In any other year, what took place in Beirut on August 5 would have perhaps been the biggest story of the last 12 months.The world has been rocked so hard by the coronavirus pandemic that the mushroom cloud explosion which tore down buildings, flattened houses, ripped balconies from apartments and tossed cars from motorways, has been consigned to just another tragic event of 2020.
However, the people of Lebanon can’t simply move on from the blast, which has left the country on its knees, four months on and into the foreseeable future.
Shaya Laughlin, an Australian who was thrown across a room on the day of the explosion, said the situation on the ground is still one of chaos, disarray and uncertainty.
The 25-year-old former News Corp journalist is still living in the city and told the economic, social and political situation there is getting worse by the day.
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She was doing an online Arabic class when all hell broke loose on August 5.
“Luckily my window exploded in my curtain and not in my face,” she said.
“But my foot was cut when I was thrown across my room. I couldn’t walk so I sat downstairs for two hours until my friend arrived to pick me up. The aftermath is blurry, I was in shock. I live about 50 metres from the hospital, and our neighbourhood looked like a war zone.”
Because Beirut’s hospitals were so overwhelmed, she was evacuated out of the city for two weeks for treatment.
Despite her trauma, Ms Laughlin was one of the lucky ones as she managed to recover and escape the mayhem of the city after 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, that had been stored for years in a port warehouse despite repeated warnings by officials, suddenly exploded that day.
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Estimated to have been as powerful as one-twentieth of the nuclear bomb that dropped on Hiroshima, the blast killed over 200 people.
It left over 6000 people with serious injuries, 300,000 people homeless and the city with $3 billion of damage to repair.
Lebanon was already on its knees with massive inflation and residents struggled to buy basic goods in some areas before the pandemic hit.
Now, four months after the blast hit, the situation has barely improved, according to Ms Laughlin who said the political situation and the pandemic is just adding to the people’s distress.
“Politicians still have not explained how and why the explosion happened. There has been no accountability which, of course, makes the political situation worse,” she said.
“Many people are desperately trying to leave the country. Some still hope things will get better but most people expect it to get worse.”
There have been firey protests on the streets of Beirut following the explosion, and danger of the nation spiralling into chaos is not unthinkable given Lebanon is so often caught in the crossfire of regional conflicts.
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The country endured a devastating 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, but political unrest has continued ever since and now a major economic crisis is threatening stoke tensions even further.
Ms Laughlin said a lack of answers over the August explosion is fuelling anger.
The massive amount of chemicals that exploded was stored for years in a port warehouse despite repeated warnings by officials and at least two government reports calling for the highly flammable material to be moved.
Now, there are fears the Lebanese government’s inquiry into what happened is badly flawed and unlikely to yield credible results. Victims of the blast are calling for an international investigation.
It is a call that is being backed by human rights groups like Amnesty International, which blasted the government’s inquiry the into disaster.
“The steps taken by the Lebanese authorities so far to look into the massive explosion
that devastated Beirut are wholly inadequate as they are relying on flawed processes that are neither independent nor impartial,” it said in a statement.
“More broadly, it has serious concerns regarding the Lebanese authorities’ ability and
willingness to guarantee victims’ rights to truth, justice and remedy, considering the decades-long experience of impunity in the country and the scale of the tragedy.”