The poor pushed to the brink amid Lebanese crisis

Public outcry over two suicides linked to hunger, need.
Friday 03/07/2020
A Lebanese woman stands next to her empty refrigerator in her apartment in the port city of Tripoli. (AFP)
A Lebanese woman stands next to her empty refrigerator in her apartment in the port city of Tripoli. (AFP)

TRIPOLI - Two suicides in Lebanon on Friday, apparently linked to the country’s deepening economic downturn, have sparked a new wave of criticism over the government’s mishandling of the crisis.

A 61-year-old man from the eastern region of Hermel shot himself on the sidewalk of a bustling Beirut shopping street in broad daylight, leaving a note and his clean criminal record at the scene.

The note referenced a popular revolutionary song that mentions hunger, suggesting his suicide was linked to the economic crisis that has been ravaging livelihoods across the country.

The Lebanese pound, officially pegged at 1,507 pounds to the greenback, reached more than 9,000 to the dollar this week on the black market in a dizzying devaluation.

Prices have soared almost as fast as the exchange rate has plummeted, meaning that a salary of one million pounds is now worth a little more than $100, compared with almost $700 last year.

The suicide sparked small protests in the Hamra district, denouncing the government for its inaction over the country’s worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war.

“He did not commit suicide, he was killed in cold blood,” read one sign, blaming the government.

Saba Mroue, a protestor, said: “the political class is responsible."

A second suicide, by a van driver near the southern city of Sidon, was also apparently linked to the economic crisis, a local official said.

The 37-year-old van driver hung himself in his home in the town of Jadra and his body was found on Friday morning, said municipality head Joseph al-Azzi.

The official said the suicide was linked to the economic crisis, saying the man was struggling financially.

A spokesperson for Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces confirmed the two suicides, saying that suicide rates are up this year, although he could not provide figures.

Jad Chaaban, an economist and anti-government activist, described the suicides as a “murder by a ruling class that is prepared to kill us, starve us and impoverish us so that they can guard their interests.”

Many in Beirut and other Lebanese cities can no longer make ends meet. Amer al Dahn can’t even afford bread and depends on credit from the local grocer to feed his wife and four children in the Lebanese city of Tripoli.

“We can no longer buy meat or chicken. The closest we get to them is in magazines and newspapers,” said Dahn, 55, leafing through a supermarket brochure in his cramped apartment.

Living in one of the poorest streets of Lebanon’s poorest city, Dahn and his family are feeling the full force of a financial meltdown that is fuelling extreme poverty and shattering lives across the country.

Struggling to walk because of diabetes, Dahn already faced a difficult life before the crisis, which has sunk the Lebanese pound by 80% since October, driving up prices in the import-dependent economy.

“Life has become very difficult. The dollar is still climbing and the state is incapable of providing a solution.”

Even chickpeas, beans and lentils – a traditional part of the Lebanese diet – are out of reach for some.

The crisis is seen as the biggest threat to stability since the 1975-90 civil war.

“We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people who have fallen off the cliff,” said Bojar Hoxja, country director at CARE International, an aid agency. Lebanon faces a humanitarian crisis that requires urgent international intervention, he said.

Lebanon is already a big recipient of international aid, the bulk of it directed at the 1 million Syrians who fled from the war next door.

Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city on the Mediterranean, is home to some of Lebanon’s wealthiest politicians, who critics say only remember their constituents at election time.

“If it was not for the neighbours here sending food to each other, people would be dying of hunger,” said Omar al-Hakim, who lives with his six children and wife in a one-room apartment.

The salary of 600,000 pounds a month he makes as a security guard now lasts just six days. Before the pound’s collapse, it was the equivalent of $400 a month. Today, it is around $60.

Basics such as sugar, rice and lentils become harder to buy, he says. This week, Hakim was hit by a one third increase in the price of state-subsidised bread.

“We used to eat meat on Sunday, or fish, or chicken … none of that now. We can’t afford an ounce of meat,” Hakim said.

The World Bank warned last November that the proportion of Lebanese living in poverty could rise to 50% if conditions worsened. Since then the crisis has only deepened and the economy has been further hit by a COVID-19 lockdown.

Many people depend on charity. Some are using social media to barter furniture or clothes for baby formula or diapers.