Photojournalist Achilleas Zavallis travels to Lebanon and finds a country struggling with the effects of economic decline and mismanagement. Inflation is out of control, destroying the spending power of all but a wealthy minority
Lebanon has long been a country that somehow held it together. Through war, insurrection, chaos and intervention, it always prevailed. It remains a country of contrasting realities, but it is steadily becoming a place where dreams died. Beirut long ago lost its claim to be the Levantine equivalent of Paris. Its vibrant nightlife has been dulled by an economic implosion, its skyline disappears into darkness as we drive to my hotel at night.
With the power grid functioning only two to four hours a day, there are no traffic lights to guide us. Buildings seem empty, or abandoned. Car headlights illuminate a couple walking along an empty street. The centrepiece of the city’s shopping and nightlife, Hamra Street, is deserted.
The Lebanese economy is in freefall, plunging much of the country’s population into poverty. They are railing against a dysfunctional government.
Chronic mismanagement by consecutive governments, complex patronage systems that formed after the end of the civil war and so-called creative engineering on behalf of the Lebanese Central Bank resulting in what many call “a government-run Ponzi scheme” are at the heart of the implosion.
With negotiations on the terms of an IMF rescue failing, the Lebanese pound, which was once pegged to the dollar, has lost 80% of its value.
Hyperinflation has destroyed the spending power of all but a wealthy minority. Ali al Hassan, a retired junior army officer, found his monthly pension of $700 had plunged in value to little more than $100. Bread prices have increased by a third and meat is off the menu even for the Lebanese armed forces, who can no longer afford it.
Ali is one of thousands who saw their income disintegrate over the past few months and came to Martyrs’ Square demonstrating against a proposal by the government to introduce an added tax on whatever was left from his pension.
During the day the square turns into a car park. But in the afternoons it is packed with protesters of all ages, who blame the government and banks. A block away, a woman walks with her son through the empty corridors of a once busy luxury mall in central Beirut. Shops and banks have reinforced their windows with metal security bars.
Heading towards the national theatre where we are meeting its director, Nidal Achkar, I can’t stop thinking about 3 July. That day was marked by two suicides: one man shot himself in one of the busiest streets of Hamra, on the pavement outside the entrance to the theatre. Another hanged himself near the southern city of Sidon. Both deaths were linked to the economic collapse.
“When the war finished … people didn’t sit around a table and ask themselves questions,” said Achkar. “Money, power and religion, they have worked together for hundreds of years. If one falls, the other will pick them up. It’s a world built on sectarianism and family traditions, not ideas that look to the future, but those that tie them to the past.” I ask her to look in a mirror so I can take a portrait of her.
In the gathering dark, a generator man who sells additional power to homes darkened by city power cuts is struggling to make ends meet. “People can’t afford to pay,” he says. “One third of the 1,200 households I provide electricity to haven’t paid for the past two months.
“I can’t cut them off but I must also get paid. It’s a back and forth. I cut the power for 15-20 minutes as a reminder. They come and pay what they can. Last month I ended up putting $12m of my own money in order to buy spare parts for one of my generators. This month I am looking at a $20m loss. Something needs to change because this cannot continue.”