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How deadly Beirut blasts pushed Lebanese to their breaking point

It has been one week since an earth-shattering explosion ripped through Beirut, killing at least 220 and injuring thousands more. Since then, Lebanese have experienced sadness, rage and recrimination, with many blaming the blast on decades of government corruption and incompetence. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson returned to the city she lived in for many years to send this report.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's now been one week since an earth-shattering explosion ripped through Beirut, a week of sadness and grief, of rage and recrimination, from Lebanese who blame the blast and its dead and wounded on the corruption and incompetence that has plagued the country's government for decades.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson returned for us to the city that she lived in for many years, and sends us this report.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    One week after the explosion in Beirut, and, still, the days here are filled with sorting through the wreckage, what can be salvaged from what can't.

    Some are still overwhelmed with shock.

  • Mona Bahout:

    I can't believe that I'm still alive.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The concrete shell behind Mona Bahout used to be a Jewelry shop, where she was working when everything exploded.

  • Mona Bahout:

    I saw like 500 people were injured. I was just standing here. I didn't know what to do. I called the owner. She didn't know what happened. She told me, just close the door and go home. I told her, there are no more doors in the shop.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Down the street, Jean Obaji makes a start at cleaning up. He grew up in this apartment and lives here with his parents. It's an overwhelming task to sift through the ruined objects that make up a home, an entire life.

    By a miracle, he says, they were not home when the blast hit.

    Who do you blame for this?

  • Jean Obaji:

    Who runs the country, Lebanon? All of them. All of them. They have to be changed. It's enough. We've had enough.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Nearly 3,000 tons of the highly explosive chemical fertilizer ammonium nitrate were confiscated from a Russian ship six years ago, and left to sit in a shed in Beirut's port.

    When it detonated, at least 220 people were killed, 6,000 injured, and 300,000 made homeless.

    Just to illustrate how intense the blast here was, this apartment building here is half-a-mile from the blast site, which is in that direction. And up the road behind me for hundreds of meters, buildings are just as trashed as this one.

    Despite top government officials knowing about the chemicals, nothing was done to remove them. This week, frustration spilled over into anger, and amid the growing outrage, the prime minister and his Cabinet resigned.

    That move is unlikely to be enough to quell the anger. Entrenched political elites, including President Michel Aoun, still hold the real political and economic power here. Aoun refused the prospect of an international investigation, claiming a Lebanese probe would be more efficient.

  • Michel Aoun (through translator):

    The judiciary has to be fast in dealing with this, because, as they say, delayed justice is not justice at all.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Nearly a year ago, massive protests broke out across the country, calling for an end to the corruption and dysfunction that defines Lebanon's government institutions.

    Since then, an economic crisis has exposed the country's banking system as little more than a fraudulent Ponzi scheme. Many people have lost their life savings and investments, and the economy has collapsed.

    To these people, the government first took their financial security, then their jobs, and now their homes. In recent months, hyperinflation has taken hold and the value of Lebanon's currency has plummeted. In a country that imports most of its goods, people are struggling to buy food.

  • David Beasley:

    Prices of food had already tripled in the last year.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    David Beasley heads up the U.N.'s World Food Program. He flew to Beirut to oversee replacing the grain that was stored in silos at the port and told the "NewsHour" the country's precious reserves have been decimated.

  • David Beasley:

    Wow. Unbelievable.

    So, the silos were just devastated, all the grains in the silo completely gone. So, now, literally in Lebanon, it's not just a matter of a food security situation in Beirut of the people impacted by the immediate impact of this explosion. The entire country has now enough bread for two-and-a-half weeks.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Negotiations with the international community for billions of dollars in bailout money stalled weeks ago, after Lebanon's leaders resisted demands from donor countries for major reforms.

  • Kim Ghattas:

    And they would rather sink the country than give an inch of power or be found out to be as corrupt as we know them to be.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Kim Ghattas is a Lebanese journalist, political analyst and author. She says the people are now turning against all political parties, including the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which holds much power in Lebanon's current government.

  • Kim Ghattas:

    There have been insults hurled at Hezbollah and at its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, which is something we didn't see before, because people were either too afraid or still somewhat respectful of what the group had achieved in terms of liberating South Lebanon from Israeli occupation.

    That is over. That is over. So, overall I would say that Hezbollah, but also Iran, feel under a lot of pressure today. The problem at this kind of inflection point is whether they resort to violence to preserve what they have.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    While the politicians struggle to hold onto power, the people of Beirut are responding to the crisis with profound compassion for one another.

    Even before the dust had settled, many came out of their homes to offer help, medical aid and comfort. Now they're taking charge of the cleanup too. These smashed-up streets are filled with volunteers, mostly the younger generation, going house to house, offering to clear rubble, and handing out food.

    They know this is something the government will not do.

    Medea Azouri is a Beirut-based radio host and deejay. She now runs this center that organizes the volunteers, drawing up lists of which homes need help.

  • Medea Azouri:

    I think that it's in our blood. I don't know — you knew Lebanon and Lebanese people before. You see how we invite people to eat at the — our tables? This is how we are. This is how we are. We cannot not help people.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    These are dangerous times in Lebanon, with the dark shadow of possible civil war looming over the country.

    But they also present an opportunity for the country's people to move beyond the political dysfunction and build a new government. Whichever direction it goes in, surviving against all the odds is in the Lebanese blood.

  • Jean Obaji:

    We don't fall down. We get up. It's not our thing. We always get up.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Beirut, Lebanon.

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