icon icon icon icon icon icon icon

Lebanon today: seeking a path through years of loss

Wider-angle portrait of Marcelle

Three years ago, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded at the Port of Beirut, killing at least 220 people, injuring more than 7000, and causing between 3.8 and 4.6 billion dollars in damages to infrastructure, buildings, and surrounding areas.

Hundreds of buildings remain as broken ghosts of their former lives, their owners lacking the funds to repair them. All of the rubble, stacked just off the streets, was moved by residents and the droves of people who came from around the country to help their neighbors, rather than government agencies.

The blast was the third disaster to rock the population of Lebanon in less than a year.

The first was in the fall of 2019 with the devaluation of the Lebanese pound (LBP), the result of high levels of debt, a large fiscal deficit, a stagnant economy, and a deteriorating balance of payments. At the same time, Lebanon faced a period of political instability and social unrest. The government’s inability to implement necessary reforms and address the underlying issues further eroded confidence in the country’s financial stability.

Before the devaluation one U.S. dollar bought 1,500 Lebanese pounds; today, the practical street exchange rate is one-to-100,000 and the inflation rate is running at 264 percent. The majority of the population are unable to make ends meet.

The second is familiar: the global spread of COVID-19 which resulted in 1.2 million cases and 11,000 deaths in Lebanon.

While those numbers may pale in comparison to other places, if you consider that Lebanon’s population is 5.6 million people, the number of cases represents roughly one-fifth of the population. Using that equation, it would mean 20.7 million Americans infected.

Destroyed city buildings in foreground with black smoke in background
The 2020 Beirut port explosion destroyed and damaged buildings miles across the city. Photo: CARE Lebanon

Scars, both visible and invisible

The blast’s scars are all over the city, particularly in port-bordering neighborhoods. People who have the money are out and about, living their lives. About half the damaged buildings and houses have been repaired, which is also a question of money and the support of NGOs, donor countries, and Lebanese individuals.

But it isn’t hard to spot places that will never again be homes, or the lives that were shattered by a detonation that has been described as one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded.

“It’s like something carried you and threw you on the ground.”

This is where we met Marcelle, a resident of the Achrafieh neighborhood, the community hardest hit and one of the most scarred. Marcelle, 66, has seen some of the toughest times in the last decades of Lebanon’s history, including the country’s 15-year civil war (1975-1990). Marcelle was studying for a business degree then, but stopped before graduating, opting to work before getting married and moving back and forth between Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates at her family’s insistence to avoid the day-to-day of living in a combat zone.

Portrait of Marcelle
Photo: Kate Crosby/CARE

She was at home the day of the port explosion.

“I heard the first noise and thought it was airplanes breaking the sound barrier. My brother-in-law said to me ‘You didn’t recognize it? It’s an airplane.’ I told him no, this is stronger. My gut told me that something very big will happen. And then we heard a loud explosion. Then everything … it’s like something carried you and threw you on the ground.

“Windows flew to the middle of the house. Doors were on the ground; all the glass was broken. Everything happened not even in seconds. My bedroom windows, because they’re facing the sea, flew from their place[s], even with the frame. I don’t know… nothing was in its place anymore. I kind of lost my mind and didn’t know where we should go and hide. That’s what occurred to me at first.

“I thought we were going to die. The first thing that came to my mind is, ‘I want to see my children.’”

Although Marcelle’s family all emerged from this devastating day, her childhood home is a different story. “My parents weren’t in the house anymore. Dad and mom passed away. Even the neighbors opposite us had left because they were selling their property. So the building was empty.”

She took us there to show what remains of where she grew up.

It was jarring to see piles of rubble stacked into the battered shells of neighboring houses. The courtyard fountain is dry and cracked. The house itself still shows its grand doors and tilework, but the doors are stacked inside and the tile is covered with dust. “You feel that everything here is damaged. It’s terrible. Even mice and rats don’t come here anymore. What a pity. ‘Love is dead,’” she reads from a handwritten inscription on an interior wall.

Graffiti on a wall reading
Photo: Anell Abreu/CARE

“It breaks my heart. That was my bedroom. It’s like all my family’s here, my siblings, my mom and dad. Their voices are in my head. How we used to play. The house was full of laughter. It’s like… I don’t know. It’s very sad. Like the world ended here. A family house that was never empty. Now it’s destroyed and abandoned.”

A place to call home

Marcelle is not alone in her grief. Approximately 70,000 homes were destroyed in the blast and more than 300,000 people were left homeless. Many left the city for the suburbs or left the country for good. Still others returned to Beirut. Housing in general is largely unaffordable for most of the population and disadvantaged neighborhoods are facing the brunt of this as the demand for affordable housing far outpaces the supply. Notably, Lebanon is host to the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. Because there are few formal camps, most refugees rent inadequate shelters – apartments, garages, sheds – from private individuals.

In its 5,000 years of history, Beirut, called “the Paris of the middle east” in the early-to-mid-20th Century, is said to have been destroyed and rebuilt seven times. But those periods of destruction were primarily due to conflicts and natural disasters. They were never the result of a failure of multiple leaders to safely secure a large amount of highly volatile explosive in the heart of the city. In the three years since the explosion, no one has been held accountable for this tragedy.

Back to Top