Rasheeda Bhagat

A study in contrast when disasters strike

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on August 10, 2020 Published on August 10, 2020

Rescue act: Selfless service by locals   -  AFP

While the govt’s response to Beirut explosions has been pathetic, the efforts to rescue Kozhikode air-crash victims are laudable

In 1965, my parents-in-law had visited Beirut for a few days; I got married in 1978, and over the years, they would fondly remember the dazzling city, popularly called the ‘Paris of the East’. Europe was beyond their reach and they were so grateful for the great time they had in Beirut. My mother-in-law would proudly tell us how she had insisted and accompanied her husband to a nightclub and had a rollicking time there. Apart from the shopping, of course!

But by the time I heard those nostalgic stories, Lebanon, and of course its capital Beirut, had moved to horrific times because of the civil war followed by the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, resulting in a series of violent clashes involving Israel, Lebanon and Syria, and the Palestine Liberation Organization. With various militias getting a firm foothold into southern Lebanon, followed by the US bombing in 1983, the country was constantly torn apart by violent conflicts and it has been all downhill for that beautiful country since then.

And now that once-prosperous city of vibrant nightclubs and glittering shopping streets has been devastated by a deadly explosion due to the criminal negligence of its government and military, allowing the storage of some 2,750 tonnes of the highly dangerous ammonium nitrate for five years at the Beirut port. And all this in an area so close to residential neighbourhoods — despite repeated warnings of the risk it posed.

And to add, literally, fuel to the fire, dozens of bags of fireworks were stored in the same warehouse, in dangerous proximity to the ammonium nitrate, and is believed to have been a decisive factor in igniting the explosive chemical compound. Over 150 people have died and till Sunday, 60 people were still missing.

Beirut’s enraged citizen have been holding massive protest marches venting their anger at their “inept and corrupt” government. There has been all-round demand for the resignation of the government, and calls for an international inquiry. International aid has also been pouring in.

The heartbreaking part, according to port workers, is that both the Customs and security officers had been regularly asking the army to remove the dangerous material, but apparently the military brass kept saying they had no other place to store it.

As news of the explosion broke, we also found that about 740 tonnes of ammonium nitrate seized at the Chennai port in 2015 has been lying in a warehouse in Manali. As alarm bells started ringing, the government finally woke up and a part of that consignment has been moved out from Chennai to a Hyderabad firm after an online auction.

As though the gloomy Covid times were not enough, a series of tragic events are unfolding. On Friday, came the news of the Air India Express Vande Bharat flight from Dubai crash-landing at the Kozhikode airport, killing both the pilots and 16 others and injuring many passengers. Most passengers were returning from Dubai as they had lost their jobs. There were 10 children on board, and two are reported to have died.

The real rescue

But the heroes of this tragedy were the local people. Within minutes of hearing the loud noise, local residents rushed to the spot. According to one passenger Abdul Rafee, a former insurance executive with a bank who was returning home with his family as he had lost his job and who suffered minor injuries, he saw some 20 residents at the security gates nearby.

When “we appealed for help they broke open the gate and rushed in. Soon, there were hundreds of them. They brought in their cars and took the injured passengers to hospitals, not caring about corona, their cars getting dirty or the aircraft exploding. My family was taken to the hospital in a private car,” he told a local daily.

And, then, as the injured were being treated in hospitals, local people lined up to donate blood, leading Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, to praise and thank them for their humanity and compassion. Pictures have surfaced of Kerala police visiting the homes of such locals and saluting them, with social distancing, of course. Much more purposeful than the Delhi police rushing a birthday cake to some rich kid in the Capital during the lockdown. Not that I have anything against the happiness of rich kids.

With daily corona infections reaching new highs and many of our politicians, yoga gurus, etc., touting magic remedies, ranging from papad to gaumutra to some dubious tablets, and torrential rains claiming lives and homes across the country, the cup of woes is overflowing.

But if you are in mood for dark comedy, Union Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal, who had endorsed the magic papad for fighting coronavirus, has himself tested positive for Covid!

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Published on August 10, 2020
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