HARET HREIK, Lebanon: Armed with sand, water and concrete, businesses in Beirut’s southern suburbs are taking security into their own hands by building shields to protect their shops from any explosions.
In places like Bir al-Abed, Ruwaiss and Haret Hreik, neighborhoods where attacks have already left casualties and material damage, jewelry shops, banks and pharmacies are lining their glass facades with sandbags.
Even as fear drives customers away, some shop owners have spent as much as $10,000 to protect their stores with customized barriers made from concrete blocks and industrial-size water tanks, they told The Daily Star.
On a side street in Haret Hreik, Mohammad Rabah looks after his family’s tobacco shop, which is completely hidden behind stacks of plastic tanks filled with water.
“We made up the design. If there was a bomb, the water would absorb the shock. And if they break, it’s better to get sprayed with water than with sand,” Rabah says. His family brought the dozen or so industrial tanks from a factory that uses them to store detergent.
Rabah’s father spent around $3,000 adding protection to the store even though business has fallen 80 percent, Rabah says.
Though the tankers offer protection, there’s little peace of mind for neighborhood residents. “I used to sit outside the shop, but now I’d rather stay inside,” says Rabah, a college student. “We’re all feeling really down.”
The individual security measures parallel similar projects by the municipality and neighborhood security forces. During Friday morning prayers, for example, gates installed over the past month block the side roads surrounding major places of worship like the Martyrs Square in Haret Hreik and the Al-Qaim Mosque. Large public centers like the Bahman Hospital have also set up extensive concrete blocks around their perimeters.
One month ago, Issam Harkous put up one of the most ostentatious barricades in front of his two-floor grocery store specializing in chicken. Stacks of metal-reinforced concrete stand more than 2 meters tall and are covered in the same bright orange advertising as the normal storefront.
Located on the Sayyed Hadi Nasrallah highway, Harkous was near the site in Ruwaiss where an explosion last August killed 30 people and wounded 200.
“Nothing has happened here, but the bombing in Ruwaiss was only two streets away,” Harkous says.
Harkous spent about $13,000 building the customized shield and tiling the building’s glass façade with plastic film to prevent it from shattering. He consulted an engineer to devise safety measures tailored to the shop using concrete blocks weighing a ton each.
Open 20 hours a day and with 40 employees, it is likely someone would be in the shop whenever an attack happens, Harkous says. He echoes other business owners who say the shields are meant to protect the patrons and employees, but not necessarily the structure.
Would these expensive safety measures save lives? Michel Saad, a civil engineer, says he believes they would. “Sandbags were used during the war. It’s very hard for a bullet to penetrate sand,” he adds. He was particularly intrigued by Rabah’s water tankers, which will absorb the sound responsible for breaking glass and causing other damage, he says.
“They are being very creative,” he adds. “But how effective? I don’t know exactly.”
Despite heightened safety, the sandbag fortresses have added to the hostile atmosphere as the southern suburbs brace for another attack. At Harkous, rare customers from outside the area come early in the morning, sometimes in convoys of three or four cars to stock up for themselves and their neighbors, Harkous says. “Business is down 70 percent,” he adds. “We’re paying our employees out of pocket.”
And after installing the concrete barricades, “customers are more afraid than before.”
Aware of the wartime aesthetic, some businesses have chosen to reinforce their buildings more discretely. At a luggage shop in Bir al-Abed, stacks of sandbags blend in with piles of backpacks and suitcases.
The storekeeper, asking not to be identified, says he sees only a few customers a day, and part of that has to do with the safety measures. Bir al-Abed’s local security instructed neighborhood shops to chain up and close parking to anyone but locals, making it nearly impossible for non-local patrons to shop in the neighborhood. “Yes, it affects business,” he says with an air of resignation.
Steps away, Kanj Pharmacy recently installed a large “cabinet,” which is in fact filled with sandbags. Though the hidden protection is meant to shield employees from a blast, its pharmacist said she doesn’t feel any safer: “Not at all.”