Lebanese businessman recalls bittersweet experience of reconstruction after Beirut explosion
DUBAI: A Lebanese man has worked day and night since the devastating explosion in Beirut on August 4 last year to ensure his life’s work is saved from the rubble. In less than six months, Robert Paoli became the first trader to reopen a warehouse in the logistics free zone of the port of Beirut following the disaster.
“I have worked in the freight industry all my life,” the 57-year-old told Arab News. “I have always believed in Lebanon from the start and have worked very hard to create my units in the free zone here.”
Beirut’s strategic location on the eastern Mediterranean coast has made the port a thriving economic asset. But that all changed on a Tuesday afternoon when a nearby warehouse containing nearly 3,000 tonnes of highly volatile ammonium nitrate caught fire.
The two resulting explosions sent a huge shock wave through the port and surrounding districts – taking Paoli’s warehouses with it.
Paoli had spent over $ 1.5 million and years of hard work on his new warehouse, which was due to open in just a few weeks. All types of goods were already stored there, from electrical devices and tires to chemicals.
Recalling that horrific day, Paoli said he was fortunate to have left his office early, a decision necessitated by the COVID-19 restrictions in place in the logistics free zone. While joining his son for a game of tennis at his club 20 minutes outside of town, Paoli received an alarming phone call from a friend about a fire in the harbor.
“Having three units there and a new warehouse in the Karantina area very close to the port, I was worried,” Paoli said. “My other friend who lived across the harbor didn’t see a thing. But five minutes later, I heard the explosion.
The explosion was heard as far away as Cyprus, at a distance of over 200 kilometers. About 210 people were killed and 7,500 injured as the blast wave razed nearby buildings and overturned vehicles.
“I thought a bomb hit my club,” Paoli said. “We were far away, but it overwhelmed us and the windows smashed.
As a gigantic black cloud rose from the distant port, Paoli jumped into his car and ran back to town. Before she arrived, the Karantina warehouse keeper called to say it was all gone.
“I was shocked,” he said. “I asked if there were any injuries and there weren’t any, luckily. My wife called me crying, saying that she had seen my warehouse in the free zone completely destroyed on television.
When he arrived, Paoli found a nightmarish scene, with what was left of his stockpile of goods trapped under tons of rubble. “All my employees came and cried,” he said. “Just thinking about it makes me relive the moment. When I realized the extent of the damage, the reality of the situation set in.
The Lebanese army quickly arrived to prevent the looters from seizing what was left of Paoli’s stockpile. It was at this point that Paoli resolved to rebuild. “It was a challenge for me, thinking that we are not going to fall,” he said. “It was impossible for me not to rebuild.”
That night, Paoli’s first priority was to secure his stock, spread over different sites. To complement the army’s presence, he also placed his staff on 24-hour guard duty.
“It was our duty to protect it for our clients,” Paoli said. “My team is amazing. I really felt how much this company meant to them and how much they respected me.
When the sun rose the next day, the rebuilding effort began. Averaging just four hours of sleep a night, Paoli arrived at 6.30am everyday for the next six months to clean up the debris and collect what he could.
“It was a big responsibility on my shoulders, as our warehouse units were fully loaded with goods,” he said. “We had 80 to 90 40-foot containers. It was hell.
The cargo they could keep was removed and either delivered to customers or stored securely. But the problem was far from over. A month later, another fire broke out in a neighbor’s warehouse.
“The army tried to stop us from entering in an attempt to contain the fire, but we managed to do it in three to four hours,” Paoli recalls. “All the neighboring warehouses have burned down except ours. We were lucky to be able to save him. “
To add insult to injury, Paoli was asked about the fire, but released 24 hours later angry and demoralized.
“I was exhausted and depressed because I was trying to do something right and I was arrested,” he said. “I felt like I had come back to zero. I was really affected but I had this constant will to rebuild, and that gave me the strength to continue.
Soon Paoli’s industry and hard work paid off when his warehouse reopened in the free zone.
What upset him, however, was the lack of support from the government and aid agencies. “Nobody cared about us or asked any questions about us,” he said. “The associations came to help people, but not us, even though we were in the worst affected area and we had employees who risked losing their jobs.”
His children, Andrea and Philippe, are proud of their father’s endurance during these trying months.
“I was impressed with his attitude,” said Philippe, a former professional footballer. “He was the only one to express his gratitude for the fact that everyone was safe, and reconstruction was a daily task for him.
“Looking back, we were the only ones able to rebuild at that time thanks to this attitude. This dedication to its employees really opens your heart. They are part of our family.
Andrea, a former national taekwondo champion, praised her father for taking on the responsibility of rebuilding his business and taking care of his staff when no one else would.
“It would have been a lot easier to do nothing, give up, put the blame on others and eventually fire the employees,” she said.
“What my father did was take a difficult path, following his strong integrity, care and exceptional crisis management skills. I can only hope this inspires others around him at a time when the country is plunged into an endless nightmare.
Clearly, Lebanon’s handling of the consequences of the disaster leaves a lot to be desired. Eight months later, the investigation into the explosion is still ongoing, because of which Paoli has not seen a penny from his insurance company.
As he struggles to absorb his share ($ 3 million) of the free zone’s collective $ 50 million loss, Paoli says his view of his country has changed completely.
“Before the explosion, I always believed that no matter what, I will continue to grow and work in Lebanon. This is our country and we must stay here, ”he said.
“But at the moment, I’m not saying anything more. I will protect what I have, my business and my employees because they are like my family, but no more plans for expansion in this country. For the first time in my life, I am starting to think about doing something outside of Lebanon.
Mona, Paoli’s wife, admits that the faith they once had in Lebanon has run out of steam.
“Robert’s positivity is contagious,” she says. “But for us, the adventure ends here, and a new page opens in our life.”