August 8, 2020

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Tragedy in Beirut; A Plea for Help

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To the Editor:

“We can explain a lot of disasters as natural or random: A forest fire destroying a few homes, an economic recession with a devalued currency, even a global pandemic straining your healthcare system…But 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical bomb, parked at the port of the Lebanese capital for 6 years? Now how can we overlook that?” – Christopher Raffoul, a 22-year-old Beirut resident.

In the blink of an eye: Buildings collapsed, cars were thrown into the air and a giant mushroom cloud rose above downtown Beirut, Lebanon. Hospitals were damaged and so overwhelmed by casualties that the wounded were being treated in veterinary clinics, pharmacies and parking lots. Due to this explosion on Tuesday, 330,000 are homeless, 5,000 are wounded and hundreds are likely dead. The explosion occurred at the Port of Beirut, near the heart of the city. Homes, stores, office buildings, universities, schools, hospitals and even the national grain silo have been destroyed. As the explosion ripped through Beirut, people on the island of Cyprus, 150 miles away, felt the effects of the blast. Seismographs registered it as a 3.3 magnitude earthquake.

The sad reality is that Lebanon was already facing devastation before the explosion happened, rendering it truly helpless after the blast. Prior to the pandemic, Lebanese took to the streets to demand the resignation of senior politicians due to pervasive corruption that has existed since the end of the civil war in the 1990s. This led to hyperinflation, famine and record-high unemployment, which have reduced this once proud nation to privation. The local currency has devalued by nearly 80 percent, driving critical imports like fuel, medicine and food out of reach for countless Lebanese. 45 percent of the population currently lives below the poverty line. Aid organizations like the World Bank forecast that this proportion could increase to 75 percent by December. Lebanon also imports all of its fuel and roughly 80 percent of its food — much of it through the now inoperable Port of Beirut. For the past several years, rolling blackouts have been egregiously common, leaving much of the country without electricity for up to 22 hours a day.

It is a cruel irony that, in a nation plagued by shortages of food and medicine, the explosion destroyed the national grain silo, essential medical supply warehouses and severely damaged hospitals and pharmacies. The Lebanese, in the aftermath of the explosion, understandably ignored social distancing precautions to seek and provide help. Even though the race to save lives eclipses COVID-19 precautions, the Lebanese are dreading the imminent spike in cases that their healthcare system is woefully unprepared to combat.

For nearly six years, 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate have been stored improperly in the densely populated capital. It was this depot of ammonium nitrate that somehow detonated, wreaking havoc on an unimaginable scale. The bureaucrats are currently pointing fingers, but the problem goes beyond any individual. The mismanagement of the country is systemic. While one can never quantify the suffering caused by the blast, experts are estimating it destroyed $10 billion to $15 billion worth of property. For a nation already in economic freefall, ruled by an incompetent political class, this is nothing short of ruinous.

We understand that the coronavirus crisis has stretched many budgets to their breaking point. There is also no shortage of worthy causes in the United States that desperately need contributions. That being said, Lebanon has been going from tragedy to tragedy with no light at the end of the tunnel. While the international media outlets will inevitably leave Beirut and turn their cameras towards the next disaster, the hard work of healing and rebuilding will go on for years. The emotional scars of this calamity will never fade; today’s Lebanese children will now carry the same pain their parents did from their own childhoods riddled with memories of the civil war. The streets that they knew and the houses they grew up in will never be the same.

This is a cry for help to the international community. Since the Lebanese cannot rely on their own government, international support is their only hope. Due to the collapse of the Lebanese currency, American dollars will do a disproportionate amount of good — approximately eight times more than they would have in the past. Just as Cornell came together as a community in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, we hope to see the same kind of support for this humanitarian emergency. The Lebanese Red Cross has been vital in responding to this colossal challenge. Donations can be made here. If you cannot contribute funds, your thoughts and prayers are always welcome and appreciated.

“This country lives in my heart, so I am heartbroken.” – Marya Wahidi, a 22-year-old medical student at the American University of Beirut.

Charles Mouaikel ’20

Nadia Samaha ’20