One year after Beirut explosion, Lebanon’s wounds fester

AUG. 4, 2021 HAS BEEN DESIGNATED by the Lebanese Council of Ministers as a day of national mourning and a public holiday. Large crowds were expected to gather in the port of Beirut for a ceremony presided over by the Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Béchara Raï.

For ordinary people, already overwhelmed by the profound crisis afflicting the country ever since October 2019—widespread corruption, decaying public infrastructure, hospitals on the edge of collapse in the face of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic— there is still no light at the end of the tunnel. In the hospitals, many of the nurses have already left to work abroad, and the same is true of many doctors, who have either left or are seeking to leave. Catholic schoolteachers, faced with a salary that is no longer enough even to feed their families, are likewise resigning, hoping to emigrate. By the end of 2020, more than 380,000 requests for emigration papers had been submitted to the embassies of the EU countries, Canada, and United States.

Well above half of the population now live below the poverty threshold, and today one can even say destitution. At the Holy Family School in Jounieh, a good 14 miles from Beirut, Sister Eva Abou Nassar, the school’s administrative director, reported that she has already lost some 20 teachers in June and July. “Most of them want to emigrate, since they can simply no longer make ends meet. Their purchasing power has fallen drastically. Whereas before the crisis a starting salary of 1,525 million Lebanese pounds was roughly equivalent to $1000, with the collapse of the Lebanese pound that same amount is now worth no more than $80 US. An experienced teacher earns twice that much, but that is still far too little.”

Since Lebanon must import almost everything, everything has to be paid for in dollars. Says the sister: “A tin of baby milk – and you need two every week—costs 250,000 Lebanese pounds. And to rent a generator (since the public electricity supply only operates for between two and four hours a day) costs 600,000 Lebanese pounds a month—while the minimum wage is just 675,000 Lebanese pounds. Getting a spare part for your car can cost you up to four months of the average salary. Some of the families here in Jounieh, a town not generally regarded as being poor, actually go out early in the morning, in order not to be seen, scavenging food from the dustbins!”

On the wall bordering the road that runs along the edge of the port are inscribed the names of the “martyrs” who were killed by the explosion, along with photos of children, now already fading with the passage of time.  Close to the ruins of what is left of the huge grain silos that were destroyed by the explosion of some 2750 metric tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a hangar without proper supervision ever since 2014, (gross irresponsibility on the part of the authorities, who continue to deny responsibility and blame one another instead), there now stands an immense sculpture of twisted metal, a human form with a metal dove on the end of an outstretched arm.

“It was erected by the demonstrators of the thawra—the revolution—who have been protesting against the government ever since October 2019. People just can’t take any more of the political establishment, who have been sharing the spoils among them without a thought for the needs of the people,” explains Wajih Raad, a local lawyer.

Statue marking the explosion in Beirut; in background, the destroyed silos (Jacques Berset)

“Pope Francis has given us hope that we can confront this crisis, with his appeal to the universal Church not to let us go under. The Pope is not going to abandon the Church in Lebanon! We are regaining some degree of confidence, despite all the difficulties. Why should we fear others when we have our faith in Jesus Christ? The yeast may be little in quantity, but it can leaven the whole loaf!” This is the conclusion of Father Père Raymond Abdo, provincial of the Order of Discalced Carmelites in Lebanon.

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) International) has supported the Lebanese people since the fall of 2019, to help alleviate the impact of the economic crisis and of the Aug. 4, 2020. In 2020, ACN has invested more than $3M for the reconstruction of pastoral infrastructure destroyed by the explosion, and an additional $2.7M in emergency relief aid, along with other aid for pastoral support, transportation, basic subsistence, etc.

For a message from Christian leaders in Lebanon, please click here.

—Jacques Berset