Beirut: Unesco hopes to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild damaged heritage

About 600 historical buildings were damaged by deadly blast this month

epa08629353 UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay talks to the media during a news conference at Sursock Palace in Beirut, Lebanon, 27 August 2020. Azoulay arrived in Lebanon on 26 August 2020 in a tour to check possible ways in helping in reconstructing destroyed school as well as building considered heritage for UNESCO. According to Lebanese Health Ministry at least 181 people were killed, and more than six thousand injured in the Beirut blast that devastated the port area on 04 August and believed to have been caused by an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse. The explosion damaged some 50 thousand housing units, and left 300 thousand people homeless. Preparations for the restoration of partially damaged buildings began in the areas of Karantina, Gemmayze, and Mar Mikhael facing the port of Beirut.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
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The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation hopes to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to help Beirut rebuild about 600 historical buildings damaged by the deadly blast this month, its director general said on Wednesday.

“We must help the Lebanese to promote their history and their city to make sure that their youth has future perspectives at such a crucial moment for the country,” Audrey Azoulay said in Beirut.

Unesco wants to raise some of the money during an international donor conference planned for late September.

“Several hundred million dollars are needed to restore historical houses here,” Ms Azouley said. “I do not think that they will be raised in one go.”

Unesco’s initiative to back Lebanon’s heritage buildings is called “li Beirut”, or “for Beirut", echoing the name of a popular song by Lebanon’s most famous singer, Fairuz.

At least 8,000 buildings in Beirut were damaged by the blasts, especially in the central districts of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael.

Among them are some 640 historic buildings, about 60 of which are at risk of collapse, Unesco says.

The organisation will organise a separate conference for Lebanon’s education sector in early September, Ms Azoulay said.

“We have already rallied funds for about 40 schools, thanks to support from NGOs and Unesco’s own funds,” she said.

At least 160 schools were damaged by the explosion, affecting about 80,000 pupils.

Workers transport bags of rubble outside the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum in Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. Lebanon was already coming apart at the seams before a 2,750-ton cache of ammonium nitrate detonated at the Port of Beirut, killing at least 171 people and wounding thousands. Photographer: Hasan Shaaban/Bloomberg
Workers transport bags of rubble outside the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum in Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. Bloomberg

Earlier in the day, Ms Azoulay met Lebanese President Michel Aoun and visited two schools.

She said a preliminary assessment showed $22 million (Dh80.8m) would be needed just to rebuild damaged schools.

Rebuilding the destroyed neighbourhoods of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael is important to Unesco because they were both creative and historic areas, Ms Azoulay said.

"They are areas that nurtured spaces of freedom. That’s very precious,” she said.

Ms Azoulay was speaking from Beirut’s 150-year-old palace, Sursock, shortly after surveying the damage caused by the blast with its owner, Roderick Cochrane Sursock.

“It was like an atomic bomb had exploded," said Mr Sursock, whose mother, 98, was hurt in the blast.

"Everything inside was torn up. All the interior ceilings on the first floor collapsed. The house cannot be lived in.

“It is very important for Beirut’s memory that this is preserved. I will do what I can, but if I can get help from Unesco or the Lebanese government, I would be delighted."

Mona Al Hallak, an architect and heritage preservation activist, said: “The loss of the heritage is the biggest loss after the human toll." At least 181 people died in the August 4 explosion at Beirut port and thousands were injured.

The areas most affected represent a “heritage cluster", Ms Al Hallak said.

“This is our intact heritage," she said. "Today it’s in rubble.”

Ms Al Hallak feared property developers would seek to profit after the blast by flattening heritage houses to build high-rise buildings.

"I know of an old couple of 75 and 88 years old who were approached by a developer at 8pm, two hours after the blast," she told The National.

"They were still covered in blood. They said they would rather die than sell their house.

“People have devoured this country over and over again. We will continue to resist and stand [against them].”