“C’est Beyrouth”, or “it’s Beirut,” is a French term used to describe a state of chaos that has hit a place — a reference to the infamous chaos that lasted for more than 15 years in Lebanon’s capital due to the 1975-1990 civil war. Sadly, that term seems extremely accurate for describing Beirut today.
On Tuesday, I was settling down at my desk in my home office on what appeared to be a regular evening in the city. A striped mug filled with hot coffee was sitting next to my laptop as I scrolled through my phone, when I felt my chair move and my desk shake. Then something exploded.
Startled, I moved toward my father’s room to warn him, and saw him standing by the door. A split second later, I flew through the hallway and hit the wall as a second explosion rocked Beirut.
The doors of all three rooms in the hallway blew wide open, bringing in heavy, dusty wind. My mother stormed into the hallway from the living room to take shelter. We all hugged and thought that was it.
And it was not just us. Every person residing in Beirut and its suburbs, even those living by mountains, felt the explosions. One lady residing in Gemmayzeh told me, “It was as if it had happened in our street downstairs.”
We have lived through many wars and unrest in Lebanon over the past 15 years, from the multiple assassinations to the political wars between 2005 and 2008, to the July 2006 war with Israel, to rounds and rounds of civil unrest and local conflicts, to the infamous deadly Tripoli clashes back in 2012.
But nothing prepared us for this. This explosion, which has already claimed at least 100 lives and injured thousands more, shook Lebanon to its core. Lebanon is no longer a country on the edge of collapse; it quite literally collapsed Tuesday, with hundreds of buildings affected, and families displaced and left with no shelter.
My friend who works in an import/export company in the Beirut seaport had been working from home for the day. Another friend had made it to Rabieh, in the mountains some kilometers from Beirut, minutes before the explosion. It could have been them; it could have been me; it could have been anyone.
And that’s the worst thing about life in Lebanon: the unpredictability. When that is combined with an economic collapse — where the local currency has lost nearly 80 percent of its value, and hospitals are lacking medical supplies while facing bed shortage and long electricity cuts — unpredictable becomes unbearable and deadly.
Lebanon was already grappling with an economic crisis with no solutions in sight. Years of mismanagement have led Lebanon to this tipping point, with politicians misusing public funds and using resources to tempt citizens into supporting them in the elections year after year. The coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdown only made the situation more dire, with hyperinflation and unprecedented levels of unemployment and poverty. Despite protests since October, the government has seemed more interested in discussing reforms than actually applying them. A few weeks ago, people reverted to trading goods as a means of shopping for essentials, with prices as much as doubling.
In this context, it almost comes as no surprise that those in power neglected the fact that 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate had apparently been stored in the port of Beirut for years, with no one taking initiative to explain why and how. This is how politics and the economy in Lebanon work.
Lebanon depends on its port in Beirut for importing food and medicine, which are now in short supply. Now, medical workers are forced to make triage decisions on the street, many households do not have electricity, and an entire city is destroyed. How does a country that is already struggling from years of poor governance, and facing an economic and political and health crisis all at once, expect to recover from the wholesale disaster of its capital?
It will take months to rebuild what has been destroyed. In fact, given the pace that any reconstruction project in Lebanon moves at, it might take years. The northern port located in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, might be a temporary option to make up for the economic losses, but what about the souls that we lost? What about the homes and livelihoods and years of work that have been lost as well, maybe forever?
Today, most Lebanese have no faith that this political class or government will bring any sort of justice. To Lebanon, this catastrophe could be a new trigger to revolt, or a new reason to surrender to total helplessness. This time, there is no place in between.
Luna Safwan is an independent journalist based in Lebanon.