Tripoli fears impending disaster after earthquake rocks neglected buildings

Residents told to repair their buildings or leave as resentment grows over lack of concern from Beirut politicians

Abu Haidar's building in Jabal Mohsen sits above a rat-infested waste tip and open sewer. Jamie Prentis / The National
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Abu Sayyid, an 80-year-old widower from Tripoli, was already awake when Lebanon’s second-largest city felt the deadly earthquake emanating from Turkey more than two weeks ago.

“The building was dancing right and left,” he says, making a rocking motion with his hands as he describes the event that shook his second-storey apartment in the Abu Samra neighbourhood.

Lebanon was mostly unaffected by the deadly earthquake and the aftershocks that killed more than 47,000 in Syria and Turkey, but some buildings in Tripoli have shown damage.

There were already cracks in the walls of Abu Sayyid's building, but more have snaked up the facade since the earthquake. He points to some in the balcony above his apartment and in the kitchen above the gas stove.

A crack in a wall of Abu Sayyid's building in Abu Samra, Tripoli. Jamie Prentis / The National

Apartment owners have been urged by the municipality to repair the building — or leave.

“Most of the people in the building are tired and don’t have enough money to fix it,” says Abu Sayyid from his living room, adorned with photos of his family, including his late wife.

“I have to sell some of my furniture to raise some money to help fix the building.”

It is not a new problem, but the earthquake has brought the issue back to the fore, leading to heightened fears of an impending disaster.

For years, there have been warnings about the dire state of some of Tripoli’s buildings, their ageing foundations steadily weakened by decades of neglect and conflict.

Even in a country engulfed by one of the worst economic crises in modern times, Sunni-majority Tripoli is particularly impoverished and has been described as the Mediterranean’s poorest city.

Many residents lacked the means to maintain their buildings even before the 2019 financial collapse.

Before the earthquake, more than 700 buildings already had significant damage, says Zaher Skaff, the head of implementation in the engineering department of Tripoli’s municipality. He says urgent action is needed.

While in theory everything is reparable, he says, lengthy delays in maintenance have made any potential operations expensive.

“The cracks are getting bigger and bigger. It’s a disaster,” Mr Skaff says.

He adds that it is an issue the municipality has been raising with authorities in Tripoli for two or three years, and only now is the government beginning to show interest.

“The situation is bigger than the capacity of the municipality,” he adds.

There is palpable anger over the situation in Tripoli — not only over the unstable buildings, but also the grim conditions residents are living in. Some of it is targeted at Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a billionaire businessman who was born the city.

At a residential building in Jabal Mohsen, a neighbourhood dominated by Tripoli’s Alawite minority community, new cracks have emerged in the ceilings and in the foundations.

Many of the neighbourhood's buildings carry the scars of years of on-and-off conflict with neighbouring Bab Al Tabaneh, a Sunni area — although tension has since calmed.

Around the back, in an alleyway that separates the building from another, it is possible to see the underside of the building sagging above a rotten, rat-infested waste tip and open sewer.

Jabal Mohsen, Tripoli. Jamie Prentis / The National

“Najib Mikati, would you live here?” asks 26-year-old Abu Haidar as he surveys the scene under his building.

The building, which has 36 apartments, is among those at risk, its state worsened by the earthquake.

Like others, the municipality has said Abu Haidar should leave or repair the building.

His response is a common refrain: “Where should we go?”

Shaken trust

Many Lebanese have a complete lack of trust in their rulers.

“We ask the UN and the international community to help us, but not through the government establishments,” says Abu Haidar.

As in the rest of Lebanon, there is a near complete absence of state electricity and fuel prices have soared. With winter still lingering, the nights are cold.

“My children were covered in two blankets. Part of the roof fell on them. They’re OK because they were covered with two blankets. If it was summer, they would be injured badly,” says Ayman, another resident of the building.

“During the earthquake, we took the children out of the building because we knew that before the earthquake, the buildings were corrupted and ruined.”

Khaled Tadmori, an architect who is a member of the municipality and head of its heritage and historical monuments subcommittee, the government lacks a clear plan for dealing with damaged buildings.

“The role of the municipality is not to enter and fix the apartments — they belong to the private sector.”

He says they need two budgets: The first to move the people from their apartments and put them in temporary homes and the other for recovery and support.

“Not all of [the damaged buildings] are cracked because of the earthquake. We are saying this is due to many years of war and neglect. The poverty in certain places plays a role as well,” he says, while also blaming a lack of interest in Tripoli from the central government.

Many areas of Tripoli are densely populated, with large families living on top of each other in tall apartment buildings that share the same foundations. If one were to fall, it could collapse on to the others.

The Dahr Al Maghar neighbourhood in Tripoli. Jamie Prentis / The National

The broader issues of severe poverty, a lack of resources to repair their buildings and a complete lack of faith in the authorities cross sectarian boundaries and neighbourhoods.

“Our voices have reached no one. We always protest, we always go on the media, on Facebook, love to [show] what’s going on in the neighbourhood. No one cares about our neighbourhood,” says Kheireddine Nashebi, 33, who was born and still lives in the Dahr Al Maghar area.

“Without earthquakes, the houses are ruined. What if another earthquakes comes? The first building that falls … it will [take] three other buildings with it,” he says, standing between two residential buildings and gesturing to the cracks in the walls.

“In this neighbourhood, we never know when we will die. We sleep and we hope we will get up OK.”

Updated: February 27, 2023, 2:06 PM