Finland’s top diplomat in Beirut: ‘Lebanese people seem to be tired of rising from the ashes’

Finland's senior diplomat in Lebanon last week, injured in the aftermath of a devastating explosion, says the feelings of rage and frustration in Beirut are tangible.

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Picture of damage in Beirut, August 2020 / Credit: Aki Kauppinen

The Muslim call to prayer echoed from mosques across Lebanon on Tuesday evening, as church bells tolled at exactly 18:09, a week after a man-made disaster caused widespread destruction in the capital Beirut.

Finland’s Acting Ambassador to Lebanon Aki Kauppinen was at home last Tuesday after work, just his second day on the job, and only a kilometre from the port area.

File picture of Finnish diplomat Aki Kauppinen

“I was in my running gear, I was about to do a workout on my balcony so I was actually looking at the explosions in the harbour as they happened” he explains.

“There was a fire first, which I did not realise until I heard the first explosion which was probably the fireworks going off. And then pretty quickly it was a matter of seconds the second explosion followed and I had maybe a second to realise I really need to go now”

Video that Kauppinen took from his apartment window shows the moment of the explosion and the huge shockwave that engulfed the city. The glass shatters, and the camera falls to the floor.

He was unhurt in the explosion, as were other Finnish Embassy staff, but there was extensive damage to their homes and the embassy building itself – all within 1.5km of the blast’s epicentre.

Picture of damage in Beirut, August 2020 / Credit: Aki Kauppinen

Rushing outside, fearful his apartment building might collapse, Kauppinen fell over and lacerated his knees and arm on all the broken glass in the street. “It wasn’t even easy to find supplies to get the wounds covered in the beginning, as the emergency equipment blew up and I had to pick supplies from the debris” he says. Later in the evening he was able to get ten stitches to close up the wounds.

“It’s been a week, I can tell you that! It was not exactly what I expected my first week to be but it was definitely interesting to say the least” he tells News Now Finland.

The explosion, triggered when 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated, leveled most buildings in the immediate vicinity of Beirut’s port. More than 200 people have so far been confirmed dead; around 6,000 people were injured, and an estimated 300,000 people were left homeless.

The shockwave which spread out across the Lebanese capital shattered windows as far as 20km away. If a similar size explosion and shockwave had happened in Helsinki, most buildings inside Kehä I would sustain damaged.

“If you think about it in Helsinki terms, it’s all within the ring road” says Kauppinen.

“I was quite impressed and surprised how quickly people started to clean up. The cleanup efforts didn’t take days to start, it was a matter of hours people started cleaning glass because glass was literally all over the streets, and all this debris was everywhere, fallen rocks, pieces of the exteriors of buildings” he adds.

Protests in Beirut on Saturday 8th August 2020 / Credit: @BeirutCityGuide Twitter

Beirut’s shock turns into anger and protests

After the initial numb shock of the explosion and the tremendous damage it caused, Beirut’s residents have started to demand answers about accountability and hold their leadership responsible. Less than a week later, and the entire government has resigned.

But it’s not likely to be enough of a mea culpa.

Protests have flared up, bringing long-simmering over a currency collapse, economic mismanagement, government inaction and deep-rooted corruption; militia factions and foreign interference, to the fore.

“The atmosphere is quite tangible. The rage, you can feel it. You can feel the frustration of people” says Finland’s Acting Ambassador Aki Kauppinen.

“You can definitely feel that people are tired. Tired with just coping. Just coping. You often hear that Lebanon has often risen from the ashes, but people seem to be tired of rising from the ashes. They don’t want to just keep surviving and coping and rising from the ashes” he says.

“They want stability, they want democracy, they want prosperity like all of us. And I think the devastation in Beirut is so massive that it has brought up a sort of very strong feelings of rage which are now evident in the demonstrations and on the street. But even when you speak to people who are not on the streets, they are tired people.”

Picture of damage in Beirut, August 2020 / Credit: Aki Kauppinen

Finnish assistance in the aftermath and rebuilding

In the immediate aftermath of the explosion Finland donated a million euros through the International Red Cross for disaster relief, and also sent specialist rescue crew personnel.

A weekend donors’ conference raised half a billion euros in pledges for Lebanon’s rebuilding and recovery with many countries involved in the fundraising – including Finland – calling for change.

So does that mean aid money comes with strings attached? Diplomat Aki Kauppinen says the calls for change are more to do with stability in the country.

“This is very much in line with what the Lebanese people are calling for on the streets” he explains.

“The change is necessary […] I think there is a broad understanding there needs to be reforms. And it’s now just how to take those reforms forward.”

“We stand ready to help in any ways we can and of course we do hope the stability and prosperity that the Lebanese people want and desire are there are the end of the tunnel”