In beleaguered Beirut, the largest explosion in Lebanon’s history claimed the lives of more than 150 people as it devastated everything in its path – and, in macabre fashion, it even disturbed the dead.
Shadi Abi Shakra, 34, was one of those caught up and killed in the colossal blast on Tuesday when 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded at the city’s port.
The shockwaves – so strong that they were felt almost 150 miles away in Cyprus – destroyed huge swathes of the Lebanese capital.
On Friday, Shakra was buried in east Beirut’s Mar Mikhael graveyard, where the explosion had – astonishingly – flung the dead’s bones back among the world of mortals. The blast had ripped metal doors and marble plaques from tombs, and destroyed coffins. The reek of dead bodies hung in the air.
“The burial chambers are now open, and the weather is hot,” said 65-year-old Haroun Joseph Antablian, explaining the stench. He was not at the graveyard, less than a kilometre from the explosion’s epicentre, when the blast split through the city. Had he been tending to the tombs at that moment, he fears he would not have lived.
Antablian has been the graveyard’s keeper for five decades, including throughout Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, when he buried the victims of bombs and missiles. The names of those war dead, often accompanied by the word “martyr”, are carved beside crosses on the now-cracked marble plaques of family tombs.
“I was the one who used to bury the dead then – they used to come to us in bags,” said Antablian, pointing to a civil war era tomb containing a man, his sister and son-in-law. “There was always a white truck ready for the burials.”
But even that violence, that misery pales in comparison to the hell visited upon Beirut last week, said Antablian, wondering out loud how yet another tragedy has befallen Lebanon. “We have already buried many martyrs,” he said, dazed and exasperated. “How can this happen now? Where is the state?”
He is not alone in his frustration. The explosion was caused by ammonium nitrate improperly stored in a seafront warehouse since 2013, and Lebanese are widely blaming corrupt and incompetent authorities for the disaster. Leaked documents suggest senior port, customs and judiciary officials knew about the chemicals, but failed to act to dispose of them properly.
The blast has caused damage costing as much as $15bn. It wrecked whole streets of homes and businesses in east Beirut, including heritage buildings from the Ottoman and French colonial eras.
Shakra, now neatly buried in a bottom-row tomb compartment at the back of the graveyard, had been visiting a friend in a ground floor apartment as the shockwaves ripped through Beirut just after 6pm. Three upper floors fell on them.
His body was pulled from the wreckage at 5pm the next day, the victim’s mother told The Telegraph. “He was suffering and feeling pain until he died,” said his mother, Hayat Abi Shakra, after a small funeral in the windowless church. “I was waiting to die before him, but he went before me. He was the centre of my heart.”
After the service, Shadi’s cousin, Adib Nouhra, picked his way through the coffin shards and pine tree splinters to his relative’s new grave. The 325-year-old cemetery, the once-calm place of rest to around 1,000 people, was shattered: pine tree branches mingled with chunks of masonry on the ground, and coffins, shaken like beads in a rattle, jutted awkwardly from their tomb compartments.
How did he feel about a relative being laid to rest amid such devastation? Nouhra shrugged his shoulders. With a look of resignation, he replied: “What are we supposed to do?” The rebuilding operation will be nigh on impossible. Lebanon is in the grip of financial crisis, with the currency losing 70pc of its value since March.
Repairs, costed in dollars, are estimated at levels that priests at the Maronite Christian church attached to the graveyard can scarcely begin to imagine. “For the cemetery, we had a [repair man] come now, and for every tomb door he wants between $50 and $100, with an exchange rate of 8,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar,” said priest Elia Mouannes, inside the church, stripped of all but one of its stained glass panels. “So we said, ‘No thank you, we cannot.’”
Like most other people in the worst-affected districts, Mouannes feels that authorities are not pulling their weight in the clean-up efforts. “All of the volunteers are ordinary people, not from the government,” he said. “From the municipality, they are helping a little bit, but they are not as present as they should be. Many people want to help, but no one is organising the works. It’s awful.”
Hayat blames a negligent state for her son’s death. She draws a sharp comparison between how she sees empathy shown by Emmanuel Macron, who visited Beirut on Thursday, and the response of Lebanon’s own leaders. “The French President wore a black tie to mourn the dead, while our president has worn a blue tie. It’s shameful. “Shame on them. They should all resign,” she said.