Businesses and workers affected by the Beirut port explosion find themselves caught in multiple crises

Businesses and workers affected by the Beirut port explosion find themselves caught in multiple crises

Ghassan El Bustani was the manager of an apartment hotel next to the port, of which only part of the façade remains.

(Ethel Bonet)

Hassan Mortada is lucky to be alive. On 4 August 2020, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, carelessly stored for years in hangar 12 of the Port of Beirut, exploded, killing over 200 people. Mortada, a 28-year-old civil engineer, was at work in a grain silo adjacent to the warehouse. The silo collapsed in the blast, burying him under a pile of rubble that crushed six vertebrae and two pelvic bones. Now partially disabled, the chronic spinal pain from which he suffers reminds him every day that he is alive. Of the 13 workers who were in the silo on that fateful afternoon, seven of Mortada’s colleagues from the partially state-owned company Beirut Port Silo, along with two Syrian cleaning workers from another company, were crushed to death.

Mortada has not received any psychological support. The Lebanese, as he puts it, “are accustomed to overcoming all manner of disasters”. But, as he admits, his life has radically changed. He can barely remain standing for 30 minutes without severe pain and does not sleep well at night. He no longer believes in a future in Lebanon and wants to leave the country as soon as possible. “My life has become a waiting game. We moved to the countryside for more peace and quiet. I come to Beirut two or three times a month to stop by the port, see my colleagues and talk about the future of the company and the silo.” Today, all that remains of the silo’s offices is a mountain of debris and a tangle of steel.

Mortada fears that if the port is privatised, the new employers will not renew his contract due to his disability. He still receives his employee salary while waiting for the company’s future to be decided. But whereas he used to receive US$2,000 (€1,716), the depreciation of the Lebanese pound means that he now receives no more than US$270 (about €232), which has only increased his anxiety about the future. “What future can I offer my family here? I have a two-year-old daughter and I want to have more children. I’m thinking of returning to Doha,” he says. He worked in the Qatari capital for a few years before returning to Lebanon in 2016 when a position opened up at the company that manages the port silo, where his father also worked for 45 years. Like Beirut Port Silo, many other businesses damaged by the devastating explosion are still waiting, a year later, to recover.

More scarcity, more unemployment, more difficulties

According to a 2020 study by the global consultancy firm PwC, the estimated damage to commercial establishments, hotels, housing, educational and cultural centres in the affected areas neighbouring the port amounts to roughly US$5 billion (about €4.29 billion).

This amount excludes material losses in port infrastructure and its indirect economic impact, including disruptions to exports and the supply chain, which, according to Lebanese government estimates, amount to around US$15 billion (€12.9 billion).

The Port of Beirut is a vital artery for the Lebanese economy. Its destruction has only exacerbated the food shortages, unemployment and economic hardship caused by government corruption and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ground zero is located in dock number 3, where the explosion damaged all the premises in the area, including the customs building and the port’s free trade zone warehouses where goods were stored. The docks, which are no longer in use, were used to import products such as wheat, seeds, livestock, cars and metals.

While private companies from several countries have expressed interest in rebuilding the port of Beirut, Lebanon’s political, economic and financial collapse has not made it a safe destination for private sector investments. Against this volatile backdrop, reconstruction projects continuously fail to materialise, much to the chagrin of port authorities.

In an interview, the port’s interim director Bassem al-Kaissi says that everything done thus far has amounted to “a declaration of intent.” He was referring to Germany, whose ambitious US$30 billion (€25.74 billion) reconstruction proposal, drawn up by the company Hamburg Port Consulting, would expand the port eastwards and redevelop the nearby area to include social housing, a park and even beaches, as well as to France, which has expressed its desire to rebuild the port through the firm CMA-CGM with a macro-project estimated to last three years and cost between US$400 and 600 million dollars (€345 to 518 million).

But these private initiatives, backed by the governments of Germany and France with additional financial aid provided by international creditors, come with strings attached: Lebanon’s political elite must first implement structural reforms aimed at fighting corruption and pulling the country out of economic and political collapse.

After 13 months of political paralysis due to the inability to form a new government, a cabinet was finally formed in October under Najib Mikati, a Sunni billionaire from Tripoli who has held the post three times before. But pending reforms, international funds remain frozen, which has prolonged the suffering of the thousands of Lebanese people whose businesses were affected or who lost their jobs due to the explosion.

The investigation into the disaster at a standstill

According to an August 2021 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), 86 per cent of business surveyed located within a five-kilometre radius of the port area were partially damaged by the port explosion, while 35 per cent were severely or completely damaged. Only half of the damaged businesses have been renovated or rebuilt since the explosion, while 14 per cent have not been repaired at all.

The temporary or permanent closure of the affected businesses has left many workers without jobs while others have seen their wages reduced in order to maintain their contracts. According to the ILO, one-third of the companies with payroll employees have laid off one or more people since the explosion, with the average number of layoffs being three people. Moreover, in order to cope with the economic difficulties, the surveyed companies reported having reduced their employees’ wages by an average of one-third. All this has taken place against a backdrop of a deep economic crisis, which has pushed more than half of the Lebanese population below the poverty line.

The recovery of private businesses and the future of their workers are also threatened by the delay in compensation payments from insurance companies. Ghassan El Bustani was the manager of an apartment hotel next to the port, of which only part of the façade remains. According to appraisers from the hotel’s insurance company, the losses amount to US$1.7 million (€1.5 million). But with the cause of the explosion still to be officially determined, El Bustani has yet to receive compensation.

According to the Association of Lebanese Insurance Companies, there are 16,000 other cases like El Bustani’s, where insurance claims are pending the outcome of the official investigation into the port explosion.

“We’ll never know the truth of what happened on 4 August because too many hands have blood on them. I don’t trust our corrupt politicians,” says El Bustani, who has started a beekeeping business in order to continue paying expenses and supporting his family.

Despite the gravity of the situation, the political class systematically obstructs the investigation and protects the accused by refusing to waive the parliamentary immunity of the high-ranking officials summoned to testify by the judges conducting the investigation.

The judicial process is currently suspended pending the resolution of a lawsuit filed by two MPs attempting to remove the appointed magistrate Tarek Bitar from the case. What began as a petition by parliamentarians sympathetic to the Shi’ite group Hezbollah to remove Judge Bitar from the investigation has turned into a dangerous sectarian-political conflict, stoking sectarian tensions between Hezbollah (and its parliamentary ally, the Shi’ite Amal Movement) and the Christian group Lebanese Forces. Thursday 14 October 2021 saw one of the darkest episodes of the country’s civil war revived after suspected Lebanese Forces sympathisers opened fire on Shi’ites who were protesting in favour of Bitar’s withdrawal from the investigation. Seven protesters were killed and 35 injured.

At the political level, friction between parliamentary groups over the issue of Judge Bitar has led to paralysis, with Hezbollah and Amal threatening to pull their ministers out of the government.

Fears that the investigation will be forgotten and that the culprits will not be brought to justice have united families of the victims of the port explosion. “We don’t want financial compensation. All we want is an impartial and unobstructed investigation,” says Mariam, whose late sister Sahat was one of the first fire brigade paramedics to arrive at the port when the initial fire began to spread.

In an attempt to acknowledge their responsibilities, the Lebanese authorities, through the Ministry of Defence, granted the victims’ families (considered to be “martyrs of the Lebanese army”) a monthly allowance of a total of 1,291,000 Lebanese pounds, which, thanks to the devaluation of the local currency, amounts to no more than US$75 (€65).

Like many Lebanese, Mariam thinks that the port tragedy was the result of endemic corruption and sectarian interests.

“Sahat loved her job and wasn’t afraid of the danger. But if her superiors had been aware of the existence of ammonium nitrate they wouldn’t have sent her straight to her death. This was negligence on the part of the government,” she says. The memory of her sister gives her strength: “If we don’t allow the investigation to proceed, if there is no justice for the victims, then we are all condemning ourselves. This isn’t just a struggle for the families of the victims, this is a struggle for the Lebanese people.”

This article has been translated from Spanish by Brandon Johnson