The catastrophic explosion that has devastated Beirut on August 4, killing more than one hundred people and wounding thousands, has torn through a country already grappling with a deep economic crisis, which has witnessed its middle class savings wither away. Over the past months, the country has suffered from severe currency devaluation, electricity shortages and ongoing political stalemate. Widespread anti-government protests erupted in Lebanon last October, which owing to government inaction in approving urgently needed reforms, have taken to the streets ever since to voice popular frustration.
With a population also battered emotionally due to the trauma of past conflicts, people throughout the capital panicked in disbelief as the waves of this powerful explosion swept miles away from its epicenter in a warehouse filled with ammonium nitrate near Beirut’s major port. The blast sent emotional shockwaves not only throughout Lebanon, but around the world. One unexpected country has suffered deeply this event together with the Lebanese people: Brazil.
The Lebanese population in Brazil is more than double the Lebanese population living currently in Lebanon, over 10 million descendants and citizens concentrated in the state of São Paulo share Lebanese culture and traditions with the Brazilian society as a whole. The first official group of Lebanese migrants arrived in Brazil at the end of the 19th century, fleeing from a crumbling Ottoman Empire and hopeful about a more prosperous future in the New World. These waves continued taking place steadily into the first half of the 20th century and picked up again during the Lebanese Civil War, which began in 1975 and lasted 15 years. Nowadays, bilateral commerce between Brazil and Lebanon is about US$ 312 million, while contributions to Brazilian culture and society are varied, ranging from typical Lebanese food, to literature, cinema, and finally the field of medicine and law. Not by chance, São Paulo’s most important hospital is called Hospital Sírio-Libanês (Syrian-Lebanese Hospital).
As such, the images of Wednesday’s explosion in Beirut shocked and deeply saddened Brazilian friends of Lebanese descent. The Brazilian news reports on the explosion were accompanied by dozens of interviews with profoundly shaken Lebanese descendants living in Brazil, concerned about relatives, and likewise Brazilian Lebanese living in Beirut, narrating their experiences or acting in the hospital frontlines as doctors.
Beyond the strong unique cultural ties, Brazil also shares an important military commitment to Lebanon, that of commanding the Maritime Taskforce (MTF) of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The MTF is the first maritime mission connected to a UN peacekeeping operation, mandated by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 (2006). Brazil has taken over the command of UNIFIL’s MTF in February 2011 and has remained its leader ever since. As part of the MTF, about 200 Brazilian military personnel help to protect the Lebanese territorial waters and to train the Lebanese Navy, intercepting illicit arms trade, safeguarding the Lebanese coast and assuring the crucial flow of maritime commerce, which Lebanon is heavily dependent upon due to its land borders geopolitical limitations. It is estimated that more than 80% of Lebanese maritime commerce enters the country through its main port in Beirut, now paralysed by the blast. Smaller ports include the ports of Tripoli and Sidon. According to an official statement issued by the Brazilian Navy, the Brazilian frigate Independência, active in the area, was not at Beirut’s port at the moment of the explosion. Later in a news interview, Brazilian Rear Admiral Sérgio Renato Berna Salgueirinho, Commander of the MTF, explained that the frigate had left the port on a patrol mission and was located about 15 kilometers from the explosion when they felt the impact of the blast. Due to the considerable distance, no crew members were injured.
As the dust and debris settle in the aftermath of Beirut’s deadly explosion, the world at large must act swiftly with humanitarian aid in order to help the Lebanese population get through this difficult moment. As for the emotional toll, millions of Brazilians will be mourning together with their Lebanese relatives and friends for their unfathomable losses.
06 August 2020
*Melissa Rossi is Researcher at the Brazilian Naval War College in Rio de Janeiro.