'It warms the heart': Lebanese unite in solidarity after explosion

Hundreds of volunteers gathered to clean up Beirut’s worst-hit neighbourhoods

epa08588354 Volunteers remove the rubble in the damaged Al-Gemayzeh area in Beirut, Lebanon, 06 August 2020. According to the Lebanese Health Ministry, at least 137 people were killed and more than 5,000 injured in the blast believed to have been caused by an estimated 2,750 of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse. The explosion and its shockwave on 04 August 2020 devastated the port area and parts of the city.  EPA/NABIL MOUNZER
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Less than 48 hours after a deadly explosion at Beirut port that ripped through the capital, killing more than 150 people, the streets of the worst-hit neighbourhoods were filled with volunteers, brooms and shovels in hand.

“It breaks my heart to see these people who lost their homes,” said Mia, a high-school student who came with more than 100 others from all over Lebanon in an effort co-ordinated by the youth movement of Caritas, the international Catholic relief confederation.

“I feel that I have an obligation to help the capital of my city. I feel the pain they feel” said Reem, another student, as she removed broken pieces of furniture and glass from a first-floor flat that was obliterated by Tuesday’s blast.

The flat's windows were blown in with such force that glass debris broke through the bedroom doors, including in a child’s room with pink walls. Toys and dolls were strewn on the floor. The bathroom and and corridor were stained with blood.

Drone footage of Beirut the morning after explosion

Drone footage of Beirut the morning after explosion

From the flat's terrace, the crumbled gigantic grain silos at the port are clearly visible a few hundred metres away – a testimony to the force of the explosion that released a copper-coloured mushroom cloud. The UK government said it measured 4.5 on the Richter scale, the BBC reported.

“It was like a small Hiroshima bomb” said Hamo Moskofian, 67-year-old journalist who lived in the same building in the Mar Mkhael neighbourhood. “I moved in here in 1970 and have seen many wars here but such an explosion has never happened,” he said, referring to Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war and the 2006 Israel-Israel war. “I thought I had died.”

Moskofian had put aside several bags of things to keep while volunteers threw out everything out that was destroyed. Every few minutes, one of them hurled glass and broken furniture to the ground floor that landed with a great crash and a cloud of dust.

“I just kept important documents … My laptop and printer is destroyed. Cupboards are all to be thrown out. But where will we find all the money [to replace them]?" he said. "Hopefully the international community will help, and maybe the corrupt government will also think about its people.”

Despite his hope for government help, there were no public officials in the streets of Mar Mkhael. “The government let us down before so we don’t expect much from them anymore,” said Jane,18, who came with family and friends from Jounieh, a city north of Beirut, to help with the clean-up. “It warms the heart how many people are here … it’s very heartwarming and nice for a change,” she said.

“During the [1975-90 civil war], we knew who our enemies were. But now, the enemy is the government,” said Charbel Rajha from the Christian aid group S’Aime. The group's volunteers were visiting the area to help with the clean-up and comfort elderly people living alone.

“We were already starving and could barely live. We were afraid of having a small problem in our car because changing one of the parts now costs at least the equivalent of one month’s salary. Now look at this,” he said, gesturing towards a car covered in rubble from a collapsed building in the street of Mar Mkhael.

Months before the blast, and before the coronavirus pandemic, Lebanon was suffering from its worst-ever economic crisis which has caused hyperinflation and mass unemployment as well as anti-government protests.

Now, people are not sure how they will finance the rebuilding of their destroyed homes. Even those with money cannot access it after banks implemented capital controls last November, outside of any legal framework.

“The problem might not end here,” said a civil engineer from a Lebanese company, who declined to be named. “When the rain starts in winter, water will pour into cracks. That could make the concrete explode and corrode the steel. The building’s structure would become very weak and could collapse in maybe a year from now."