Beirut escapee: "We'll never know how many people died"

THE true human cost of the Beirut explosion will never be accurately known, according to a dual citizen currently in quarantine in Australia having fled the economic turmoil of Lebanon.

Joumana Jeffers was five days into her 14-day quarantine period at a Brisbane hotel on her way to Adelaide when she woke on Wednesday morning to news of the massive blast which sent shockwaves through the Lebanese capital.

"I'm really, really shocked," Ms Jeffers told The Daily Examiner.

"I'm in quarantine in Brisbane but reeling from the news

"Plenty of time to contemplate. Nine more days to go."

The blast has been compared with the nuclear explosions after bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in World War Two.

Until July 29 Ms Jeffers had lived about 4km away from the blast site. She said her sister, who lives in the same building, told her she felt the whole building shake and that windows shattered.

"My brother and his wife live in the mountains 40km northeast of Beirut. I just spoke to them and they heard the explosions up there and that some windows in the village blew out as a result of the blast."

Joumana Jeffers in 2015 when she lived in the Clarence Valley on the NSW North Coast. Photo Debrah Novak / The Daily Examiner
Joumana Jeffers in 2015 when she lived in the Clarence Valley on the NSW North Coast. Photo Debrah Novak / The Daily Examiner

 

The latest reports suggest more than 70 people were killed, including one Australian, and 4000 injured.

But Lebanon, with an estimated population of 6.8 million people, has about 1.5 million Syrian refugees, including many who are unregistered. Ms Jeffers believes many of those will be unaccounted for.

"We'll never know how many people died," she said.

"There are so many unregistered refugees desperate to do anything. They are very likely to be in the port. So I think it's a lot worse than we imagine at the moment."

The explosion was linked to approximately 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in the port of Beirut for the past six years.

While investigations into what caused the explosion are ongoing, Ms Jeffers believed high levels of corruption in the country would have contributed to making it possible.

According to the World Population Review, Lebanon was the 37th most corrupt country in the world in 2020, with neighbouring Syria third.

"This explosion, although we don't know 100 per cent the cause, I guarantee you someone was paid a bribe to leave (the ammonium nitrate) there," Ms Jeffers said.

"Without a doubt, it was definitely caused by lying and cheating.

"Lebanon is a goddamn mess and the politicians are all to blame.

"What country on the planet allows such a large amount of explosives in such a highly populated area?

"The port is a few kilometres from downtown Beirut. The destruction is beyond belief."

 

Joumana Jeffers with Brushgrove's Glenys Addison in Adelaide in 2018. Ms Jeffers is currently in 14-day hotel quarantine in Brisbane after returning to Australia from Lebanon.
Joumana Jeffers with Brushgrove's Glenys Addison in Adelaide in 2018. Ms Jeffers is currently in 14-day hotel quarantine in Brisbane after returning to Australia from Lebanon.

 

Born and raised in Lebanon, Ms Jeffers lived abroad including in the UK and Australia for 46 years, before deciding to return to her spiritual homeland in April 2019.

However, last week she flew out of Beirut for Australia, escaping an untenable financial situation in Lebanon.

"I thought I'd go back home forever, whatever home means," she said.

"I've been away for 46 years. That's a long time and there were some things that no longer made sense. You have this nostalgic view of what home was and that's just not the same.

"The financial crisis was just too much bear. Our money's worth nothing at the moment.

"As a school councillor I was earning less than US$500 a month, my rent was US$1200.

"A lot of people have accounts in US dollars. All that has been frozen.

"I can't get my US dollars out of the bank so I have to pay in Lebanese Lira at the official rate.

"And you know, I like Australia and I was in a privileged position to get out.

"Strangely, when I told people I was leaving every single person either said 'I'm not surprised' or joked 'put me in the suitcase'.

"Not a single person asked 'why?'. It goes to show how down everyone is."

Lebanon is in the grips of its worst economic crisis in history. In the past 12 months unemployment has soared from a stable rate of 6.2 per cent to beyond 30 per cent.

BEIRUT, LEBANON - NOVEMBER 03: Anti-government demonstrators gather in Martyrs' Square to listen to speeches and music on November 3, 2019 in Beirut, Lebanon. Lebanon has seen 18 days of unrest after demonstrators took to the streets to protest tax hikes and government corruption. (Photo by Sam Tarling/Getty Images)
BEIRUT, LEBANON - NOVEMBER 03: Anti-government demonstrators gather in Martyrs' Square to listen to speeches and music on November 3, 2019 in Beirut, Lebanon. Lebanon has seen 18 days of unrest after demonstrators took to the streets to protest tax hikes and government corruption. (Photo by Sam Tarling/Getty Images)

Ms Jeffers said an unprecedented humanitarian crisis was unfolding.

"In October (2019) there was a peaceful revolution where the streets exploded with hundreds of thousands of normal people who aren't into sectarianism and politics and wanted to put people first," she said.

"What we've all known for 30 years but noone's been able to say was the collusion and corruption up the top was shocking and totally ruined Lebanon.

"Then the protests were sabotaged by political interests.

"Now we literally have people going hungry, and not refugees, normal Lebanese people.

"That's unprecedented. Even in the civil war that didn't happen.

"A friend who lives in the village I came from said to me the war was easier; you can always hide from bombs, but you can't hide from hunger."

Ms Jeffers also said the COVID-19 pandemic, with only 65 recorded deaths, had contributed little to the Middle Eastern nation's woes, despite the timing of the economic collapse.

"COVID-19 has very little to do with the issues and if anything they've handled that well," she said.

"In Lebanon we went into total lockdown very, very soon after there were a few cases, on 19th of March, for two and a half months.

"Nobody walks around without a mask. All this debating I see in Australia about should we wear a mask, it was all par for the course."

Today's explosion has happened at a moment when it seemed the situation could not get any worse.

"We've always prided ourselves on being really resilient like Phoenix from the Flames, but this time everyone (in Lebanon) is so depressed, so anxious," Ms Jeffers said.

"I hope this is our rock bottom. I hope things can start to go up.

"If we don't have hope we don't have anything.

"But it will be a while and it will be very sad."

Australians who need consular assistance after the Beirut explosion can call (+61) 2 6261 3305 (outside Australia) or 1300 555 135 (inside Australia).



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