UPU Review 2020: Beirut Blast

Throughout the latter half of 2020, the Universal Postal Union reported on how LibanPost continued to deliver mail following the terrible 4 August explosion in Beirut, Lebanon.   

Lebanon’s postal service had to close entirely for three days following the August 4th explosion that devastated parts of its capital, bringing its services to a halt up and down the country.

The logistical nightmare, said CEO Khalil Daoud, forced the decision to close. “The first thing we had to think about was whether the explosion could be repeated. Was it manmade? An accident? Are there still explosives in the area? If it’s manmade could it be repeated in other areas? These are all considerations we had to look at for the security of our employees,” he said.

Then came looking after the staff, making sure everyone was accounted for and that the injured were receiving treatment and the homeless had somewhere to stay.

The closure was also necessary to deal with the damaged branches, according to Sanaa Elias, the Retail Operations Manager at LibanPost.

“The next day… we started to search through the rubble [of the damaged branches] and we managed to effectively only lose two items [of post]."

"How do you deliver post to the estimated 300,000 people who have just been made homeless in a city that's in a state of emergency?"

While the branches remained out of operation for the following weeks with the explosion causing over $115,000 of damage, LibanPost quickly worked to make sure that people would still be able to access their PO boxes. All other services were then available in the non-affected branches across the country.

For the people who were still living in the blast site though, an innovative and more convenient solution was found. Over the past two years, LibanPost had been putting together a fleet of four caravans that they had turned into mobile post offices, to take advantage of festivals and seasonal mountain resorts. Now, in the site of a disaster zone, they had a home.

But how do you deliver post to the estimated 300,000 people who have just been made homeless in a city that’s in a state of emergency?

For HQ, all they could do was further promote their digital services, in which people could change their address and access all the other services available in branches or online. For postal workers like Mohammad Fakro, who’s delivery route takes him directly through the blast zone, being on the ground was much more of a puzzle.

“In many neighbourhoods, we are relying on the people who are still there to direct us towards the people who have moved to another part of the city or to find out if they are still alive,” Mohammad said.

“Delivering in those areas, there were many of us that were afraid the buildings would collapse while we were walking up the stairs because they looked so unstable. So now we are using calling cards and holding onto people’s post if we can’t find them.”

Into the heart of the destruction

Mohammad Fakro’s daily delivery route takes him through the heart of the destruction caused by the port explosion in the Lebanese capital. Mangled steel and shattered glass now replace the buildings he used to once deliver to. Many of the regular clients are either dead or displaced. 
August 4th was like any other day for Mohammad, he started early and picked up the mail for his route from the Riad Solh branch in downtown Beirut –– one of the LibanPost branches that later that day would be all but totally destroyed. 
His route would take him through the upmarket downtown area, over to the port, past the slaughterhouse and on towards Karantina, a deprived area facing the port that felt the brunt of the blast. At 2pm his shift would finish. Just after 6pm, his route would explode.
After Liban Post’s three day closure following the blast, his first shift back was one like no other. 
“I’d ask the people in the streets, ‘where is this person now?’ And they would tell me he had died in the explosion, for example, or that he is in the hospital or that he has travelled, he has escaped [the country]. Words that are just… very saddening.

“Those of us who’ve gone up the stairs always run back down and out because we’re afraid the buildings’ supports will collapse.”

I used to see a man who was a doorman at the building of one of my regulars; someone told me he and his entire family died in the explosion. It was him and his two daughters.”
It wasn’t just a matter of checking on his regular clients, Mohammad was trying to deliver post to buildings that no longer existed and to people who had fled overnight to other parts of the country, he said.
“If there are phone numbers linked to the address, we’ll speak to them to deliver their stuff,” he explained. “But otherwise, we would rely on neighbours to direct us to their new location or put it in a secure location until they got in touch. But we would keep trying their building every day [if it was still standing].”
The blast, however, had made many of the remaining buildings unstable. 
“Honestly there were one or two buildings that I went into... I noticed that, in the entrance of the building, because of the power of the explosion, it looked as though the walls had been sucked right off. I honestly felt like the ground was unstable when I was walking.”
“Those of us who’ve gone up the stairs always run back down and out because we’re afraid the buildings’ supports will collapse.”
In the initial stages, Mohammad explained, it was often easier to find the customers as they would be moving their things out of their homes and offices or making repairs. For some though, they have still not found a new address if neighbours cannot point in the right direction and they haven’t called LibanPost to redirect their mail.
Mohammad’s personal life, like most Lebanese, was already devastatingly impacted by the economic collapse only to be compounded by the explosion. 

The local currency has lost over 80 per cent of its value over the last year and by some experts’ estimations, Lebanon has become the first Middle East/North African country to ever officially enter hyperinflation. There was little money to survive; for most, there is no money to rebuild. 
“We’re waiting to see if people can help us and provide aid. I’m renting the house but the landlord said he’s unable to help me with anything or pay for any damage; he said he takes the rent and has to pay that money elsewhere as he has expenses. You know these things are expensive. Everyone is going through this.”
Mohammad had been at his home, which faces the port, with his wife and two children when the explosion happened. Tearing apart the glass in his apartment and material objects inside. 
“There are some things that I’ve fixed in the house because we can’t be without them, like the glass. I paid for it; I took out a loan to fix it. But I cannot do much else, I have to pay for rent and schooling and bills.”

“All the balconies started collapsing”

Leina Zeidan, the head of the Gemmayze branch in Beirut for LibanPost, has her son to thank for her life after the explosions that tore through Beirut on 4th August leaving her near to death.

Living less than 300 metres away from the blast site, Leina was standing on her 11th-floor balcony with her four-year-old son Ryan watching the fire at the port. Her husband, Kamal, was at work in his office next to the port.

“Suddenly I saw something rise in the air, and the sea rose, and something exploded. Ryan flew. He flew and then fell,” Leina said.  “The balconies all started collapsing below us. I could hear the balconies falling below us.”

The sound of the balconies on her building collapsing under her feet is the last thing Leina remembers before losing consciousness.

Sometime later Ryan woke his profusely bleeding mother up and begged her to go and check if his father was alive.

“I had grabbed a piece of cloth and had used it to tie Ryan to me, at the wrist. I tied him to me because I thought if I died, he’d be with me until they came and took me. If I didn’t die, I wouldn’t lose him.”

Leina described the ten-minute walk from their home to her husband’s office - barely conscious, her son had dragged her over dead bodies, the wounded and the rubble as she was bleeding onto the floor. Arriving at the office, Leina discovered that Kamal, her husband, had thankfully survived.

Three hospitals turned Leina away because they were so busy and her injuries were too severe to be treated quickly and easily.

The sound of the balconies on her building collapsing under her feet is the last thing Leina remembers before losing consciousness.

It had taken a stranger in a passing car to see Ryan screaming for help, while tied to his dying mother laying on the side of the road, for them to get to the third hospital. The three of them had walked to the first two hospitals.

“There’s no hope for her; she’s lost a lot of blood and we don’t have emergency/urgent beds right now. We’re only treating people with easier cases,” doctors told Kamal at the third hospital.

“They put me on a stretcher and covered me up; they thought they’d cover me because I was going to… And my poor son was still tied to my wrist until my family arrived.”

Leina’s family arrived and managed to get her to a fourth hospital where she was operated on and provided with blood transfusions.

“My son saved my life and now he’s living with… so much fear,” Leina said in an interview six weeks on from the blast.

“If he finds that I’ve moved away from him ever so slightly, he immediately asks me, ‘Mama are you going to die?’”

The branch of LibanPost that Leina managed was among the most heavily damaged. She said she cannot bring herself to go back and see the damage.

Working for now in the LibanPost Headquarters while the Gemmayze branch is being fixed, Leina is slowly getting back to work.

“Thank god I have work,” she repeats again and again.

Being able to focus on work, she says, is the only thing that stops her from replaying the horrific scenes that unfolded in Beirut that day over and over in her head.
"For three or four days afterwards I had memory loss, but as soon as I came back to work everything automatically came back to me, as soon as I put my hands on the computer," she said. 
While the Gemmayze branch is still non-operational, Leina is helping another team. There is already senior management on that team, but she jumps at the opportunity to step in for them as soon as they leave the office - she's itching to get back to work, she says. 
"Do I get upset? Of course I do. I lost the branch that I love, that I’ve worked at and come to run for 10 years, but I can’t help but thank God I wasn’t there, and thank God I had a job to come back to work." 

“You cannot afford to have emotions”

The explosions that tore through Beirut on 4 August caused Lebanon’s postal service, LibanPost, around US$120,000 worth of damage, according to CEO, Khalil Daoud. 
The blast only served to exacerbate LibanPost’s economic woes. 
Lebanon’s economic collapse has devastated the country, with the local currency losing over 80 per cent of its value within the year. But while it has torn apart the country, it was clear to see coming.  

The physical and economic damage, Mr Daoud says, was the least of his concerns after the blast. 

“From January we informed our shareholders that we will be facing a serious loss this year,” Mr Daoud said. “It will be the first time. Despite being a private organisation, we have been profitable for the past 16 or 17 years. We were really an exception in the country. We started a diversification plan long ago and this is what has kept us afloat.”
The projection that they would face losses was not only from looking at the economic forecast for the country, but also a decision that not a single employee would be laid off or see a salary cut: no matter what happens to Lebanon’s economy. 
“Either you have to take a loss or you have to reduce salaries and lay off employees. So since we have taken the decision to stand by our employees, we knew that we would face a loss.”
“We’re one of the few companies still maintaining in the market today and yet we feel guilty that we are not capable of doing more. With the devaluation of the currency, even when you are paying salaries in full the equivalent of $1000 a month a year ago, today is worth less than $200.”
The physical and economic damage, Mr Daoud says, was the least of his concerns after the blast. 
“Obviously, the biggest loss was the loss of one of our employees. We have an employee that used to work at the post office inside the Central Bank of Lebanon and I was made aware that she was celebrating her wedding anniversary on that day in particular, and she was one of the unfortunate casualties of that explosion, alongside her husband, leaving two children behind,” he said.  
“Then you have a number of injured people from the LibanPost community, some that were seriously injured, others that are more fortunate. There were some that we didn’t hear from for days.”
While still trying to account for employees, Mr Daoud says his attention quickly had to turn to the logistical nightmare in front of him. Three hundred thousand clients had just been left homeless, branches were destroyed and damages needed to be assessed before working out when they could open again.
Over the past two years, LibanPost had acquired five caravans for the purpose of deploying mobile post offices. Originally, the idea was to have them located in seasonal areas of the mountains or to take advantage of festivals. Now because of the tragedy, they were able to be put into use in the destroyed areas of Beirut so that service wasn’t suspended for clients in those areas. 
Fifteen post offices, out of a network of 110 were damaged with three branches severely damaged.
LibanPost had also previously set up a “home system” in which everything that can be done at the post office, can be done online or over the phone. “All of that helped in taking over the lack of presence in the usual system processes.”
LibanPost was offered “a lot of help” from international postal organisations, Mr Daoud said. “We declined because I think the priority has to go to NGOs and to people that are really in need. We would manage to recover the financial losses that we are facing, but those NGOs are desperately in need.”
To do their bit for the city, LibanPost is going to produce a stamp that will cost the equivalent of $7 USD, the proceeds of which will go to the Lebanese civil defence - a volunteer organisation that makes up the country’s firefighters, ambulatory services and rescue teams.
“Every time there is a drama in Lebanon, these people are at the forefront trying to help, but despite being an entity within the public administration, they’re neglected and do not have the means or support,” said Mr Daoud. 
Mr Daoud’s house was totally destroyed in the explosion and the shattered glass left him needing medical attention at hospital. 
“It’s part of the day to day life of any manager: you cannot afford to have emotions overwhelming you. So I was injured, I went to the hospital and one hour later I was back home and I had two concerns: the company and the employees and to assess the damages that had happened.”
Reporting by freelance journalist Abbie Cheeseman, Beirut, Lebanon.