Shock Waves: Months after a devastating explosion, Beirut residents are still trying to recover

On August 4th, 2020, Beirut witnessed the biggest explosion of the 21st Century. Against this, local and international stakeholders joined forces to respond.

“The Beirut port explosion was an explosion of hearts,” says 40-year-old Farah. “This explosion burnt our hearts.” Farah is speaking of the massive explosion that rocked Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, on 4 August. Over 200 people died, and thousands more were injured. The source of the blast was a large quantity of ammonium nitrate—a compound used to make explosives—that had been stored in unsafe conditions.

The colossal explosions sent a mushroom cloud into the air and a blast wave through the city, levelling buildings next to the port and turning houses into rubble.

“I lost many friends,” added Farah’s 9-year old son.

Farah and her son are speaking in a small booth set up by the UN, on one of the streets most damaged by the explosion, to record people’s perspectives on the explosions.

Youth efforts in Mar-Mikhael
Youth volunteers supporting in the rubble clean-up and aid distribution in Mar-Mikhael, one of the areas worst hit by the blast

When the disaster struck the heart of Beirut, Lebanon was already reeling from civil unrest, economic and financial hardship, increasing poverty and unemployment compounded by political tensions and a soaring number of COVID-19 cases. This has been further exacerbated by the heavy burden of Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

Even now, months after the explosions, “the scale of the loss and magnitude of damage remains massive, even overwhelming,” says Najat Rochdi, the UN’s Deputy Special Coordinator, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator.

“As I walk around Beirut every day,” she adds, “I listen to stories of shock and of loss. Women and men who have never had to ask for help, now reduced to handouts. Families who have had their homes and futures blown away. Children who no longer feel safe in their neighborhoods. Proud businesspeople who cannot access their savings, unable to start again.”

In the wake of the blast, multiple UN agencies provided essential medicines and medical supplies, water, sanitation and hygiene services, psychological support, and rehabilitation and restoration efforts.  Agencies involved included WFP, UNICEF, WHO, UNDP, UN-Habitat, UNHCR, UNIFIL and others.

From Rochdi's visit to Karantina
The UN’s Najat Rochdi visited Karantina, one of the areas hit by the port explosion, to discuss the needs of women affected by the blast

UN agencies and partners “are sparing no time nor effort to provide life-saving assistance to those who were directly affected by this horrendous blast,” says Rochdi. Support has included over 90,000 ready-to-eat hot meals, 44,000 food parcels for households, and 12,500 metric tons of wheat flour distributed to millers across the country. Water, sanitation and hygiene services were also provided to medical facilities, including more than 2,700 new water tanks and pumps were installed.

A man injured by the blast receives cash assistance from WFP
A man injured by the blast receives cash assistance from WFP, which helped the most vulnerable get through the triple-shock caused by the economic crisis, the COVID-19 lockdown and the Beirut blast.

In the months since the blast, the UN has been shifting gears away from emergency relief and towards efforts that will pave the way for longer-term recovery and reconstruction. “The port explosions served as a wake-up call but also as a window of opportunity to build back a better Lebanon,” says the UN’s Najat Rochdi.

Indeed, real change has become the UN’s main concern amid the crises affecting Lebanon. Based on the findings of a Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment that the UN along with European Union and the World Bank produced in August to help support evidence-based recovery planning, the three entities embarked on the development of a people-centered Reform, Recovery and Reconstruction Framework – the 3RF- that was launched on Dec. 4, exactly four months after the horrendous blast. The 3RF presents real solutions to the very real problems facing Lebanon.

“We are not solely focusing on rebuilding Beirut and ignoring the Lebanese who are living in poverty elsewhere in the country,” says Rochdi. “We have committed to ‘Leave No One Behind.’”

“I thought today is the day I was going to die” said a young man named Rakan who was overwhelmed by memories of how the explosions crushed his house, leaving his feet badly injured.

“I fear that another similar thing might happen again,” says a woman named Roula, who lost her father in the blast and who, even now, jumps at every small sound on the street, trembling at the prospect of another blast.

In spite of the blasts, many Lebanese people are undeterred, such as one man who said, “Despite everything, we are staying in Lebanon.”

Interviews about the Beirut blast were compiled in this short video available on Facebook, YouTube and other UN Lebanon social media channels. It reached, in less than a week, over 700,000 viewers on social media platforms. The video is one of many activities by the UN Communications Group to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the UN and make progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations Human Settlements Programme
United Nations Development Programme
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
United Nations Children’s Fund
United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon
World Food Programme
World Health Organization