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Latest Aftermath Of Beirut Explosion

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Lebanon, people are still searching for their missing after Tuesday's devastating explosion that ripped through much of Beirut. At least 150 people are confirmed dead, and thousands more are injured in one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history. And it came as the country teeters on economic collapse, with the currency losing about 90% of its value and the nation dealing with widespread food insecurity. Lebanese citizens have taken it upon themselves to clean up the glass and rubble. And the week was marked with one funeral after the next.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Vocalizing).

FADEL: That's the procession for Sahar Fares, a paramedic in her 20s who arrived at the scene when a fire broke out at the Port of Beirut, ultimately igniting more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate. She was engaged to be married, and a wedding band accompanied her body to the grave. Anger is pulsing through the nation. People are demanding answers from a government they say has led with corruption and negligence for decades.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: May they all rot in hell. I'm really sorry, but this is very emotional. To think they are still talking, this is my fault - no, not my fault, his fault. What? Why do you have more than 2,000 tons of explosive in the middle of the city? Why? Why? Why?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

FADEL: Today there are mass demonstrations in Beirut, protesters even hanging mannequins in nooses with pictures of government officials on them as police respond with tear gas and rubber bullets. There are reports of over a hundred people injured and the death of a policeman in the demonstrations. And protesters have stormed several government ministries. Lebanon is on the brink. And so we're going to spend the next part of the program reflecting on how this destruction is impacting people's daily lives.

We'll begin with Rami Rajeh (ph). He's a father of two who was born in Beirut in the midst of the civil war. And he's with us now from Beirut.

Welcome.

RAMI RAJEH: Thank you, Leila.

FADEL: So, Rami, I know that you just got back from demonstrations in Beirut. Can you talk about what the city feels like right now, what people are saying in those demonstrations and why you went?

RAJEH: The city is in mourning. There's a lot of anger. And there's a lot of frustration. What happened is just, you know, another thread. It's the same group of people who just keep composing this pathetic path that they've chosen for everybody who decides to stay here.

FADEL: And what are you and other Lebanese demanding?

RAJEH: Change. Change. This can't go on. This is absurd. This is not what humans are cut out to live in. It just doesn't work. This is dysfunctional. And there is no way for reform. I mean, if you want me to list you steps, it's very clear from Day 1 an independent ruling cabinet needs to come. We need an independent judiciary to begin a whole process of accountability.

FADEL: You were your children's age during the civil war. You have a 4-year-old and a 10-year-old, right?

RAJEH: That's right.

FADEL: And that was a time of destruction, deaths. And given that you lived as a child through such a tumultuous time, can you tell us how you feel right now, how this moment compares looking at the destruction of Beirut?

RAJEH: Because I lived through it, I just want to make sure that they don't live through it. I don't want to waste any time except working towards change. You see these kids. They're innocent. They ask you these questions. They're starting to understand. But you don't want them to feel or take for granted that this is their destiny.

FADEL: What have they been asking you?

RAJEH: Why are the streets so dirty? Why do we will have to walk up seven flights of stairs? Why can't I take a bubble bath - just these, you know, basic things. Why can't - why is this so expensive all of a sudden? I mean, popsicles used to be the equivalent of 17 cents. Now it's 67 cents. So why? You know, why did - why was it easy to buy two popsicles, and now it's - just very simple things.

FADEL: You decided to raise your kids in Lebanon, and I imagine you hoped it would be a different country and a different childhood for them. How do you feel now?

RAJEH: I feel very strongly about this feeling. Yeah. I mean, I want them to learn that, you know, not everything's easy. You know, the countries they go to and where they find everything easy - these countries need to go through this transformation process, and they need to understand that.

FADEL: So it sounds like you're hopeful that this moment, this devastation may be a spark for change.

RAJEH: Well, am I hopeful? Yeah. When I see people in the streets demonstrating, rejecting authoritarianism, yeah, I'm hopeful. I don't want to say the blast is what made me hopeful. The blast just re-aroused something that was put away due to COVID-19. The hope has always been there. I mean, and, you know, on top of it now...

FADEL: Yeah.

RAJEH: ...They're not collecting the garbage. They're not picking up the garbage.

FADEL: So who's out there, though, cleaning up the destruction?

RAJEH: Let me draw this picture. Let me draw - there's half the city - half the city. Just - I don't know what the equivalent of Beirut is, but half the city is rubble. And in this half of the city, I probably saw less than 50 police officers. The municipality didn't, like, cordon the area. They didn't assign parking lots, tell the people to evacuate their cars. Only trucks should be allowed in. Just draw it out into blocks. Why does one neighborhood have a hundred volunteers while another neighborhood just has none? Like, these are just basic things...

FADEL: Yeah.

RAJEH: ...Basic things. It's just, like, well, why are you - what are you doing? Everybody just today - we're just looking at each other like, we don't need them (laughter). I mean, it's absurd. It's absurd.

FADEL: Right now, as we're talking, protesters entered the Lebanese foreign ministry today, burned a portrait of President Michel Aoun. You were in those protests just before we're speaking, and I just wondered what you want to happen from here. So these protests, all of the loss that has happened in this last week, the unity that has come out of it - what's next?

RAJEH: Mass resignations. We need an independent government, a truly independent government that has the people's, you know, faith and trust and the international community's trust to be able to lay out the groundwork to at least, you know, stop the freefall.

And there's one more new demand today. We don't want anybody, whether they're a government, an organization, an individual to channel any help, whether it's $1 or it's a bag of rice, through any formal or public entity because we don't trust them, and because they're going to end up selling them. And it's just insatiable greed.

FADEL: That's Rami Rajeh joining us from Beirut.

Thank you so much.

RAJEH: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.