Lebanon’s death toll after a disastrous explosion in Beirut’s port area August 4 has killed nearly 200,000 people. That’s in a population of just over five million. The Associated Press reported that the government resigned and remaining officials have imposed a two-week-long lockdown throughout the tiny East Mediterranean country.
The explosion occurred when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been confiscated from a disabled cargo ship in 2014 and stored for the past six years blew up when touched off by a welding accident at the port. Lebanese governments had ignored warnings of a potential explosion, and no action had been taken by authorities to remove the ammonium nitrate.
Citizens must now confront two crises simultaneously:
1) treating residents injured in the blast in a worsening COVID-19 endemic and
2) clearing the wreckage of hundreds of offices and residences. This, as four of Beirut’s hospitals, were damaged and two closed indefinitely, risking the lives of many survivors and others with urgent medical needs.
The double blows require global public diplomacy efforts ensuring international aid and teamwork to help fuel recovery of a country whose civilians have suffered immensely under unstable governments for at least two decades.
The Heil family was posted in Beirut by VOA back in the mid-1960s when it was called “the Paris of the Middle East.” We used to stroll along the now-destroyed cobblestone streets adjacent to the port. We still revere those days, when one could explore the beautiful, green Beka’a valley to the east over a scenic mountain highway from the capital.
In the spring of 1967, we went skiing in the north in the mountains east of Tripoli, Lebanon, and fondly recall speeding down the slopes and watching the distant blue Mediterranean 50 miles to the west appear to come closer and closer as we navigated the winding, twisting ski slopes downward through the cedars of Lebanon.
So it was with the utmost sadness that we read firsthand accounts of the vast destruction August 4 of the port and surrounding office buildings. More than 180 people were killed in the explosion, and 6,000 wounded. The blast also leveled a quarter of a million homes and forced the closure of two of the three largest hospitals in the capital city.
INTERNATIONAL DONORS ACT QUICKLY
A photo accompanying an Associated Press story shows a vast expanse of wreckage near the waterfront with 17 tall metal cranes soaring into the sky to clear the ruins. It is headlined: Beirut Explosion Bares Pitfalls of Sending Aid to Lebanon and a wall in the foreground is emblazed with a crudely lettered slogan that reads: “My Government Did This.” An international donors teleconference hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron August 16 raised $298 million in emergency aid. Shortly after the deadly blast, Mr. Macron visited Lebanon and wandered through the sea of wreckage in Beirut’s port area.
He had been mobbed on the streets by victims of the ammonium nitrate explosion, who, according to AP, “begged him to ensure that Lebanese corruption they blame for the blast does not profit from its destruction.” Britain’s Independent news agency quoted the French president as saying: “Our task today is to act swiftly and efficiently to coordinate our aid on the ground so that this aid goes as quickly as possible directly to the Lebanese people. Our role is to be at their side. Lebanon’s future is at stake.”
LEBANESE VOLUNTEERS TO THE RESCUE
News accounts from Beirut describe the heroism of doctors and citizens who immediately responded after the deadly explosion occurred. A trio of Washington Post reporters — Louisa Loveluck, Loveday Morris, and Erin Cunningham — recalled that on the night of the blast, glass had ripped through the air in the city’s Geitawi Hospital as the staff leaped into action to save patients. “Doctors and nurses in the newly opened coronavirus treatment centers grabbed people from their beds and carried them out for transfer to other hospitals. The response, Dr. Joseph Khalil said, “was a miracle. It was chaos, but they saved our patients.”
“In the short term,” AP reports, “the aid now streaming into Lebanon is purely for humanitarian emergencies and relatively easy to monitor. The U.S., France, Britain, Canada, and Australia, among others, have been clear that it is going directly to trusted local aid groups like the Lebanese Red Cross or U.N. agencies.”
According to the Congressional Research Service, Lebanon currently faces the worst economic crisis in its history following the August explosion, ongoing political unrest, and the spread of COVID-19. A number of Lebanese have pitched involuntarily to help neighbors since that devastating event and help those forced to evacuate. It is the first time Beirut has ever pleaded for emergency international aid.
Volunteers and citizens across Lebanon have swiftly mobilized to clear streets of rubble, search for missing survivors and feed and house those who are now homeless. Germany has announced it will give 10 million Euros ($11,943,000) in emergency help to Lebanon. France plans to provide 18 tons of medical equipment and 663 tons of food. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) will give an additional $15 million directly to those who need it most in Lebanon, as it confronts the unprecedented twin crises. A coordinated approach promoted by a serious public diplomacy global commitment is essential.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More