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Lebanon Aid

Aid groups scramble to help Beirut residents after devastating port blast

Men inspect the damage near the site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 6, 2020.
Men inspect the damage near the site of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 6, 2020. REUTERS - AZIZ TAHER

Humanitarian groups in Lebanon are scrambling to provide aid to hundreds of thousands of people affected by a devastating explosion at the port of Beirut which has killed at least 145 and injured 5,000. Dozens are still missing and a quarter of a million residents are now homeless.

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Two days after a massive explosion at the port of Beirut, rescuers on Thursday raced frantically to find survivors trapped under the rubble as families waited desperately for answers.

"We've set up a tent close to the site of the explosion where families who've lost loved ones or don't know their whereabouts can go and fill out a form," explains Rona Halabi, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Lebanon.

Dozens are still missing after Tuesday's blast at the port that tore through the Lebanese capital, killing at least 145 people and injuring about 5,000 others.

A map showing the scale of Beirut's port explosion that was felt across the region.
A map showing the scale of Beirut's port explosion that was felt across the region. © RFI/Graphics department

"The situation has been devastating," Halabi tells RFI. "Hospitals in Beirut are no longer taking in patients, they're at full capacity."

The capital's three main hospitals were severely damaged by the massive blast, which is thought to have been caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely in a warehouse.

Dwindling supplies

The ICRC has been supplying them medical supplies, such as dressings, infusions and injections, as well as eight other hospitals in and around the Beirut area. But stocks are running out fast.

Up to "90 percent of our imports come through Beirut port, which is now no longer functioning, making it harder to get supplies," says Halabi.

The situation is bleak too for hospitals. "They used in one night a supply of two months," she comments.

Beyond the immediate priority of finding and treating survivors, humanitarian workers are scrambling to provide emergency support to the 300,000 people who were left homeless overnight and without electricity.

"They're going to be in dire need of food and water," explains Thierry Benlahsen, Operations Manager at the French aid organisation Solidarités International.

Mass movement

"Some people will want to return to their homes even though their property is no longer fit to live in. We will have to monitor this," he told RFI.

Lebanon was already reeling from an economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus cases. Benlahsen fears the explosion will cause a pendular movement of people inside the country in search of a temporary solution.

"We are going to have a response effort that will extend beyond Beirut to other parts of the country. A movement of the population cannot be ruled out," he said.

Solidarités International has called for temporary shelters to be set up, cash handouts to be made available for those in need and for water supplies to be re-established before the drinking source becomes "a matter of priority."

"Aid organisations will have to work together. We will have to use a different modus operandi," Benlahsen commented.

Macron visit

Offers of medical and other immediate aid have poured in since the explosion, led notably by French President Emmanuel Macron, who was the first foreign leader to visit Beirut on Thursday.

Macron was greeted by Beirut residents, angry at authorities for their handling of the country and for allowing huge quantities of highly explosive ammonium nitrate to be stored at the port for years in unsafe conditions. 

They urged the French leader to come to their rescue.

Macron said he would ask Lebanon's leaders to come up with a "new political pact" and promised that French aid would not go "into corrupt hands," following last year's anti-government protests against corruption.

The unrest has not gone unnoticed in humanitarian circles.

"I've heard people voicing such concerns," says the ICRC's Halabi.

"But for us, you know, what matters now is providing the aid that is necessary at this point and at later stages, because this is not something that's going to end soon."

"A country that is as fragile as Lebanon before the explosion will feel the impact of the explosion long after the initial blast," she said.

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