Tanzina Vega: A devastating explosion rocked the city of Beirut, Lebanon on Tuesday, killing at least 100 people and injuring thousands. The explosion devastated the port of Beirut and surrounding neighborhoods causing damage to buildings miles away. Thousands of Lebanese people are now homeless and hospitals near the area, already overburdened by COVID-19, are overwhelmed. In addition, the country had already been in a deep financial crisis and many banks have run out of money.
President Michel Aoun said the blast was caused by a stockpile of ammonium nitrate that was stored in a warehouse. Ammonium nitrate is used as both a fertilizer and an explosive material. Prime minister Hassan Diab declared Wednesday a national day of mourning for Lebanon. Liz Sly is the Washington Post Beirut bureau chief and she's joining us from that city now. Liz, thanks so much, and how are you doing?
Liz Sly: I'm fine. Thank you. I'm better off than a lot of people here today.
Tanzina: What does Beirut look like today?
Liz: Well, the part that was near the port, which is where I am now, is completely wrecked. There are no houses here that are inhabitable. There are no buildings that are habitable. The streets are piled high with glass, wrecked cars. [background noise] I don't know if you can hear all the falling masonry around me that they're chucking around. I can't get up my stairs because there's stuff blocking the way.
People are wandering around trying to salvage a few possessions. A lot of people who have just fled the city, they've gone to their villages outside the city. A lot of Lebanese originate from villages in the mountains and areas around Beirut. They don't have homes anymore, they're gone, and people are just completely dazed, they're stunned, they don't know what to think.
Tanzina: Liz, what do we know about the ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion so far?
Liz: What we know is there were 2700 tons of ammonium nitrate in a storage facility. They had been there since 2014 when they were confiscated from a ship visiting the port. This is the official story, at least. They've been stuck there ever since despite some people warning that they were a danger. Now it's all a bit fishy and mysterious. Nothing is ever transparent and clear in Lebanon, you're never sure if you'll get into the real version or not, but that is what the people are saying. It does at the moment look like it was just a case of massive negligence, compounded with some question marks about why this extremely explosive material was being stored there at all.
Tanzina: On Monday, you tweeted that the country's hospitals were near their breaking point. Tell us how that's evolved?
Liz: The health officials have been mourning that any day now Lebanon will overtake its ICU capacity to treat COVID patients in cases arising by a very high number every day. We were expecting to be heading into a serious COVID crisis now anyway, instead, we now have a massive destruction crisis on top of that. I'm actually sitting in the lobby now of a destroyed hospital. It was near the port, it had 200 beds.
Patients were injured. One of the staff members were killed. They had to wheel the patients out. You can see the bloody trolleys outside. They had to wheel them out of the hospital and evacuate them to other hospitals in the dead of night last night with no electricity because this place is destroyed. Meanwhile, there were hundreds of people who were injured in the bus, also converging on all the available hospitals. The hospitals don't have beds to treat all these people.
Tanzina: The situation is dire. There's also been a pretty devastating financial situation in Beirut. Tell us what's been happening and how did it get to that point from an economic standpoint?
Liz: To put it simply, Lebanon has an extremely corrupt and inefficient bunch of politicians who rule the country. These are basically the warlords who fought against each other during the Civil War. They've now bonded together and all the money in the banking system has gone, it's disappeared. Nobody can account for it. Nobody's willing to try and account for it. You're in a situation at the moment where the banks have collapsed, and people can't take money out of the banks because the money doesn't exist.
They are limited to very tiny amounts each month. The currency is collapsing at a rapid rate. I've been talking to people here who've lost their businesses and homes and everything, they just do not have money to rebuild. Even if they did have the money, the banks don't have the money to give them because it doesn't exist anymore.
Tanzina: Liz, I know it's still early days, and as you're saying people are still shocked. President Trump has suggested that this was some sort of an attack. There are conspiracy theories flying around on social media about what could have happened here. Given your expertise in the region, how accurate would you say that assessment is so far?
Liz: It's probably a little irresponsible at the moment because the ramifications of there being some kind of attack were enormous, and Lebanon could end up in a war with Israel as well as all the other catastrophes that we have here at the moment. There is a regional context to this, which is we have seen a series of mysterious explosions in Iraq last year where Israelis targeting weapon storages by Shia militias, and we've had a series of mysterious explosions of power plants and nuclear facilities in Iran this year, which have also been attributed to Israeli sabotage.
Now the port is a very sensitive area in Beirut partly because Hezbollah, the Shia militia, which is at odds with Israel, does maintain the facility there. They do import weapons there. It's not totally out of the question that some kind of attack triggered the initial explosion that then ignited the stored ammonium nitrate and caused a much bigger one. This is also Lebanon and the politicians and the administrators and the managements of facilities are so inept and corrupt. It's also entirely plausible that somebody would leave a giant store of inflammable explosive ammonium nitrate sitting around untended for six years. That's also well within the realm of possibility.
Tanzina: I'm wondering if given the pylon of issues that we just described with banks and hospitals running thin and the virus and the potential for homelessness, do you at some point expect there to be some sort of Exodus out of Beirut or out of Lebanon more broadly?
Liz: Absolutely. I've spoken to people today who just say, "I want to leave." All the Lebanese I know want to leave and wanted to leave before this crisis. If you've lost everything you have, there's no money or option of rebuilding, I think a lot of people are looking to leave the country at the moment. That's another tragedy because it's a brain drain and it's a drain of talent and people from this country.
Tanzina: Liz Sly is the Washington Post Beirut bureau chief. Liz, thank you very much, and please stay safe out there.
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