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‘Apocalyptic’ scenes as Lebanon reels from trauma and rage

  • August 05, 2020

Of the Beirutis who did get some sleep overnight, many woke up on Wednesday coming to terms with the trauma and rage triggered by the massive explosion that tore through the city the day before. Lebanon is already facing hyperinflation, a growing coronavirus pandemic and a hunger crisis.

The blast, which Lebanese officials said was caused by 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port, leveled a large section of the capital, with the shock wave shattering windows far beyond the immediate area.

Fred Bteich, a Lebanese surgeon who narrowly missed being caught up in the explosion, described the situation overnight as a “war scene, it was apocalyptic,” with patients piled up in the emergency room of the hospital where he works in the suburb of Achrafieh.

“We operated on some people, we didn’t know their names, didn’t know who they were, if they had any relatives. We’ve seen some horrible things,” Bteich told DW. “Sometimes I’ve had to operate on [technically] dead people, just for the sake of doing so, [and] sometimes children as young as four to five-years old. We’re going to have a lot more casualties, I think.”

While some of the injured were still being pulled from the rubble, the ammonium nitrate thought to have fueled the blast can also have “devastating effects on the human body, and the repercussions can be seen a few years later,” Bteich said.

As of midday Wednesday more than 100 people had died and 4,000 were injured, according to the Lebanese Red Cross.

With large parts of the city also physically demolished, “everybody knows somebody who has been hit by this catastrophe,” Bteich said. “It looked like Hiroshima.”

Karte Beirut Explosion EN

Lebanese open their homes

Many families in the vicinity of the blast had their homes damaged or destroyed, piling the problem of a place to sleep on top of the trauma. Some 300,000 have been left homeless, according to Beirut Mayor Marwan Abboud.

Some on social media began to offer strangers with nowhere to go a place stay, with individuals and concerned hoteliers posting their phone numbers under the hashtag “#ourhomesareopen.”  

While such examples of solidarity add to other instances of unity, seen through Facebook groups previously set up to barter goods in the face of the economic crisis, support has also flowed in from across the country and around the world.

Read more: Lebanon swings between humor and tragedy as economy crumbles

Political chaos

Although it is too soon for many to think of the future impact the blast will have on their lives, analysts say the rage directed at those responsible will have a huge political fallout.

“They are expecting that after this, when they start to investigate who is responsible, it will produce another chaotic issue because there’s very little trust between the Lebanese citizens and the authorities,” DW correspondent Razan Salman said. “This is in addition to the economic crises that Lebanon has been suffering from since October.”

“People who witnessed the civil war said they haven’t seen anything like this before.”

  • Man and woman running in Beirut (Reuters/M. Azakir)

    In pictures: Beirut blast aftermath — destruction, chaos and rescue

    Panic in Beirut

    Two immense blasts shook Beirut and the surrounding areas of the Lebanese capital, prompting panic as residents rushed to safety. “I have never in my life seen a disaster this big,” Beirut’s governor told local TV.

  • Lebanon explosion (Reuters/K. Sokhn)

    In pictures: Beirut blast aftermath — destruction, chaos and rescue

    Blasts felt in city’s outskirts

    The explosions, centered in Beirut’s port region, were felt throughout the capital. Even residents in the city’s outskirts reported hearing the blast, with some saying their windows were shattered.

  • Libanon | Gewaltige Explosion in Beirut: Mann wird evakuiert (Reuters/M. Azakir)

    In pictures: Beirut blast aftermath — destruction, chaos and rescue

    Dozens killed, thousands injured

    Lebanon’s Health Ministry said at least 100 people were killed and more than 4,000 others were injured.

  • Helicopter douses fire | Gewaltige Explosion in Beirut (Getty Images/AFP/STR)

    In pictures: Beirut blast aftermath — destruction, chaos and rescue

    ‘Unacceptable’ ammonium nitrate stock

    Prime Minister Hassan Diab said that a large stockpile of 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate in a warehouse at the port had caused the second, larger explosion. “It is unacceptable that a shipment of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate has been present for six years in a warehouse, without taking preventive measures,” Diab said.

  • rescue efforts in Beirut (picture-alliance/AA/H. Shbaro)

    In pictures: Beirut blast aftermath — destruction, chaos and rescue

    Race to save survivors

    More than 30 Red Cross teams raced to the scene, with many locals lending a hand to aid rescue efforts. Hospitals warned that they were quickly filled beyond capacity — and called for blood donations as well as generators to help keep the electricity on.

  • Aftermath of Beirut blasts, man walks through rubble | Gewaltige Explosion in Beirut (Getty Images/AFP/STR)

    In pictures: Beirut blast aftermath — destruction, chaos and rescue

    Felt as far away as Cyprus

    The blasts struck with the force of a 3.5 magnitude earthquake, according to Germany’s geosciences center GFZ. Residents in Cyprus, some 110 miles (180 km) across the sea from Beirut, reported hearing and feeling the blast.

  • People in Beirut run through the rubble in the explosion aftermath | Gewaltige Explosion in Beirut (picture-alliance/AP Photo/H. Ammar)

    In pictures: Beirut blast aftermath — destruction, chaos and rescue

    People are ‘asking for their loved ones’

    DW’s Bassel Aridi said people were using social media to try to track down their loved ones after the explosions. Aridi also visited a hospital in Beirut after the blasts. “What I saw in the hospital was so dramatic. All the hospitals have announced that they are totally overloaded.”

  • People stand by building and car in ruins in the evening| Gewaltige Explosion in Beirut (Getty Images/AFP/STR)

    In pictures: Beirut blast aftermath — destruction, chaos and rescue

    Two-week state of emergency

    Lebanese authorities fear many more people are buried beneath rubble. President Michel Aoun scheduled an emergency Cabinet meeting for Wednesday and said a two-week state of emergency should be declared.

  • A group of men sit near the entrance of a shop damaged after the explosion| Gewaltige Explosion in Beirut (Getty Images/D. Carde)

    In pictures: Beirut blast aftermath — destruction, chaos and rescue

    Lebanon faces double-blow

    The devastating blasts come as Lebanon experiences severe economic turbulence, with many people taking to the streets in recent months to protest the financial situation. Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared that Wednesday would be a national day of mourning for the victims of the explosion.

    Author: Darko Janjevic

Before the blast, Lebanon was expecting a verdict this week in the international trial against the alleged killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Such a judgement may have added to political tensions in the country, already riven by protests and dissatisfaction with the country’s sectarian politics and allegedly corrupt politicians.

That is “definitely not on anybody’s mind right now,” Salman said. “Everybody is still in shock, still in panic. I don’t think anybody is even thinking about the verdict anymore.”

Whether this proves to be a moment of unity for Lebanon as people pick up their lives or a reckoning for its government is all still in doubt.

“I don’t really care what the real story behind it is, whether it was accidental, on purpose or political — the losses we’ve had are colossal and I do not think Beirut will be able to recover from this for quite a while,” Bteich said.

Read more: Lebanon faces its worst crisis since the civil war

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