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Lebanon A Year Later: Economic Collapse, Riots, Pandemic And Beirut Explosion


We are going to catch up now with my colleague and friend Ruth Sherlock. You know her as NPR's Beirut correspondent, but she hasn't been in Beirut for a year. She had left for a few months' maternity leave, and then as she was planning to head back, the pandemic arrived and made traveling more difficult. So Ruth has been covering Lebanon from afar. And in that time, the country has seen its economy collapse. It has seen protests and riots. It's slipping through the pandemic, of course. And then in August, you will remember that massive explosion at the port that caused heavy damage across half the city.

Well, Ruth Sherlock has just returned to Lebanon, and I have been so curious to hear all her new first impressions of a country that she's known and lived in for years. Hey there, Ruth.


KELLY: I suppose I should say, welcome home (laughter) and...

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

KELLY: ...Start by asking, what is it like coming back to this city?

SHERLOCK: You know, it's not at all the Beirut that I left. First of all, the physical damage is striking. I was walking downtown the other day and I passed by these high-rises that are full of apartments that are empty because they're too damaged to live in. Storefronts are either boarded up or just left to the open or smashed up. And there's still glass absolutely everywhere. It kind of crunches underfoot. It's in the flowerpots.

Our house was also damaged in the explosion, and we're still finding pieces of glass embedded in the walls of our living room. I have a 1-year-old who's crawling, and it's been frightening trying to protect her from the glass. And this is three months after the explosion, so I just keep thinking what this must have been like for Lebanese families who've lived through it all.

KELLY: Absolutely. I can't imagine. Have you been able to talk to any of those families? How are they doing?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, this is maybe the worst thing I've found coming back. People are just so depressed. Lebanese have overcome so much - you know, the civil war, wars with Israel, spates of car bombings connected to the war in neighboring Syria. And usually they like to talk about how resilient they are, how parties kept going on throughout all of this. But Lebanese friends I speak with now just say they feel hopeless.

You know, when I left Beirut, it was seen as this sort of hip place with great bars and restaurants. There were real problems - you know, terrible corruption, political stagnation and poor public services. But now it's such a hard place to live. On top of the explosion damage, there's continual power cuts, and there's this awful pollution, this kind of smog that's a mix of diesel from generators and cars and masonry dust from all the rebuilding that's happening and chemicals from when the port exploded.

And then there's the economic collapse. You know, the currency value has gone down, and so people have watched their salaries shrink. And all the while prices have gone up, so they can't afford things like chicken or beef.

KELLY: And then layered on top, of course, the pandemic. How is that going there?

SHERLOCK: Yeah, this might sound strange, but given everything else that's happening, this feels like the least of people's problems here. I'll give you an example. Coming through the airport, there was just no attempt to socially distance the switchback lines at passport control. So people were crowded in as usual.

That's not to say the coronavirus isn't serious. It is. There's record numbers of cases today and yesterday in Lebanon. The government's trying to do something. It's tried to impose lockdowns, but many businesses are saying, well, we can't afford to do that anymore. And people say they need to get on with rebuilding their homes before the winter rains come.

KELLY: Is there any good news or of any path for Lebanon to try to fix some of these problems?

SHERLOCK: You know, I wish I could tell you there was, but right now it's very hard to see a solution. You know, today I walked past this beautiful Lebanese heritage building that I loved, and I was stopped in my tracks to see - when I saw that one of the supporting walls has collapsed. And outside of the building, someone's posted this huge sign that says, this is what happens when evil reigns. And that's pretty much how people I speak with here feel about their leaders.

KELLY: NPR's Ruth Sherlock reporting there once again from Beirut. Thank you, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.