BEIRUT (AFP) – During the civil war that ended over 30 years ago, Ms Abla Barotta survived shelling and clashes, but she now fears a “slow death” from Lebanon’s worst economic crisis in decades.
The 58-year-old mother of three is a survivor among the more than 50 per cent of Lebanese today living in poverty.
Echoing a common refrain on television and at public gatherings, Ms Barotta said even the worst days of the war weren’t this tough.
“We used to hide in houses or basements every time we heard shelling during the war, but today, where can we go to hide from hunger, the economic crisis, the coronavirus pandemic and our political leaders?” she told AFP.
“We used to fear death from bombardment or sniper fire, but now we fear everything: illness, poverty and hunger,” she said.
Her voice lowering to a whisper, she added: “To die from shelling is better, at least there is no suffering… while today, we suffer and die slowly every day.”
Lebanon on Tuesday (April 13) marks 46 years since clashes erupted in Beirut between Lebanese Christians and Palestinians backed by leftist and Muslim factions, marking the start of a 15-year conflict that drew in regional powers Israel and Syria.
At the time, the country was divided into warring sectarian fiefdoms.
But many still managed to preserve a semblance of normal life between bouts of heightened violence and kidnappings.
The wheels of Lebanon’s economy kept turning, bolstered by money and weapons sent to warring parties from abroad.
Haven’t seen the state
Corruption, negligence and bitter political divisions, however, have plagued Lebanon in the run-up to a financial slump now sounding the death knell for a fragile middle class.
Since 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 85 per cent of its value against the dollar on the black market and prices have soared.
Customers have come to blows in supermarkets to secure fast-selling subsidised products, while shortages in pharmacies have made medicine shopping akin to hunting for treasure.
Despite the deterioration, the authorities have done little to stem a crisis compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and last year’s port blast that cost more than 200 lives and ravaged swathes of Beirut.
“The war was ugly… but we never lived through anything like this economic crisis,” Ms Barotta said in her Beirut home that was hard hit by the Aug 4 explosion.
Her first-floor flat in a heritage building in the Mar Mikhail neighbourhood adjacent to the port has since been renovated and her neck has healed from a blast injury.
But she said there is plenty left to worry about.
“This anxiety over whether we will be able to eat tomorrow… we have never lived that before,” she said.
In the blast-strewn Karantina district, also next to the port, Mr Jean Saliba pointed to gutted buildings awaiting renovation and listed the names of families who lost loved ones in Lebanon’s worst peace-time disaster.
Karantina has since become a stomping ground for non-governmental groups spearheading the reconstruction effort.
“We haven’t seen the state,” said Mr Saliba, a 63-year-old former civil servant.
“If it weren’t for the money and food handouts distributed by NGOs, people wouldn’t have had the strength to go on.”
Mr Saliba called the monster blast a “collective catastrophe” that made the war-time suffering look like “a drop in the ocean”.
During the war, people could go back to work when bombardment slowed, he said.
But with current unemployment rates approaching 40 per cent, many don’t have jobs to return to.
“Who can earn money at all today?” the father of three asked. “Economically, we are finished.”
Elsewhere in the capital, Mr Victor Abu Kheir sat idly inside his small barber shop in the Hamra neighbourhood.
“There are days when I only have one customer, or two at most,” the 77-year-old said, wearing an apron.
Since it opened in 1965, the shop’s decor has remained unchanged, its black leather armchair and glass cabinets harking back to a brighter past.
The civil war days, Mr Abu Kheir said, were more “merciful” than those of today’s crisis, even if he was briefly kidnapped and survived gunfire hitting his shop.
“No one prefers war, but those days were better,” he said, adding that he only ever lowered his blinds when bombardment spiked.
“There was money and the people were comfortable.”
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