A Lebanese businessman recalls the bittersweet experience of rebuilding after the Beirut blast

The Lebanese flag flies next to the Beirut port silo, damaged in the August 4 explosion, as smoke billows from a huge fire there on September 10, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
The Lebanese flag flies next to the Beirut port silo, damaged in the August 4 explosion, as smoke billows from a huge fire there on September 10, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 30 March 2021

A Lebanese businessman recalls the bittersweet experience of rebuilding after the Beirut blast

The Lebanese flag flies next to the Beirut port silo, damaged in the August 4 explosion, as smoke billows from a huge fire there on September 10, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Robert Paoli has salvaged his business from the ruins of Beirut port, but his belief in Lebanon’s future is badly shaken
  • With zero help from Lebanese authorities, Paoli and his loyal staff rebuilt the firm’s warehouse in a matter of months

DUBAI: One Lebanese man has worked day and night since the devastating Beirut blast of Aug. 4 last year to ensure his lifetime’s work is salvaged from the rubble. In less than six months, Robert Paoli became the first trader to reopen a warehouse in the Port of Beirut Logistic Free Zone following the disaster.

“I’ve worked in the freight-forwarding business all my life,” the 57-year-old told Arab News. “I always believed in Lebanon from the beginning, and I worked very hard to create my units in the free zone here.”

Beirut’s strategic location on the Eastern Mediterranean coastline made the port a thriving economic asset. But all that changed one Tuesday afternoon when a nearby warehouse containing nearly 3,000 tons of highly volatile ammonium nitrate caught fire.

The resulting two explosions sent an enormous shockwave through the port and surrounding districts — taking Paoli’s warehouses with it.

Paoli had spent upward of $1.5 million and poured years of hard work into his new warehouse, which was due to open for business in just a matter of weeks. All types of goods were already stored there, from electrical appliances and tires to chemical agents.

Recalling that horrific day, Paoli said he was lucky to have left his office early, a decision necessitated by COVID-19 restrictions in place at the Logistic Free Zone. As he joined his son for a game of tennis at his club 20 minutes out of town, Paoli received an alarming phone call from a friend about a fire at the port.

“Having three units there and a new warehouse in the Karantina area very close to the port, I was anxious” Paoli said. “My other friend who lived across the port couldn’t see anything. But five minutes later, I heard the explosion.”

The blast was heard as far away as in Cyprus, at a distance of more than 200 kilometers. About 210 people were killed and 7,500 injured as the shockwave flattened nearby buildings and overturned vehicles.




Robert Paoli has spent millions rebuilding devastated warehouse units after the Beirut explosion on August 4, 2020. (Supplied)

“I thought a bomb had hit my club,” Paoli said. “We were far away, but it floored us and the windows broke.”

As a gigantic black cloud rose from the faraway port, Paoli jumped into his car and raced back to the city. Before he arrived, the gatekeeper from the Karantina warehouse called to say everything was gone.

“I was shocked,” he said. “I asked if there were any injuries and there were none, thankfully. My wife called me crying, saying she saw on TV my warehouse in the free zone totally destroyed.”

When he arrived, Paoli found a nightmarish scene, with what remained of his cargo stock trapped beneath tons of rubble. “All my employees came and wept,” he said. “Just thinking about it makes me relive the moment. When I realized how extensive the damage was, the reality of the situation sank in.”

The Lebanese army soon arrived to prevent looters from taking what remained of Paoli’s stock. It was at that moment Paoli resolved to rebuild. “It felt like a challenge for me, thinking we will not go down,” he said. “It was impossible for me to not rebuild.”

That night, Paoli’s first priority was securing his stock, spread across various sites. To supplement the army’s presence, he also placed his staff on round-the-clock guard duty.

BEIRUT EXPLOSION INVESTIGATION

* Investigating judge Fadi Sawan has brought charges against 37 people since Aug. 2020.

* Of them, 25 are detained under conditions that appear to violate their due process rights, according to HRW.

* Among those charged with negligence are two former ministers and caretaker PM Hassan Diab.

* Diab has refused to appear for questioning, calling it “diabolical” to single him out.

* The ministers asked the top court to replace Sawan, bringing the inquiry to a halt since Dec. 2020.

“It was our duty to protect it for our clients,” Paoli said. “My team is incredible. I really felt how much this company meant to them and how much they respected me.”

When the sun rose the following day, the reconstruction effort began. Averaging just four hours of sleep per night, Paoli arrived at 6:30 a.m. every single day for the next six months to clear the debris and salvage what he could.




Robert Paoli, his wife Mona, daughter Andrea and son Philippe, have lost hope in their country after the Beirut explosion on August 4, 2020, devastated their warehouse units. (Supplied)

“It was a big responsibility on my shoulders, because our warehouse units were fully loaded with merchandise,” he said. “We had 80 to 90 40-foot containers. It was hell.”

What cargo they could be saved was removed and either delivered to clients or stored safely. But the trouble was far from over. A month later, another fire broke out at a neighbor’s warehouse.

“The army tried to stop us from entering to try to contain the fire, but we managed to do it within three to four hours,” Paoli recalled. “All the neighboring warehouses burned but ours. We were lucky we were able to save it.”

To add insult to injury, Paoli was taken in for questioning in relation to the fire, but released 24 hours later, angry and demoralized.




Recalling that horrific day, Paoli said he was lucky to have left his office early, a decision necessitated by COVID-19 restrictions in place at the Logistic Free Zone. (Supplied)

“I was exhausted and down because I was trying to do something good and I got arrested,” he said. “I felt like I had gone back to zero. I was really affected but I had this constant drive to rebuild, and this gave me the strength to keep going.”

Soon enough, Paoli’s industry and toil paid off when his warehouse reopened for business in the free zone.

What upset him, however, was the lack of support from government and aid agencies. “Nobody cared or asked about us,” he said. “Associations came to help people, but not us, although we were in the most affected area and we had employees who were at risk of losing their jobs.”

His children, Andrea and Philippe, are proud of their father’s stamina during those grueling months.




Paoli’s industry and toil paid off when his warehouse reopened for business in the free zone. (Supplied)

“I was impressed by his attitude,” said Philippe, a former professional footballer. “He was the only one expressing gratitude that everyone was safe, and rebuilding was like an everyday task for him.

“Looking back, we were the only ones who were able to rebuild in this time thanks to this attitude. This dedication towards his employees really opens your heart. They’re part of our family.”

Andrea, a former national taekwondo champion, praised her father for taking responsibility for rebuilding his business and caring for his staff when no one else would.

“It would have been much easier to do nothing, give up, put the blame on others and, eventually, fire employees,” she said.




The destroyed silo is pictured on October 26, 2020 at Beirut's port following the August 4 massive chemical explosion at the site which that caused severe damage across swathes of the Lebanese capital. (AFP/File Photo)

“What my father did was take a difficult path, following his strong integrity, care, and outstanding crisis-management skills. I can only hope it inspires others around him at a time when the country has plunged into a never-ending nightmare.”

By all accounts, Lebanon’s handling of the disaster’s aftermath leaves a lot to be desired. Eight months on, the blast investigation is still going on, because of which Paoli has not seen a cent from his insurance company.

As he struggles to absorb his share ($3 million) of the free zone’s collective $50 million loss, Paoli says his view of his country has completely changed.

“Before the blast, I always believed that, whatever happens, I will continue growing and working in Lebanon. It’s our country and we have to remain here,” he said.

“But right now, I am saying no more. I will protect what I have, my business and my employees because they’re like my family, but no more expansion plans in this country. For the first time in my life, I am starting to think of doing something outside of Lebanon.”

Paoli’s wife Mona agrees the faith they once had in Lebanon has run out of road.

“Robert’s positivity is contagious,” she said. “But for us, the adventure stops here, and a new page is opening in our life.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


Iraqi journalist targeted in shooting undergoes brain surgery

Ahmed Hassan, a journliat who worked for Alforat TV, was shot outside his home in Diwaniya province. (Al-Forat TV)
Ahmed Hassan, a journliat who worked for Alforat TV, was shot outside his home in Diwaniya province. (Al-Forat TV)
Updated 16 min 29 sec ago

Iraqi journalist targeted in shooting undergoes brain surgery

Ahmed Hassan, a journliat who worked for Alforat TV, was shot outside his home in Diwaniya province. (Al-Forat TV)
  • The attack on Ahmed Hassan came exactly 24 hours after anti-government campaigner Ihab Al-Wazni was shot dead

BAGHDAD: A prominent Iraqi journalist, shot by gunmen Monday in southern Iraq, has undergone brain surgery and is in a critical condition, a Baghdad hospital said.

The attack on Ahmed Hassan came exactly 24 hours after anti-government campaigner Ihab al-Wazni was shot dead, also in the south, sending protest movement supporters onto the streets to demand an end to official impunity.

Hassan was shot several times by an assailant as he arrived home at night near Diwaniyah, in images captured on a surveillance camera as in a string of previous attacks.

He had to be transported to a hospital in the capital that specialises in neurological surgery.

"Ahmed Hassan has been operated on and transferred to intensive care where he will be kept under constant surveillance for a critical period of two weeks," hospital spokesman Mohammed Mouyed said.

He said that Hassan, who works for Al-Forat satellite television, underwent several procedures.

On Sunday, Wazni was shot dead in an ambush outside his home in the city of Karbala.

Around 30 activists have died in targeted killings and dozens of others have been abducted or survived attacks since October 2019.

None of these attacks have been claimed but activists have repeatedly blamed armed groups linked to Iran who wield considerable influence in Iraq.

Authorities have consistently failed to publicly identify or charge the perpetrators of these killings.

Al-Forat's owner Ammar al-Hakim, a prominent Shiite politician, Monday urged the government to "protect freedom of speech" and to "urgently" shed light on the assassinations.

After Wazni's murder, Al-Beit Al-Watani (National Bloc), a movement born out of the anti-government protests, said it would boycott parliamentary elections slated for October.


Families of Iran massacre victims urge world leaders to protect graves

Families of Iran massacre victims urge world leaders to protect graves
Updated 36 min 52 sec ago

Families of Iran massacre victims urge world leaders to protect graves

Families of Iran massacre victims urge world leaders to protect graves
  • In 1988, security forces executed tens of thousands of political prisoners
  • ‘It’s time for the UN to hold the regime’s leaders to account,’ opposition figure tells Arab News

LONDON: The families of thousands of Iranians executed and buried in mass graves have written to the UN and world leaders urging them to prevent Tehran’s ongoing destruction of their last resting place.

In 1988, Tehran executed thousands of political prisoners aligned with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), a political group that had participated in the 1979 revolution but was later targeted by the regime.

At the time, Amnesty International said the executions were “a premeditated and coordinated policy which must have been authorized at the highest level of government.”

Estimates for the exact number of people killed range from 4,500 in just one summer to as many as 30,000.

Now, more than 1,100 families of those executed have petitioned the UN and world leaders as their loved ones’ graves are now being destroyed or used as mass graves for religious minorities.

In a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an umbrella opposition group incorporating the PMOI, said: “Most of us have forgotten where exactly our loved ones are buried, many of them in mass graves. Paranoid of the repercussions of international scrutiny into this horrific atrocity, the Iranian regime has embarked on erasing the traces of the evidence on the massacre by destroying the mass graves where they are buried.”

The NCRI has published a list of over 5,000 names of people it says were executed during the 1988 massacre.

It said the ongoing destruction and repurposing of the mass graves represents another abuse against a people already suffering from the loss of loved ones — many of whom were tortured before their death.

“Previously, (Tehran) destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere. These actions constitute the collective torture of thousands of survivors and families of martyrs. It is another manifest case of crime against humanity,” the NCRI said.

The letter urged Guterres, relevant UN bodies and international human rights organizations “to prevent the regime from destroying the mass graves, eliminating the evidence of their crime, and inflicting psychological torture upon thousands of families of the victims throughout Iran.”

Ali Safavi, a member of the PMOI and the NCRI’s foreign affairs committee, told Arab News: “The mass executions of tens of thousands of dissidents in the 1980s, in particular the 1988 massacre of 30,000 political prisoners … is without doubt one of the greatest crimes against humanity since World War II.” 

He lamented the international community’s “appeasement” of the regime. Whenever countries ignore Tehran’s human rights abuses, it only serves to embolden the regime, said Safavi.

“It’s time for the UN, as the highest world authority entrusted with upholding human rights, to break its silence, launch an international inquiry into this heinous crime and hold the regime’s leaders to account,” he added.


EU’s Borell says Iran nuclear talks moving to crucial stage

Josep Borrell is chairing the nuclear talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna. (AFP/File Photo)
Josep Borrell is chairing the nuclear talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 10 May 2021

EU’s Borell says Iran nuclear talks moving to crucial stage

Josep Borrell is chairing the nuclear talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna. (AFP/File Photo)
  • “I am optimistic,” EU foreign affairs chief said

VIENNA: Negotiations in Vienna between world powers and Iran are moving into a crucial stage and the next few weeks will be critical to saving their 2015 nuclear deal, the European Union's top diplomat said on Monday.

US officials returned to Vienna last week for a fourth round of indirect talks with Iran on how to resume compliance with the deal, which former US President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, prompting Iran to begin violating its limits on uranium enrichment about a year later.

“I am optimistic, there is a window of opportunity that will stay open for a couple of weeks, (until) end of the month,” EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, who is chairing the talks, told a news conference in Brussels.

“But a lot of work is needed, time is limited and I hope that the negotiations will enter into a phase of nonstop (talks) in Vienna,” he said following a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

The crux of the 2015 agreement was that Iran committed to rein in its uranium enrichment program to make it harder to obtain the fissile material for a nuclear weapon, in return for relief from US, EU and UN sanctions.

Tehran denies having nuclear weapons ambitions.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas described the negotiations as tough and laborious, but added that all participants were conducting them in a constructive atmosphere.

“However, time is running out. We aim for the full restoration of the Iran nuclear deal as this is the only way to guarantee that Iran will not be able to come into possession of nuclear weapons,” Maas said in Brussels. 


Gaza explosion kills 9 Palestinians as Hamas and Israel exchange fire

Gaza explosion kills 9 Palestinians as Hamas and Israel exchange fire
Updated 55 min 58 sec ago

Gaza explosion kills 9 Palestinians as Hamas and Israel exchange fire

Gaza explosion kills 9 Palestinians as Hamas and Israel exchange fire

JERUSALEM: Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired rockets toward the Jerusalem area and southern Israel on Monday, carrying out a threat to punish Israel for violent confrontations with Palestinians in Jerusalem.
The Gaza health ministry said nine Palestinians were killed in Israeli air strikes in the Palestinian territory after the barrages against Israel. The Israeli military issued no immediate comment on any action it had taken in the enclave.
Rocket sirens sounded in Jerusalem, in nearby towns and in communities near the Gaza minutes after an ultimatum from the enclave’s ruling Islamist Hamas group demanding Israel stand down forces in the al Aqsa mosque compound and another flashpoint in the holy city expired.

There were no immediate reports of casualties from the rocket fire in Israel, but local media reported that a house in the Jerusalem hills had been damaged, in the most serious outbreak of hostilities with Hamas in months.
Along the fortified Gaza-Israeli border, a Palestinian anti-tank missile fired from the tiny coastal territory struck a civilian vehicle, injuring one Israeli, the military said.
Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant grup claimed responsibilty for the rocket attacks. Israeli media reports said more than 30 rockets were fired.
“This is a message the enemy should understand well,” said Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing.
As Israel celebrated “Jerusalem Day” earlier on Monday, marking its capture of eastern sections of the holy city in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, violence erupted at the al Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third most sacred site.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said more than 300 Palestinians were injured in clashes with police who fired rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas in the compound, which is also revered by Jews at the site of biblical temples.
The skirmishes, in which police said 21 officers were also hurt, at al Aqsa had died down by the time Hamas issued the 6 p.m. (1500 GMT) ultimatum.
The hostilities caught Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an awkward time, as opponents negotiate the formation of a governing coalition to unseat him after an inconclusive March 23 election.
For Hamas, some commentators said, its challenge to Israel was a sign to Palestinians, whose own elections have been postponed by President Mahmoud Abbas, that it was now calling the shots in holding Israel accountable for events in Jerusalem.
Recent clashes in Jerusalem have raised international concern about wider conflict, and the White House called on Israel to ensure calm during “Jerusalem Day.”
The Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem has also been a focal point of Palestinian protests during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Several Palestinian families face eviction, under Israeli court order, from homes claimed by Jewish settlers in a long-running legal case.
In an effort to defuse tensions, police changed the route of a traditional Jerusalem Day march, in which thousands of Israeli flag-waving Jewish youth walk through the Old City. They entered through Jaffa Gate, bypassing the Damascus Gate outside the Muslim quarter, which has been a flashpoint in recent weeks.
Police rushed the marchers to cover at Jaffa Gate after the sirens went off.
Israel views all of Jerusalem as its capital, including the eastern part that it annexed after the 1967 war in a move that has not won international recognition. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a state they seek in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

 


Tensions mount on Gaza border with Israel

Tensions mount on Gaza border with Israel
Updated 10 May 2021

Tensions mount on Gaza border with Israel

Tensions mount on Gaza border with Israel
  • A number of rockets fired from Gaza toward Israeli towns on Sunday evening and Monday morning were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system
  • The Israeli army responded to the attacks by bombing sites belonging to Palestinian factions in Gaza

GAZA CITY: Tensions on the Gaza Strip border with Israel on Monday continued to mount following recent violent confrontations at Al-Aqsa Mosque and in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem.

A number of rockets fired from Gaza toward Israeli towns on Sunday evening and Monday morning were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system and no injuries were reported. Incendiary balloons were also launched toward Israel.

The Israeli army responded to the attacks by bombing sites belonging to Palestinian factions in Gaza.

Night demonstrations also resumed along the border in support of several Palestinian families threatened with eviction from their homes in Jerusalem and as part of the so-called March of Return protests that have gone on for two years.

Mohammed Deif, commander-in-chief of the Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas in Gaza, recently warned that the resistance would “not stand idly by” and that Israel would “pay a dear price” if it continued with its actions against Palestinians.

He said the brigades’ leadership was “watching what is happening (in Sheikh Jarrah) closely” while saluting “our steadfast people in occupied Jerusalem.”

Deif has been on Israel’s wanted list for more than two decades and has been accused of being behind numerous military operations against the country. He has survived several assassination attempts, the most recent being during the 2014 Gaza war.

Jerusalem has recently witnessed violent clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protestors over eviction plans to give Palestinian homes in the city suburb to Jewish settlers.

In East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, Palestinians feel an increasing threat from settlers who have sought to expand the Jewish presence there by buying properties, constructing new buildings, and through court-ordered evictions.

Meanwhile, Israel has suspended Palestinian fishing rights off Gaza over the incendiary balloon attacks which it blamed on Hamas.

A statement on Sunday issued by the coordinator of the Israeli government’s activities in the Palestinian Territories, said: “It has been decided to close the fishing distance in the Gaza Strip, and the decision will take effect immediately, and will continue until further notice.”

On Monday, the Israelis also announced the complete closure of the Erez border crossing. Israeli Army Radio said: “Hamas in Gaza is making an extensive effort to ignite the situation. On the other hand, we are ready on all fronts. I advise them not to give us a try.”

Speaking at a recent Cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “I tell the terrorist organizations that Israel will respond forcefully to any rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.”

Mustafa Ibrahim, a columnist, told Arab News that the current escalation in tensions was calculated both by Hamas and Israel.

He said: “At this stage, it seems that Hamas is well aware that the conditions are not conducive to escalating toward a military confrontation with Gaza. Therefore, the rockets fired from Gaza have a short range ... and also the current Israeli response to them does not indicate that it wants to expand the confrontation.

“The somewhat positive reactions from the international community toward Jerusalem seem to have curbed the harsh reaction by the Palestinian factions in Gaza.

“Any developments in Jerusalem and the West Bank may always push Gaza into a military confrontation that may be limited and may be wide. But it seems that we have not reached a broad confrontation this time,” he added.