A year after the Beirut blast, residents of the working-class Karantina district in the Lebanese capital have moved back to homes reconstructed by NGOs. They expect no assistance from the Lebanese government, but they are demanding an investigation into the disaster.
God was on Rue Rmeil in Beirut’s Karantina district on the evening of August 4, 2020. Everyone here says so – the grocery store owner, the teenager who lives above the shop, her elderly neighbour across the street – they all explain that God was with them that catastrophic day, when a massive cache of ammonium nitrate exploded at the Beirut port behind the street.
A year after the explosion ripped apart the Lebanese capital, killing more than 200 people, the residents on Rue Rmeil are certain their survival was nothing short of a miracle.
“I know God was here on August 4. I believe in him, we believe in him. Of course God saved us,” says Daniella Khadra, 20, sitting in her living room with the walls adorned with pictures of saints and the Virgin.
“Forgotten” is an adjective often employed for Karantina, which gets its name from the Turkish word for quarantine. Built in the early 19th century as a public health isolation spot for sailors arriving at the Beirut port, Karantina is the sort of dusty, ramshackle zone often found around ports and transportation hubs in the developing world.
It’s one of four Beirut districts that bore the brunt of one of the world’s most powerful non-nuclear explosions. But unlike the trendy Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhail neighbourhoods – with their upscale bars and art galleries – and the glitzy downtown area, with its shopping malls and designer stores, Karantina is quite literally on the wrong side of the port.
Hemmed in by the Mediterranean, a national highway, and a massive landfill and garbage processing plant, Karantina has long been neglected – intentionally, some say, since developers could make a fortune if the legal residents quit and they could clear up the migrants and itinerants who have planted themselves here.
The Lebanese state has never provided for the residents of Rue Rmeil, a little street that runs perpendicular to the Saydet al-Najat – or “Our Lady of Salvation” – church from where the cranes and destroyed grain silo of the Beirut port is visible behind construction scaffolding.
Faith has sustained them for years and now, more than ever.
Khadra’s mother, Fadiya Zarou-Khadra, nods in agreement as her daughter recounts how everything in the apartment was destroyed besides the framed pictures of saints on the walls. “On August 4, I just prayed to Mother Mary,” the 58-year-old hairdresser said. “The church saved me and my family.”
When residents of Rue Rmeil say, “the church saved me”, they don’t mean the Vatican or the archdioceses of their respective Christian denominations. They mean Our Lady of Salvation, to whom the little church down the street is dedicated, was responsible for their unlikely survival.
Miracles provide the only explanation for how some people survived on this street barely 2 kilometres from the blast site. For those who perished in the explosion – including friends and neighbours – there’s the government to blame.
Khadra rattles off the names and ages of some of the Beirut blast victims. “God saved me, but what about the kids, the 200 people who died, what did they do? What’s the reason the fucking government got to kill these people? The government should just go. They’re just stealing money from the people to put it in their pockets and give it to their kids, who travel abroad,” the young woman sputters with rage.
‘The government has abandoned us’
Lebanon has a president, 87-year-old Michel Aoun, who has switched so many sides and allies in the course of a public career ranging from warlord to president that youngsters such as Khadra don’t know, and can’t be bothered to know, the professional details of their leader.
While the country has a president, it does not have a government since the previous administration resigned in the aftermath of the Beirut blast. The man tapped to be prime minister, 65-year-old Najib Mikati, is a co-founder of an investment firm and the richest man in Lebanon with a net worth of $2.5 billion in 2021, according to Forbes.
On Monday, Mikati told reporters that a cabinet would not be announced mid-week to coincide with the first anniversary of the Beirut blast. Mikati is the third potential prime minister to be nominated over the past year after former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri failed to form a government.
The horse-trading and division of spoils that has marked the Lebanese political process has meant a weak, caretaker administration has been left to handle an economic crisis that the World Bank has called one of the world’s worst in 150 years.
Parliament meanwhile has joined the country’s top security agencies in stalling an investigation into the August 4 blast by referencing immunity clauses in the constitution, some of which have never been used in Lebanon’s history.
In the immediate aftermath of the blast, Aoun dismissed calls for an international investigation, insisting a probe would be done by the Lebanese state and that the results would be released “within five days”.
A year later, with no government and no “results” of a probe, Karatina’s residents are not willing to put up with Lebanon’s political business as usual.
Off another street, where children play, oblivious to the noonday heat, a woman in a purple hijab beckons from the door of her ground-floor apartment.
“I didn’t like to go on cameras, but now I am going to raise my voice,” confesses Aicha Shahine, a 47-year-old mother of two young girls. “The government has abandoned us…Before, it used to deprive us of our rights and we still said, ‘It’s ok’. But now, it is not just depriving us of our rights, but it’s participating in killing all of us. Please, please, save us from the corruption and the danger we’re living in,” she pleads.
‘I have no wasta in the government’
Karantina may be adjacent to the port through which Beirut, and much of Lebanon, has been supplied for centuries. But while it attracted industrial warehouses and workshops, the trickle-down from the proximity to a national hub evaded the district.
Jobs in Lebanon’s ports and airports depend on which party “controls” the hub and employment opportunities are divvied between supporters. The system of family, sectarian and political connections to access positions, called wasta, is replicated at ministries and government departments across the country.
Many Karantina residents worked in the garbage sorting and handling sector, but with the economic crisis, even those jobs are failing them.
“I studied law and psychology, but because I have no wasta in the government, I have no job,” explains Shahine. After the Beirut blast, her husband, the family’s sole provider, lost his job, and the family is now in a precarious state. “If my children ask me to buy them shoes, I tell them I can’t, I’m sorry. Even a chocolate bar is hard to afford. The inflation is so high nowadays and our salary is worth barely $50. How can we live? My home is rented, so I might end up on the streets with my kids.”
‘I feel trapped in this place’
In the family apartment on Rue Rmeil, Fadiya Zarou-Khadra smiles sadly when asked how she is coping with the economic crisis. “Everything is so expensive. Before, I had my job, I was never at home. But then the hair salon closed because of corona[virus], then came the explosion, and now I don’t have work. Now we just live day-by-day. This is my situation now,” she says simply.
Born and raised in Karantina, Zarou-Khadra has lived with her two daughters in her mother’s two-bedroom apartment since she lost her husband 20 years ago. Besides her 77-year-old mother, Zarou-Khadra’s sister and two brothers, all single, also live in the apartment, making it a tight squeeze.
After the explosion, the family moved to a tent in a temporary camp in the area while an NGO renovated their apartment building and they could move back home. The widowed mother of two loves the sense of community in Karantina, where their apartment door is always open, so neighbours can stream in for a chat, fanning themselves to keep cool during the frequent power cuts.
“I like it here. This is my area. I like my life here. My family, my neighbours are all here. I would like to travel, but I want to come back here,” she says.
Her daughter though did not want to return to the apartment where she witnessed so much destruction on August 4. When a fire broke out at the port that fateful evening, sending plumes of smoke across Karantina, a neighbour from the seventh floor came down to the family apartment on the first floor to check what was wrong. The neighbour was at their door when the massive explosion struck and the force of the blast flung the family friend down the stairs, killing her instantly.
A year later, Khadra is still traumatised by the blast. “We saw all the neighbours dying. Even now, when I think about it, I start shaking. Two days ago, there was a noise and I started crying. I said I don’t want to die. When I hear a loud noise, I stand between the walls or I go under the table,” explains the 20-year-old. “I feel trapped in this place.”
Her mother would like her daughters to leave Lebanon to “go anywhere – maybe France, maybe Canada”.
Khadra would happily comply if she could, joining the wave of Lebanese professionals leaving the country after the Beirut port blast. But leaving and setting up a new life requires resources that are scarce these days. “Now I can’t pay for college. There’s no future in Lebanon, there’s no life in Lebanon. I have to fight to live, I just have to pray. You have to fight and pray just to survive here.”