BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS

BEIRUT TEARS (can Lebanon rebuild?)

August 19, 2020 Dana Lewis Season 2 Episode 1
BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS
BEIRUT TEARS (can Lebanon rebuild?)
Chapters
00:02:09
Dany Khoury
00:16:54
Gebran Bassil
BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS
BEIRUT TEARS (can Lebanon rebuild?)
Aug 19, 2020 Season 2 Episode 1
Dana Lewis

Aug 4 2020 - Rocked by a massive explosion Beirut was shredded.   It's infrastructure, the people and Lebanon's Government. 

What happened and what's next for the sectarian Gov which has been rife with corruption and ineffective rule?

On this Back Story host and creator Dana Lewis listens to Beirut businessman Dany Khoury, who explains how he's trying to help his neighbours.

And, former Foreign Minister of Lebanon Gebran Bassil who says he finds it hard to believe the explosion was totally accidental, and Lebanon needs assistance or it can be highjacked by extremism. 

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Aug 4 2020 - Rocked by a massive explosion Beirut was shredded.   It's infrastructure, the people and Lebanon's Government. 

What happened and what's next for the sectarian Gov which has been rife with corruption and ineffective rule?

On this Back Story host and creator Dana Lewis listens to Beirut businessman Dany Khoury, who explains how he's trying to help his neighbours.

And, former Foreign Minister of Lebanon Gebran Bassil who says he finds it hard to believe the explosion was totally accidental, and Lebanon needs assistance or it can be highjacked by extremism. 

Speaker 1:

What is the cause of that explosion? Was it exited ?

Speaker 2:

I don't believe into the conspiracy theory. I believe acception coincidences.

Speaker 1:

Hi everyone. I'm Dana Lewis and welcome to this special edition of backstory. They root in crisis.

Speaker 2:

The death toll has risen overnight and that massive explosion in Beirut the death toll has climbed.

Speaker 1:

I told them it's going to increase in the coming. Alison

Speaker 2:

Lebanese security officials say that that

Speaker 1:

Was triggered by explicit material that was stored in a warehouse in the much of Beirut is shattered this morning by one of the most powerful peacetime explosions ever

Speaker 2:

Nuclear bomb. I couldn't even take my bed

Speaker 1:

As a reporter. I've been to Lebanon. There is always, it seems some national meltdown or political gridlock. This is something else. A massive explosion in Bay root shattered. The city, a blast so intense. It was felt 150 miles away in Cyprus. 135 bed, 5,000 injured, 300,000 displaced from their homes. First, it was a fire in the port at around 5:54 PM. Then 14 minutes later, initial report say 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stupidly stored there. Detonated the big blessed makes the Beirut event. One of the most powerful industrial explosions on record in this backstory, we take you to Beirut and talk to the former foreign minister. But first here is a friend who was also a part time producer and full time businessmen who was trying to survive and he's taking time to help others by joining me now from Beirut is Danny khoury who was

Speaker 2:

As a businessman and somebody I've known for a long time and he's helped journalists in Lebanon. And he's a good friend. And Danny, how are you doing? Hi, Dana , how are you? I'm good. I'm good. So far we survived this one. How close did it come to you? As you know , um , I also I'm in the bar business, so I was actually at one bar that is about two kilometers away from the blast, but we own another bar that was just like 300 meters away from the blast . And that was, that was deadly. Uh , luckily with none of our stuff , uh , diet , the only injuries, but a lot of we lost a of friends in that area. It was an it's an area full of bars and restaurants, and it's very vibrant, full of tourists as well.

dany khoury:

The only, the only good thing that I could say about it was the COVID-19 had a bit of restrictions about bars. They were not supposed to open only restaurants and restaurant bars . So luckily the bar visitors were not there. Usually they come early for happy hours and otherwise it would have been a massacre. It was still a massacre, but it wasn't like 170 people died. This is so sad, but otherwise it would have been much more than that. This is on Germain street [inaudible] as you know, that the port area outdoors , the seaside. So it was amazing. And Miami high end , it was like one long street, actually they're connected to each other. So , uh , um , I was eating, I was eating today surveys. There were about 280 restaurants and bars in that area. That's completely , uh , destroyed. Like , I mean,

dana lewis :

Hundreds of, I mean, I love that city. It's beautiful. And you and I have been gemmayzeh street together and we've eaten there together and, and , uh , I love Beirut. It's a fantastic city and, but there are hundreds of buildings that are gutted by this and some of them are gonna fold down. I mean, the damage is, it's almost too difficult to describe to people.

dany khoury:

Well , uh , Dana , uh, there are about maybe like 20,000 buildings that were, that were like partially destroyed. Maybe, maybe a few, few thousands that completely demolished like grounded level. A lot of like the , the new , uh, the new high rise that were built there. They're all like modern buildings was like full of glass fronts and they're like lofts kinda kind of , uh , can apartments. Uh , those were the buildings where a lot of people actually died over there because of the size of the blast was like humongous. Like I still, every time I go there and see, I look at the Robyn , I am shocked again and again, and every day I go there and like, I'm still shocked. I cannot, I cannot, I cannot still imagine it in my head.

dana lewis :

You're running. You've been running a soup kitchen for people you've been doing free food. Have you?

dany khoury:

Well , um , it's exactly. Um, I started a new conceptual store. That's a bit far off the pace where I was actually, so we only lost the glass door over there. So after making a phone call to the bar that I own, and then making sure that the staff were okay, call a few friends, phone calls were like really hard to connect because they were like heavy galling . Like everybody was calling everybody. So like , there was like, it was cutting off most of the time. So the only thing I could think about was to actually , um , do something and try to help. The only thing that crossed my mind is like, since I have like a food store, why not cooking. So I called all the staff after they were like, I sent them home. I called them back to come back. And then we started cooking. We started to like, in my, in my opinion, I didn't know the size of the blast or the number of casualties or the misplaced and everybody. So I thought like of making, I don't know , 15 , 16 years, whatever, whatever I could, I am able to do. So we ended up doing 110 the first day, second day, 380. Now we're like, we reach a hundred, we reached 1060 meals. Uh, basically most of the food is going to the Lebanese food bank and the volunteers on the ground. And this place, people that some people like they still, their houses are still there, but they have no doors, no windows. So they cannot leave their house to actually buy groceries order or cook because the probably like, I don't know, they lost the kitchen or something. So what we are doing now, not just me, a lot of people doing that. Also,

dana lewis :

If anybody wanted to listening to this, wanted to support you, is there a way they can do that?

dany khoury:

Well, I'm , I'm , I'm not an NGO. I'm an individual, a place me and my brother, we own this shop. So we're doing it on an individual basis. Like we're not accepting money because like, I don't want to be taking money and putting it in my account and then mess up with this .

dana lewis :

People can get to red cross or whatever.

dany khoury:

Exactly . So what I'm trying to do is to actually, we asked for the goods, we asked for food for dry food, for rice meat, the chicken, vegetables, whatever you can give us oil, butter, cheese, whatever people give us. We cook them when we cook different meals. Sometimes they like seven, eight minutes a day just to actually do , just to reach the maximum number of meals per day.

dana lewis :

Who do you think is responsible for this? I mean, they said it was a bunch of fertilizer that was stored. What, you know, I'm not going to put you on that . Say what do people say in Bay root ? I mean, w

dany khoury:

They believe they know you are familiar with them. It means you've been coming here. And for the past, I dunno , like what 14, 15 years now, you know how politics here in Lebanon, how corruption is. So , um, for, for me, I blamed the government. First of all, I blame everyone in the government because everyone knew that there was a nuclear bomb laying there at the Harbor. And no one had actually blinked an eye , you know? So , uh, there was no warning after the first blast. They could have warn everyone because the first blast it took them, like, I don't know , like half an hour, maybe even more. And then the second one , uh, exploded and destroyed the city. They could at least have sent a warning to people to do, to leave that area, knowing what they were hiding over there.

dana lewis :

There was there indeed that much time between that initial fire.

dany khoury:

And then the second, the actual fight started , yes . Started, started like, I don't know, I guess around 30 minutes or even more maybe. And then there was a small blast. And then there was the second blast. That was that actually the fire had started earlier because firemen went there, they were trying to put off the fire. And this is when the second explosion happened and then killed almost everyone and destroyed half of the city.

Speaker 4:

I don't think somebody set this off. You think that

dany khoury:

I am , I am sure it's a manmade. It's not just, you know , uh , because every military , uh , experts that actually watched the videos and discuss that over TV, and they were brought here for investigation, not official investigations, but like a lot of newspapers and journalists and TVs , they brought experts to just to understand what is the nature of this explosion. So everyone was saying that this is definitely a manmade , because like, there is no way on earth that this kind of ammonium nitrate can explode by itself and neither can explode by a fire next to it because you cannot, you cannot put it on. So there has to be some kind of like a trigger, you know, it has to be a trigger that so that you can explode that thing. A lot of things, a lot of people there's a lot of theories. Some say maybe it was Israel that , uh , threw a bomb over there. Maybe some , uh, some say that it was, it could be a torpedo from underwater. Some, some could say like it's a sabotage. Somebody went there and placed the bomb. And so, but the , the , the, the weird thing about it is that, that thing, that , that ship had 2,750 tons of , uh , ammonium nitrate laying there at the port. So every military expert expert that have seen such a thing, or that studies such a case been saying that the size of explosion of Beirut is not more than 600, not more than 500 tons of night of ammonium nitrate. So there's another 200, 2,300 at least , uh , 2,200 tons that are missing. So in this case, I don't know, like you can fingers at any day elections . It could be the ISIS, it could be the Syrian opposition. It could be the Syrian regime. It could be Hezbollah. It could be, it could be anybody.

Speaker 3:

We need a , you probably need an independent investigation in there, but , uh, I think the government has an effect

Speaker 2:

We need that. We definitely need that because , uh , as you know, we have no more trust in that government that is handling the investigation today.

dana lewis :

Everybody go from now. I mean, I assume people are just kind of stumbling forward day by day, trying to repair what they have left, just in terms of even just trying to get glass back into apartments and have places to live and stay. I mean, where do you go from here?

dany khoury:

Uh , it's uh , it's not easy. Um, maybe you , like, you've seen footage, maybe you've seen the radians that explosion , maybe you like, you have an idea about the size of destruction, but no, you don't actually, you have to be here and see with your own eyes. The size of the structure . We apparently need, like, I don't know , 5,000 type of like large ships full of glass to cover all the windows and doors that were broken. It's like 15 kilometers away from radians of the blast that you see, the glasses were shattered all over.

Speaker 3:

Imagine how, how much damage you can see in the photographs. And some of the video, you see some areas.

Speaker 2:

I know I saw , I saw before I saw the actual place than before , before I went there and I was like, Oh , okay. We know like , we've lived that I lived the civil war. It was like, you know, just like any other bond , like big bump , not big a deal, but no, when I went, when I went there, like, it's massive. It's like, it's incredible. You cannot see the end of it. You cannot see the end of destruction at one point when everything is level to the ground. And then, but you can not see how far it is. It's too far, man. It's like, it's like a desert. The whole explosion made on the Inforce . Concrete at the port at the Harbor is , was hunt . What was actually 42 meters deep, incredible that's like enforced concrete that was broken and destroyed into pieces. And then down in the water and you know, that water can take a hit. So it was like 40 to 42 meters deep. That's crazy. This is like, we wouldn't you man. We have knew literally we were new

Speaker 3:

Beirut was in Lebanon was already reeling from COVID-19 right. The economy

Speaker 2:

Let's go with 19. And it was also the economic that we've been living on since, since last August, actually, it's been like a year now where , um , in October 17, everybody went down the street because of the exchange rate of the dollar. It was going too high. And there was like a lack of dollars, you know, like we need, if you need to buy things, we , we , we actually import everything. So we need to pay for that . The goods that we're importing and we were missing the daughters . So a lot of fraud that started going on on the 17th of October last year because of the economy situation, because of the lack of the daughters, because of the unstable politics. So the Lebanese people were really suffering. It's been over two years, but it was about seventies , October, where everybody went

Speaker 3:

Route and Lebanon is not going to recover unless there's an international effort to come in

Speaker 2:

And help finance reconstruction, you know? Um , I've , I've , I've been like , I only thought about that and we , we just don't need international aid for reconstruction. We just need an international aid to , to make at least the before for this government, before this system that we're living in the hands of politicians and parties in Lebanon, we have, we have hope we are hardworking people. We know how to manage things all over the world. I know that all Lebanese around the world would come back and build Lebanon again and again and again, but this time we will not build for politicians that will destroy after that. Any thank you for connecting.

Speaker 3:

And , uh , my, you know, my heart goes out to everybody in Lebanon and

Speaker 2:

Thank you , my friend .

dana lewis :

Alright . [inaudible] is former foreign minister of Lebanon and speaks to us from Beirut gabran bassil First of all, how are you? Were you affected by this blast yourself? Everybody was affected. Thank you for receiving me. I know it's getting great attention everywhere, because this is disasters to the country. Everybody has somebody who was hurt or demolished. This is beyond imagination. What has happened Beyond imagination? When , when I look at the video on the photographs, because I've been to Beirut And I know Gemmayzeh street, and I know that area, and I'm just shocked o n t op that it adds to the many that we are going through on t op o f COVID-19. W e h ave deep financial c ould. I s ays, so

gebran bassil :

The country is really going through a very bad period where our main focus now is how to save it because a country like Lebanon cannot go into chaos. This will be disastrous, not only to Lebanon, but will be disastrous to the region and to the West. Everybody should work together on forwarding this

dana lewis :

Number of the government. You are still a member of parliament. The government was forced to resign from all reports. There's political fragmentation. There are corruption issues, sectarian politics, mismanagement in government. People are furious in the street. You know, I have to say, and I don't mean to make light of it in any way, but it seems like the situation is normal

Speaker 5:

Because you often

Speaker 3:

Rolling from one crisis to another.

gebran bassil :

You know , this is, this is our history. The problem is people, especially those who are in power are used to face problems to go from a crisis to another. But this is not normal for the , for the normal people. Because at the end of the day, they get tired and they leave. They don't find jobs. They lack to be , to share or to experience their human values. Sometimes their freedom, their dignity, they feel it's touched and they can leave . So , uh , no it's not normal for a small country like ours to take the load of all the problems of the region to mention to you. One of them is , uh, having 200 refugees and displaced per square kilometer over the last 60 years for the Palestinians and nine, 10 years for the Syrians ,

dana lewis :

Syrian refugees. Are you housing now? Is it still a million?

gebran bassil :

It was above a million. It was one and a half million. We don't know the real figures now because during the last crisis, many had to leave. Then they stopped because of , uh , of Corona. So we don't have, I don't have at least the last figures, but I guess it's above 1 million, but imagine 1 million over 10,000 square kilometers. So take it to a country like the U S having 100 per square kilometer and take the figures . You will see if you can get there for 200 million, let's say , uh, another nationality coming, all of a sudden to your country

Speaker 3:

Are blamed right now for a lot of the problems in the country. The economic mismanagement of the country, Lebanon was already on its way .

Speaker 5:

As you mentioned financially, before this happened,

dana lewis :

All of it aggravated by COVID-19 would you honestly go back in a coalition with Iran and serious puppets?

gebran bassil :

No, actually everybody is in coalition. Uh, Lebanon was cause , well, you know, they are part of the parliament and they are part of every government since years. And the national unity governments , when we say a national government means that it includes everybody. So , uh, this is a matter also our internal security, whether we go into accelerating our internal problems and we go into internal fights or , uh , or no, I would say that Hezbollah is responsible and everybody is responsible for this , uh, level of corruption. Nobody I believe is helping and, and fighting corruption really. And nobody is really helping and following the path of freeform . Yes , this is where we as free patriotic movement, we blame everybody including as well.

Speaker 3:

But you were in the coalition with them.

Speaker 5:

Yes , yes. Yes .

Speaker 3:

Aren't you by, by cooperating with that party, with that group, with an organization that Americans still consider a terrorist organization , um, are you not encouraging this state within a state?

Speaker 5:

You know, and you know, as well , uh , our elected, they have the biggest portion of waters and liver. So the problem, if anybody has a problem with as well, it's not with a small number of people, a group of people is a whole population.

Speaker 3:

Are they changing? Because you talk about people, I don't mean to interrupt, but you talk about people being disillusioned right now with corruption and some of the problems, is there another faction emerging, not within the Hezbollah, but maybe a part from the Hezbollah where people say, okay, we don't want these, this , these parties that are aligned with Syria or Iran. We want Lebanese, only parties that are going to try to get our economy and our lives back together. The problem in Lebanon

gebran bassil :

As a sectarian country, and we have what we call the consensual democracy. So everybody has to be on board and every confession has a Vitara and Hezbollah and Amal , which we call the sheep , do your shear , the sheep , do they represent the big majority of the, she has above 90%. So people still follow them and excluding them is excluding a whole community. And this does not work in our consensual democracy and our confessional systems . So again, as I told you, it's not isolating or putting apart a small group of people. It is a whole , uh , community that is part of your society, and that is embedded everywhere. So you cannot treat the matter of Hezbollah in Lebanon, like being a terrorist organization, because they are not considered as such because the other resistance against Israel and , and second told you, you cannot accuse all the shares of Lebanon, of being terrorists and Outlaws and put them outside the government and departments

Speaker 3:

Stick by the United States, then to kind of treat the Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and not understand fully the sectarian policy politics within Lebanon.

Speaker 5:

You know, this is a major difference that we have with the United States, because we believe that the policy of isolation that the U S adopted before it was many countries did not tell with scuba was North Korea, was Iran was enact . When you have the dual isolation policy, I believe engaging with people and with countries for a big country, like the U S believing in democracy and acceptance of the other. I think it's more useful, and that gave more better results before isolation can create more extremism and more fighting, which is not helpful for our work .

dana lewis :

What is the risk? If you know, if countries that have a little more economic muscle like Britain, like France, like Germany like America, if they don't help Lebanon right now, what is it ?

gebran bassil :

The risk, the risk to peace , the risk to security in that region. The risk is what we have always warned about that you have a chaotic situation in Lebanon, which would encourage people to go to extremism to extremists. And terrorist will take Lebanon as a, as a hub, unfortunately, where immigrants will not be able to stay the displace and the refugees. And there will be an overflow from Lebanon towards the region. The same that happened from Syria towards Europe. And look how Europe were unable to sustain the number of series that a small country like Lebanon sustained for over nine years. Now, the whole continent of Europe was not able to absorb the number of series that live absorbed . So imagine more and more will will come. This will create a reaction from, you know, from the rightest in Europe profusing , and this will create more division within the Western societies , also Lebanon, as a model of tolerance, when you break it and you make it fall, what will emerge from this , uh, an empty model, which is extremism.

dana lewis :

Let me come back to where we started, because I know you have limited time, and that is first of all, do you have, do you believe what is the cause of that explosion? Was it accidental?

gebran bassil :

I cannot frankly tell before the investigation, but I don't really believe into the conspiracy theory in order, I believe exceptional coincidences that came all together. Uh, the way the political results of that also are intriguing. And as if something was, was really prepared before, as if this is a way to have different engagement was delivered, and I hope it will be a chance to open up to Lebanon again and help the country to go over this crisis, because I think it will be a very big mistake to let Lebanon fall , because this is a place that is open, you know, to the West and to the East. And it can be bridging for peace for stability and the region. And it can be a really a good backyard for Europe and the same for , for the video , for the Mediterranean. So

Speaker 3:

Whatever,

Speaker 5:

As the cause of that blast,

dana lewis :

You know, you just said two things to me, and I found them contradictory. And maybe because you haven't decided in your own mind, but just to be clear, you don't feel it was an act of terror, but at the same time, you can't discount that maybe it was, is that essentially what

Speaker 5:

Somehow, because the evidence until now nothing shows that there is something coming from outside. It can be a sabotage, but this should be something from outside that they get . And the same time, the political results as if, you know, you need that blast to start this certain process. What I'm trying to say, that process can take us to put more pressure on Lebanon and make it fall , or it can take us to another path that opens up to Lebanon and gives a chance for the country to please

dana lewis :

When you you've toured. No doubt. I know you're in, you're in Beirut. You've probably been going on to these neighborhoods in these buildings, and I've heard there are hundreds of buildings. I mean, do you, is there a price tag on reconstruction repair? What does the international community need to do to help Beirut right now?

Speaker 5:

You know, I think the best idea is for each country willing to help, to take on its own , uh, the reconstruction of the building of a street or a whole neighborhood , because Lebanon and especially the road has , uh , an antique , uh , architecture that is inherited from the Frenchman date and from , uh , Western architecture. And we should preserve architecture is boring. But when you go to Beirut, you really understand love for architecture because you want, you drive through the streets and you look at those buildings and they're beautiful, and it is a lovely, lovely suit . Yeah, it does actually at this, the mixture of architecture really resembles to the mixture of civilization, able to call her to go home and, you know, to live the experience of diversity, look marks on the facades of buildings, exactly new , new , uh , futuristic architecture alongside, whereas an and , and , and , uh, uh , old house, you know , or architecture or together , uh, you know, they give the root its beauty, and this is what we should preserve Beirut.

gebran bassil :

It's not only architecture. It is an ancient , uh, school for democracy for human rights. It was the first democracy in the East, and it should be preserved as a pioneer of the human values and that part of the region where extremism is fighting and confronting moderation. And this is a big question for the West. What do you want? You want the middle East, a place to export for you terrorists or to export for you. Lack Lebanese are integrated in your societies to export to you brains and good people willing to add to your society. This is the big question, and this is where you cannot consider that whatever happens in Lebanon is irrelevant to your societies. We , uh , you know , calling for , for peace , we are calling to preserve Lebanon as a model of tolerance. Don't turn it into another Libya and to another Syria. And to another Iraq, we went through 15 years of war. We had enough, you know, and time is now for reconstruction for prosperity. All we need is pressure to go through the forms , not pressure to break the Lebanese model . You're very generous with your time. It's so important to talk to you and good luck to you and to all the great my friends in Beirut. We love the city. We wish you all the best. Thank you. Thank you very much.

dana lewis :

That's this edition of backstory podcast. If you care about Beirut, you can donate through the red cross and many other frontline charities, like the UN. They could use your help. Please subscribe to backstory and share wherever you listen to podcasts. We're on every major podcast platform from Apple to Stitcher to overcast. There's just too many dimension . I also post the video portions of my interviews on my YouTube channel. You can watch them there as well. I'm Dana Lewis. Thanks for listening. And I'll talk to you again soon.

Speaker 6:

[inaudible] .

Dany Khoury
Gebran Bassil