THE people of Beirut rose on Wednesday morning to survey the devastation around them. They picked their way through the endless streams of shattered glass, salvaging their belongings amid the crystalline rubble. They searched for their missing relatives, looking on anxiously as teams carefully scoured the debris in search of survivors. They mourned the loss of at least 100 people who were killed in Tuesday night’s explosion. At overcrowded hospitals, they sought the attention of health workers, who had not stopped working since patients began arriving the night before, to treat their wounds. In the streets, they beheld the destruction of their beloved city, which had endured 15 years of civil war, invasions of foreign armies, and a string of assassinations, but now seems as if it cannot take any more.
The first explosion resembled the sound a jet fighter might make as it pierces the sound barrier at immense speed, releasing a loud shriek before a thunderous wind rattled windows and caused entire buildings to tremble. Thirty seconds later came the second, even louder explosion. Every window around me smashed, every door came off its hinge, every loose piece of furniture was dispatched to the furthest end of the room it was in. It was the loudest explosion I had ever heard, far louder than any bombing I had ever reported on in Islamabad, Peshawar, Karachi or Lahore. If there had been a jet, it felt as if it made the building its target.
Every Beiruti now wants to know why such a lethal stockpile was deposited there in the first place
Outside, neighbours nervously stepped out of their apartments. Some emerged startled, unable to make sense of what had just happened. Others appeared bearing wounds, with blood pouring down their heads, arms and legs. There were cries for help, people calling on others to see if they were okay or to beckon someone to help them out of the building and to a hospital. The streets that had registered mere only the faintest murmurs during the recent Covid-19 lockdown erupted into a noisy panic as official ambulances roared past and people began gathering the wounded to pile them into private cars to make their own desperate journeys. United in their tragedy, they forged new bonds among the wounded.
Amid the panic, speculation flared. No one still knew the true source of the explosion. Many wondered if there indeed had been a fighter jet tearing through the sky, perhaps an Israeli assault avenging an attack by Hezbollah. Others seized on messages that said the epicentre was close to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s office, fearing that the younger man may have become victim to the same fate his father had when a vast truck exploded in downtown Beirut on Valentine’s Day in 2005, assassinating Rafiq Hariri and more than 20 others, in a yet to be punished crime that touched off years of upheaval.
The astonishing videos from the scene, which spread like wildfire across social media, revealed that the port had been the epicentre. The images captured by people from nearby streets and rooftops showed a plume of grey smoke rising before one explosion went off, and then 30 seconds later, the second, of a magnitude so powerful that it invited comparisons with a nuclear explosion. The explosions themselves were heard as far away as Cyprus. As unusual red clouds gathered overhead, entire buildings under it disappeared. The official death tally stands around 100, but no one knows how many people around the port area may have instantly lost their lives and are unaccounted for.
If the centre of the explosion had been further inland, the death toll would have been forbiddingly higher – perhaps much higher. One of the few mercies of Tuesday’s horror is that the apparently 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was parked by the port and not somewhere in the centre of the city. What every Beiruti now wants to know is why such a lethal stockpile – far larger than those used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people – was deposited there in the first place? How long had it been there? Who was responsible for placing it there? Why did it combust now? And, most crucially, who will be held accountable for this unspeakable crime that has devastated more of their city than years of war managed to?
There is perhaps some relief to be found in the fact that it wasn’t an act of war, or yet another assassination. But the consoling thought gives way to the realization that this is a tragedy visited upon the Lebanese people by their feckless, corrupt and criminally incompetent elite. Last October, thousands poured out on to the streets of Beirut, Tripoli, Baalbek, Tyre and elsewhere to demand the removal of the political class that has held their survival hostage – enriching themselves while denying people their basic rights.
The revolution was thwarted by the arrival of the pandemic, but the pain lasted. In recent weeks, the Lebanese pound has lost three quarters of its value, wiping away decades of people’s life savings. The ensuing crisis has starved the country of electricity, with up to 15 hours of shortages plunging the country into darkness – including the hospitals that were treating Covid-19 patients and Tuesday’s victims. Starved of food, some resorted to theft, reportedly apologising to shop and homeowners for their desperate act. The Lebanese people are famed for overcoming the odds set against them, but no people should ever have to face such odds.
In this moment, the Lebanese people have begun to fend for each other instead of looking to the state to deliver on the obligations it has long defaulted upon. There are countless acts of kindness that have taken place since the explosion. Little wonder that Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was exiled here in the 1980s, called the city an “Ornament to the World”. But what the people of Lebanon need now is international assistance, not just from the world’s wealthiest countries, but also those like Pakistan, which have faced similar tribulations.
Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2020