirut this week to see the crisis hit Lebanese capital two years after a massive explosion ripped through its streets.

Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

BEIRUT’S GENERAL de Gaulle is a coastal road hugging the picturesque shore of the vast Mediterranean.

Take a walk along its promenade in blazing evening sunshine and you could be forgiven for dreaming that it was the south of France on a summer’s day.

There are the azure blue waters to the west, the stunning island peaks of Pigeon Rocks and the pale sandstone cliffs. On the beach below people cast fishing lines into the bay and above, on the high cliff side, couples pose for Instagram selfies as the sun sets.

Nearby, families sit and chat, eating local street food, with others puffing from the famous bubbling shisha pipes – the atmosphere declares that all is good with the world. 

To the east, looking inland, there are the pockmarked high rises and simmering food vendors and deeper in, the arid peaks of mountains rising high above the city.

Take a walk further in to the streets to areas of Hamra or Bachoura alive with bars and restaurants – the smell of grilled meat and groups of pals playing drafts on the steps of buildings architecturally reminiscent of its French colonial past.

There is a ferocity to the energy of Beirut that easily intoxicates – a perpetual festival on every street corner and laneway.  

We all know the stories of the unending tragedy of Lebanon: centuries of crises and wars and the recent history of Israeli attacks, protests, economic disaster and a monstrous explosion that devastated the people of this struggling metropolis.

Image from iOS (7) Beirut residents enjoy a balmy evening. Source: Niall O'Connor/The Journal

The people are friendly with an enthusiastic smile but chat to them for a few moments and it is clear that this place is not the paradise of sunny beaches and roaring nightlife.

They will tell you of crippling inflation, repeated power cuts throughout the day and the impossible anxiety of perpetual political mismanagement. 

Pitch Black

Walk the streets at night and they are pitch black – there is no electricity to light the boulevards. The hum of generators fills the neighbourhoods as crippled infrastructure is starved in a fuel crisis that makes our Irish concerns of turf cutting look like the musings of clueless privilege.

Closer to the port the streets are ravaged – all across the city the damage from the 2020 port explosion is evident. In fact many buildings in Lebanon are a history lesson for what has passed – bullet holes and blast marks.

It is hard to tell which calamity made it – the recent explosion, the decades long civil war or the 2006 Israeli bombing campaign.

Speaking to Ellie, a hotel worker, he says the city is ravaged with poor political leadership and the economic crisis.

“It is the inflation, the electricity problems, the fuel, the corruption – it is everything here.”

There are those willing to help – the sight of UN vehicles moving through the streets and the various non-governmental organisations playing whack-a-mole to prevent the absolute collapse of Lebanese society. 

Black marketeers are thriving, running cash conversions and selling the knockoffs of high-end luxury. There are also massive riches here with Ferraris in the streets, large power boats in the marina and empty mansions owned by migrant millionaires who return to visit.

The aftermath of the now infamous 2020 explosion in the port, when a cargo of neglected fertiliser detonated as firefighters attempted to fight a blaze, ripped through not just the city but the very fabric of Lebanese society. 

Tracy Makhlouf is a proud Lebanese woman who is working with French aid agency Medécins sans Frontieres (MSF) in their Beirut base. 

Image from iOS (9) Tracy Makhlouf is a Lebanese woman working with Médecins sans Frontieres. Source: Niall O'Connor/The Journal

She spoke to The Journal about the state of her country and how the repeated crises have reached a moment where her fellow citizens’ resilience is at a critical juncture.

“We are providing preventative care at MSF in various areas, around Beirut, Tripoli to the North, the Becca Valley, and this is dealing a lot with the Syrian refugees coming across the border.

“Our healthcare system is mostly private. There is a major problem now with access to health care here in Lebanon and that has now been made worse because of the economic crisis. 

“For the first time we have noticed that the amount of people in Lebanon seeking our services, our primary healthcare, has increased where more Lebanese are using it than the Syrian refugees,” she said. 

Tracy said that the repeated crises, including the horror of the explosion which claimed the lives of 218 Beirut residents and made hundreds homeless, has left people in a very vulnerable state. 

There is a serious problem with mental health – yes, a lot of it is post traumatic stress disorder but also pre-existing environmental triggers. 

“But the issue is that there is a major problem around access to treatment – there are no supports. It is easy to understand why this is here. It is very normal when there are just repeated crises, that people feel depressed,” she added. 

Burden

Tracy’s colleague and Head of Mission in Beirut Marcelo Fernandez is an Argentinian doctor and humanitarian.

He has been in charge of the MSF mission in the country for the last two years having worked in similar aid projects in South America.

Fernandez said the country, not just Beirut, is crippled by the burden of the collapse of the financial economy but it had its genesis in the failed political apparatus.

a-money-exchange-vendor-counts-u-s-dollar-banknotes-next-to-lebanese-pounds-at-a-currency-exchange-shop-in-beirut-lebanon-may-24-2022-picture-taken-may-24-2022-reutersmohamed-azakir A money exchange vendor counts U.S. dollar banknotes next to Lebanese pounds at a currency exchange shop in Beirut, Lebanon. Source: PA/Mohamed Azakir

The system of Government involves all sects and tribes – with 18 religious sects including Sunni and Christian in a political system devoted to give positions in parliament to a mix of religion and politics. 

Recent elections saw the rise of independents as people disillusioned by the political system sought change, with a move away from the Hezbollah leaders of old.

What it has given the country, since the end of the Civil War in the late 1990s, is a quagmire of political inertia. 

The country last had an official census in the 1930s because such are the tensions associated with identifying the specifics of the demographics that a fresh civil war could erupt.  

Fernandez speaks of the fiscal collapse which has hit the pockets of ordinary Lebanese people. The average monthly wage is the equivalent of US$100 but to fill a car with fuel is €40. 

“Since 2011/2012, there has been a massive influx of Syrian refugees – approximately 100,000 registered. And since then our target population for aid was providing access to health care mainly for refugees, Syrians, and Palestinian,” he said.

However, in the last two years, since the beginning of this big, deep crisis, political and economic crisis in the country, we start to see an increased number of Lebanese patient.

“For example two years ago and three years ago, 70% of our patients in Becca Valley were mainly Syrians, and 25/30% were Lebanese. This year, 2022, is the first time in the history of MSF working here with refugees, that we have more Lebanese patients than Syrian patients.

“For example, in North Becca, today, 55% of the new patients are Lebanese and the rest are from Syria, that’s giving you an idea how this deep crisis in the country is affecting the local population,” he explained. 

The problem is that Lebanon’s ailing medical system is not state funded, leaving residents to fend for themselves.

High-cost private health care providers make up 80% of the market and MSF has realised that the vast majority of the country are now suffering, without access to healthcare.   

Medical professionals, who could help, have emigrated while such is the loss in wage value that healthcare is now seen as a luxury. 

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Fernandez said such is the crisis in fuel costs matched by worthless wage packets that many people receiving treatment for long-term illness now can’t afford to travel to treatment, which ultimately makes their manageable conditions now life-limiting or lethal. 

Image from iOS (8) Marcelo Fernandez, Head of Mission MSF in Lebanon. Source: Niall O'Connor/The Journal

Fernandez said that MSF has now identified a major crisis looming as pharmacies and the Lebanese State’s failing purchasing power for medication is leaving medicines unavailable to those who most need it.

He believes that a lack of access to vaccines to prevent childhood diseases such as measles and other issues could cause a medical crisis that will devastate the country further. 

“Last year, with this deep economic crisis, access to essential medicines was a nightmare. You will not able to find paracetamol in the pharmacies, because lack of the market was just crushing access to essential medicines – it was a real disaster.

“We are now seeing a reduction of the vaccination coverage from 30% to 40% – it is growing. The kids are not vaccinated, you have high risk of an outbreak like so polio could arise very soon, because it’s extremely expensive. 

“Combine that with a lack of access to healthcare and they are facing a major risk of outbreak very soon,” he added. 

Aid package

Fernandez and his team are now providing healthcare – filling the gap left open by the turmoil of the collapsing economy.

Fernandez said the solution is for the international community to come on board with an aid package to save the lives of Lebanese people, but that the will is not there. 

But such is the issue with the political ecosystem that corruption could mean that any money coming into the country could be diverted away from helping the State. 

The United States also will not co-operate as long as Hezbollah have influence on political leadership. 

Such is the crisis that it is easy for the humanitarians to be sucked in to the developing tragedy. 

Fernandez is fighting his natural empathy to try and make strategic decisions that best serve the response to the crisis. 

“I need to try to keep my head to be able to take decisions not based on my emotions, but based on what the population needs in specific areas of the country.

“Somehow, this is part of humanitarian work in general, not just in Lebanon. You need to have some empathy for the communities where you work, but at the same time, not to be too much emotionally attached, because you need to make decisions. And sometimes decisions are extremely tough,” he added. 

But the biggest, most frustrating issue for Fernandez and his team is the difficult political morass and the inability to find a path to solving the problem. But the outlook is difficult.

“No one is coming to this office to say I have good news,” he said. 

On the streets outside the cars still move, the scooters beep and move across the town. Life goes on with a resilience that is a learned instinct from years of chaos. 

The site of the port explosion is still locked down. Rubble and chunks of buildings still lie where they dropped. 

The streets are clean, but above the roadways the scars on buildings remain, the damage untouched like the bedroom of a lost relative. It is almost too traumatic to confront. 

An experienced Irish military officer, who has served many tours of duty in South Lebanon, sums it up: “This place is caught between Iran and a hard place. Syria, Israel, the US and all sorts of other people – it is just a place where people fight their wars over and that has been the way for millennia since the Phoenicians were walking around – the awful thing is, it will never change.”

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