Heritage homes damaged in Beirut blast are out of time as rains begin

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When last week’s heavy rain heralded the onslaught of Lebanon’s winter weather, Reina Sarkis’ 1910 three-floor building, still left open to the elements since the deadly August 4 blast, ran out of time.

Her lovingly renovated home in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood in Beirut of 12 years had the roof blown off and the stairwell walls collapse when the explosion, powered by 2,750 metric tons of poorly stored ammonium nitrate, ripped through the heritage-rich areas of East Beirut.

“It’s raining with a vengeance and it all came into the building,” Sarkis told Al Arabiya English. “All the NGOs and officials that called, and all the hype from the beginning, all vanished when it actually came to translating all this talk and goodwill to actual results. I’ve been running around like a headless chicken for three months, making calls, following up, and not even a piece of tarpaulin to cover the roof.”

The last three months have been a race against time for heritage NGOs and the Directorate General of Antiquities to seal up the gaping holes in these Ottoman-era and French Mandate-era homes, but with limited resources, not all properties have been covered in time.

Reina Sarkis' home in Beirut is shown before the Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion. (Photo courtesy of Reina Sarkis)
Reina Sarkis' home in Beirut is shown before the Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion. (Photo courtesy of Reina Sarkis)

The DGA estimates some 650 heritage homes were affected in the explosion, with about 100 needing immediate attention and protection from rain damage, which could irreversibly destroy these already fragile structures.

For people like Sarkis, who have put thousands of dollars into their heritage house’s costly upkeep over the years, the unattended roof is another addition to a mounting list of crises Lebanon has faced since the October 2019 protests began.

Financial collapse, coupled with banks withholding people’s life savings, has left many people dependent on the understaffed and underfunded aid provided by NGOs in the absence of serious state help.

Reina Sarkis' home in Beirut is shown after the Aug. 4 explosion in Lebanon's capital. (Photo courtesy of Reina Sarkis)
Reina Sarkis' home in Beirut is shown after the Aug. 4 explosion in Lebanon's capital. (Photo courtesy of Reina Sarkis)

“It needs about a million dollars for the building,” Sarkis said. “I can’t even fix my own apartment before the rest of the building is fixed. I’m sure on a personal level [the NGOs and DGA] are all passionate about heritage but it’s been miscommunication left, right and center. They’re totally overwhelmed.”

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“We don’t have the time to fulfill all the rules they’ve put in – don’t use cement, use something else, or things have to be fixed a certain way – but then they can’t even put a covering,” she added. “People are homeless. I’ve had to move to another residence of mine in Jounieh, but not everyone has this option.”

All heritage home restorations are being carried out by NGOs and volunteer groups like Beirut Heritage Initiative (BHI), which gathered heritage specialties and activities in the wake of the blast, seeking to do the work the state had neglected. While financially independent from the government, any work done must be documented and approved by the DGA, to meet the correct restoration standards.

“Water is the most dangerous thing for a building,” Grace Rihan Hanna, member of Beirut Built Heritage Rescue 2020, which is part of BHI, told Al Arabiya English. “These heritage homes are all made of wooden foundations and roofing, so water will destroy them twice as fast.

“In order to do the work we need money, and there is none,” she added. “We’ve managed to cover 80 of the 100 at risk buildings but this last week has been a dash. We’ve been looking for the right quality tarpaulins but have had to borrow some of the refugee tent materials from the UNHCR.”

Scaffolding is shown in a Beirut heritage home that was destroyed in the Beirut Aug. 4 port explosion. (Supplied.)
Scaffolding is shown in a Beirut heritage home that was destroyed in the Beirut Aug. 4 port explosion. (Supplied.)

The DGA has also experienced building owners refusing access to restoration teams. Sometimes born of mistrust or not wishing to go through the proper paperwork channels, but also owners wishing to be rid of their building or tenants, looking for financially beneficial loopholes.

Unable to sell

After the blast, the DGA passed a law prohibiting the sale of any heritage property before it was fully restored and approved by them. Unable to sell, some owners have tried to take matters into their own hands.

“It’s beneficial for them to let the building collapse. They can start fresh and build a bigger, modern building to make more profits as the real-estate value in this area is high,” DGA director Sarkis Khoury told Al Arabiya English. “They’re looking for this loophole of saying they don’t want to repair, which will eventually cause the building to collapse or become unsafe for residence.”

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“Our answer is no, we must consolidate and restore. The owners are refusing to let us enter, so we’ve sent files to the municipalities, who are the powers that will be able to grant us access.”

Since the rain started, three buildings have collapsed, including the 120-year-old building formerly housing the famous Hanna Mitri ice cream shop for 71 years. Forced to relocate to a new shop, a black and white photo of their old sandstone building hangs on the wall.

Beirut Built Heritage Rescue 2020’s Hanna says that the building collapsed due to sabotage, with people dousing the building in water at night to weaken it. By the time authorities pressed the matter, allowing a team to begin stabilizing the building, the rain had started and it was too late for the structure.

A man whose family has been renting an apartment in a heritage building for generations, who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of backlash from his landlord, told Al Arabiya English that the owner refused to allow repair work, hoping the building would become unsafe for inhabitants.

“We were starting to work with the DGA and the landlord stopped us working four times,” the renter said. “The rain started pouring into the flat and he finally relented, for now, to let us put a tarpaulin.

“He’s doing whatever he can to make it seem like the place is unsafe to stay in and is using this opportunity to make us leave, despite several experts saying the building is sound and just needs some work,” he added. “If the house is declared unsafe, then he can get rid of us without compensation.”

The renter holds an ‘old renting contract,’ which freezes the cost of rent to the rate that was agreed before 1992, meaning inflation and rising market value are not taken into account and is not beneficial to the landlord.

Over the years, the renter’s family has made countless renovations to the Ottoman-era house and has no desire to move out. The wooden beams brought in by the DGA’s team are now unusable due to water damage.

“We want to go home and return to live there. Even if the whole building collapses, he will be forced to rebuild it as it was, but he’s trying his best to get rid of us,” the renter said. “The tarpaulin won’t make the house livable; it needs a lot of work, which he’s refusing. We’re taking it up with the municipality and they’ve given him a warning, but that was three months ago.”

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