A child blowing pink soap bubbles next to a Mona Lisa armed with a grenade launcher have been left alone in a flat in the Christian neighborhood of Gemeize in Beirut. Painted on the pair of walls that have survived the colossal explosion of August 4, they share a dwelling with piles of rubble and a void that recalls that their tenants, probably young artists, have not yet returned.
They met five months since the outbreak of a deposit of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate poorly stored in the port of the Lebanese capital that swept away half the city. Anger prevails against a ruling class that has not been able to form a government since then. Only the solidarity of its citizensit serves as a balm for the scars that are as visible on buildings as on their inhabitants.
In an apartment a few meters away, Cocó woke up from a coma just two months ago. Curled up in bed, she protects herself from the gaze of others under a blanket. “She was extremely beautiful and she doesn’t want anyone to see her like that,” her 22-year-old daughter Lara, with a degree in Marketing , apologizes .
Cocó, as they call Carmen Khoury, a 52-year-old housewife, cannot see herself in a mirror because the explosion has stolen both of her eyes.
It is his hands that tell him that he is missing half a nose and that he has part of his skull sunken. You still can’t get your bearings in your own home She is one of the more than 6,500 injured caused by the explosion. Four of them are still in a coma. The elderly neighbor who lived in the third is one of 205 fatalities.
And the families that inhabited the three floors below the seventh floor are among those 350,000 residents who have been displaced from their homes and have had to seek shelter in the homes of relatives.
The living room of the house smells new: the sofas, the tiles, the windows and the curtains have just been installed. “It doesn’t matter how new everything is if every time I look out the window I see all those half-ruined buildings that remind me of that day,” says the young woman, pointing to a roof where several workers clear debris. From the balcony, you can also see the epicenter of the explosion, with the port turned into a huge mass of cement and metals yet to be removed.
“The government has done absolutely nothing,” he says helplessly. During the first days, a score of unknown young people swarmed their house every day to help them get rid of the rubble, raise the walls and wall up the windows.
It has been the tireless work of local NGOs that has managed to relieve the victims. One of them, Grassroots, still maintains a tent alongside a life-size nativity scene planted under the completely demolished Lebanon’s power company headquarters.
Christmas decorations have brought some joy and light back to dark streets due to daily power outages. Neighbors flock to this tent in search of boxes of food, diapers and clothes. Several pictures hang between the pile of aid.
“They have been donated by students of Fine Arts so that the newly erected walls are not so bare and sad,” says smiling Lina Saade, a 19-year-old volunteer.
Bad times have hit this Levantine country of 4.5 million inhabitants, which is facing a triple crisis : health, economic and political-social. On December 31, 3,507 new coronavirus infections and 13 deaths were registered.
Expats who have returned in droves for the holidays have brought with them the coveted dollars they spend in bars and nightclubs as the virus spreads. In hospitals, four out of every five ICU beds are occupied.
Lebanon is also experiencing the worst economic crisis in its 100-year history: half of the population has fallen below the poverty lineand every day fewer can afford to pay for health insurance in a country where 85% of healthcare is provided by private hospitals.
Redoing their homes is another impossible challenge for many. The swarming of cranes alternates with the sealing of buildings on the brink of collapse whose owners cannot afford the costs of reconstruction, but have hung promising signs from the balconies with a “we are going to stay” written in red.
Cocó’s family has received 10 million Lebanese pounds from the army to rebuild the apartment they rent, he says. An amount that on the black market is equivalent to 1,170 euros.