« LiBeirut » breathes new life into homes, residents, memories

Hala Boustani has lived in Rmeil for 83 years. More than 100 years ago, her father Hanna Achkar built her house on a small embankment facing the port of Beirut.

A building that the plumber built in stages for his children every time he was able to put a few pennies aside. More than 30 years thus separate the construction of the floors of this typically Lebanese building. This is where Hala Boustani was born. This is where she took her first steps, where she grew up. She even stayed there after her marriage upon her father's request. This childless widow, who lost her husband 3 years ago, lived there happily surrounded by her relatives and was expecting to spend the rest of her days in the house.

But on a grim summer afternoon on August 4, 2020, Hala Boustani saw her house, and with it her life, collapse in a matter of seconds. If she miraculously survived the double explosion at the port of Beirut, she says she would have preferred to die on that day, rather than see her house shattered to pieces.

“This house was everything to me," says the octogenarian with a trembling voice. "Whatever I say, I would not be able to express how I feel today. In this house, my husband and I put everything we have done in our lives, and I was hoping to die in this building too”.

When the explosion happened, Hala saw a fireball blow in her face, before she collapsed in front of her couch, with a damaged leg and glass in her eyes.

"All my body still hurts, I see doctors regularly and have nightmares every night, Hala complains. But the most difficult thing at my age is having to move from house to house and live with relatives. Nothing remained in my house. We picked up our memories in pieces”.

Of the moments that followed the drama, Hala doesn’t remember much. “Her memory has faltered, explains Eduardo, her niece's husband. It took us 45 minutes to get her and her sister-in-law out of the building through the rubble. The scene was apocalyptic. Three people had died in the building next door. We were only able to pick up our things a few days later, and for months Hala lived in denial, believing she was going home for Christmas. This house with its special antique furniture was a place for the family where we always met. Our concern now is to live in the house again and UNESCO has given us hope!"

Identified by UNESCO and the General Directorate of Antiquities (DGA) of Lebanon as one of 12 priority historic buildings at risk of collapse in the urban districts of Rmeil, Medawar and Saifi, the building where Hala lives has been stabilized, propped and sheltered by UNESCO, thanks to a funding of 500,000 euros offered by the German Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and within the framework of LiBeirut, the flagship initiative of the UN organization.

“Our building is safe and no longer at risk of falling; we can enter it now without worrying”, says Eduardo. “When the UNESCO team helped us, I felt my spirit reviving again, says Hala. Thanks to them, I have a small hope of returning home. I’m not asking for much. A few pieces of furniture will be enough”.

A team from ICONEM and UNESCO working on creating a 3Dmodel of Beirut, essential for the reconstruction process © UNESCO, 2021
A team from ICONEM and UNESCO working on creating a 3Dmodel of Beirut, essential for the reconstruction process © UNESCO, 2021

Complicated interventions

Among the buildings included in the German-funded project, which was the first country to respond to the call of LiBeirut, a building in Rmeil that was made ominously famous in the aftermath of the explosions, after rescuers had spent days looking for a possible survivor under the rubble. The research had captivated Lebanon when a sniffer dog named Flash lured rescuers into the building, offering a glimpse of hope a month after the tragedy, but no survivors were found.

“The historic house was the most damaged building in the explosions”, explains Michel Chalhoub, a consulting engineer in charge of the stabilization of the building. “We were even told that it was better to tear it down and rebuild everything from scratch. Half the building was collapsed, even on the main street, and the other half was at risk of falling as well." “Working on this project, RMEIL 733, was very risky in terms of safety, and concrete blocks moved during the work, adds Michel Chalhoub. First we had to do some cleaning and sorting, as some stones had to be saved. In parallel, we carried out the propping and sheltering interventions to protect people and to safeguard the building during the winter."

Stabilization, propping and sheltering works were indeed urgently needed as the rainy season approached. With the majority of the 12 historic buildings being privately owned, the risk of gentrification was also high. In other terms, the risk of having these buildings demolished and replaced with new architecture that would have changed Beirut's historic identity. This prompted UNESCO to speed up work between December 2020 and March 2021, under the watchful eye of experts and after UNESCO's Heritage Emergency Fund completed technical documentation before the start of the interventions.

A few hundred meters from RMEIL 733, on Armenia Street in Mar Mikhaël, another building seems to have regained some of its former glory. It is a typical late 19th-century Beiruti house with vaulted shops, a three-arched facade, and marble slab balconies supported by wrought iron balustrades. The sloping roof, made entirely of "qotrani" timber, bears beautiful red Marseille tiles, now broken. This colossal project required long and complex interventions within the framework of the UNESCO project, until new funds are secured for the restoration of the building. Behind it, a restaurant closed since the tragedy of the port, and that is about to reopen its doors now that the building is safe.

"The LiBeirut project has benefited the neighbors and the community," says the owner of the establishment. "It also gave us courage for the future. We were severely affected by the tragedy with huge losses exceeding $ 300,000. The pain is great, but we will open our restaurant again because we are resilient. And since our clientele constitutes a third of the clients of Mar Mikhaël, we hope that our comeback will bring back life to this devastated area."

LiBeirut is an international fundraising appeal launched from Beirut by the Director-General of UNESCO in the aftermath of the explosions, on August 27, 2020, to support the rehabilitation of schools, historic heritage buildings, museums, galleries and the creative industry, all of which suffered significant damage in the deadly explosions.