Our Beirut correspondent relives August’s fateful port blast and its harrowing aftermath – and hails the fellowship of the Lebanese.
A deafening boom hit my left ear like a sucker punch. My vision flashed white. Instinctively I turned to the wall and was hurled into the corner as chunks of flying wood and shards of glass the size of my head flew across the room. As the dust began to settle, I pulled myself up, climbing out from under the laundry rack that had landed on top of me; luckily I had been spared the sharp metal rods sticking out from its crumpled frame. My flatmate and I yelled back and forth across our shattered apartment, trying to reach each other over the ragged piles of rubble.
We limped down the stairs to the alley outside our front gate, shouting for our neighbours. Nawal and Josephine, sisters in their seventies, were dusty and trembling but physically intact. Leila, my downstairs neighbour, was sitting in her flat, staring at the void that was once her entrance hall. Blood was flowing from the side of her head. She didn’t respond, her eyes unfocused and empty. Friends started to run up and down the maze of staircases that make up our neighbourhood. We assembled our first-aid kits. Several of us had been trained in emergency field medicine; we never imagined we’d be using it in our own homes.
The glass-scattered street swelled with injured, panicked people as they emerged, shell-shocked, from their houses. Someone pointed at me and told me I was bleeding. I looked down and saw my lower leg caked in blood; I hadn’t noticed the deep, 7cm-long gash on my foot. Within minutes my phone flooded with messages and began to ring: a call from my best friend in London. “I’m OK, tell everyone I’m OK,” I replied. “But I can’t talk; I need to keep it together.” Slowly we began to learn what had happened: a massive explosion at the port.
Across the country, food campaigner Kamal Mouzawak received a call from his partner Rabih Kayrouz. “Don’t come,” he was told. “Everything is destroyed. It’s all gone.” But he made the hour-long journey from Douma to his Tawlet restaurant, a block from my house, in 30 minutes. Kayrouz had been taken to hospital in western Beirut. So Mouzawak found a motorbike to cross the city, picking his way through the pieces of buildings that now filled the streets. Kayrouz was bleeding badly and needed stitches. But he was alive. Over the next few weeks, people like Mouzawak and Brant Stewart from Mavia bakery would use what was left of their kitchens to cook meals for displaced Beirutis every day. Leveraging international contacts, they raised enough money to rebuild as soon as it is safe.
Wary of taking the place of someone who needed care far more urgently, I hadn’t even tried to go to hospital. I knew that doctors all over eastern Beirut had been doing what they could with the little equipment they had recovered from the shattered state-of-the-art buildings that they were forced to evacuate. In the early hours, a friend heard about a medical centre in the mountains that had treated many of the hundreds of wounded who fled there from the city. When we arrived, the exhausted doctors and nurses apologised. They were sorry that their scrubs and the bedsheets were covered in blood; there was nothing clean left. They were sorry that they didn’t have the right antibiotics or the tetanus shot to give me after they stitched up my feet; there were no supplies left. They were sorry that they couldn’t retrieve most of the glass shards embedded in my soles and toes; they were too deep and would have to grow out on their own. All I could think about was how these young men and women had seen and touched more horror in 12 hours than anyone should in a lifetime. Back on the refuge of a neighbour’s sofa, I didn’t sleep. How could I? There was so much to do; so many friends and colleagues still unaccounted for.
As dawn broke, Naila Saba, astride a motorbike, was navigating the blocks of concrete and crumpled metal shutters that formed an obstacle course through Beirut’s popular nightlife strip. She’d spent the previous night arranging care for Niamh Fleming-Farrell, with whom she co-owns Aaliya’s Books in Gemmayze. At the bookshop, it was worse than she could have imagined. The bookcases had collapsed across the room, leaving their collection of English and Arabic literature scattered across the glass-strewn floor. The hand-painted desk where Niamh sat every day lay in splintered chunks across the tiles.
The adjoining café’s devoted regulars soon began to arrive, each swiftly served a steeling shot of whiskey that was salvaged from behind the bar, as they processed the destruction of their home away from home. They worked together to sift through the rubble. “A lot of people just wanted to be told to do something; they were lost,” said Saba. “So for an hour, they weren’t thinking about the mess that was their house. Because where do you start the day after a massive trauma?”
I fought hard to get access to the blast site, suspicious of attempts to block journalists from inspecting it. Now I almost wished that I hadn’t. Swirling brown ash sat heavy in the air; debris settling on your skin; toxins filling your lungs with every breath among more than a mile of twisted, smoking metal. I sank with every step into mountains of wasted wheat and corn pouring from the shattered silos. The silence was broken by pneumatic drills wrestled by exhausted rescue workers fighting to reach those buried, while I wondered how long a human can survive in an air pocket. “Seventy-five hours at a push,” said one rescuer. It had already been 60 hours at this stage. At the port gate, families begged for news of their brothers, husbands, sons.
Back in Gemmayze, Nada Debs was surveying the entrance to her design studio. She has decided to keep the building’s shattered mirrored walls as a memorial. A clock still shows 18.08; many across the city stopped after being hit by the pressure of the second explosion. The mood here had changed from despair to determination. Thousands of young volunteers were brandishing brooms and spades, helping businesses to salvage what they could. “Where else would we be?” a 20-year-old student asked. “Lebanon needs us. It’s not like the government is going to help.”
I tried to push my way through to Martyrs’ Square, where since Saturday protesters had been unleashing their pent-up agony and attempting to breach the steel walls near parliament. I was cornered by commandos in riot gear, brandishing rifles and trying to keep out the protesters. We tried to run from the security forces, struggling to see or breathe as they fired canisters of tear gas. “If 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate didn’t kill us, tear gas can’t,” said Noor, a young protester, her hands trembling. “What choice do we have? Leave the country to them? Never.” Then, for a moment, it seemed that the protesters had won. Just after dusk, prime minister Hassan Diab’s government resigned. But there are no winners in a system that’s engineered only for the powerful and connected.
“I’m going to disappoint people but right now I don’t have it in me [to rebuild],” Rania Naufal told me. She’d spent 11 years perfecting her bookshop, Papercup. “We built a business – having drinks, dinner and fun – on a bomb. So what would we be rebuilding on? It’s still the same system.”
We no longer greet each other with three kisses but with a choked, “I’m so glad you’re alive.” Parts of the neighbourhood are trying to come back to life. Seeing the lights on and chatter pouring out of one shopfront on the devastated street brings me hope. Nino Aramouni has reopened Dragonfly in its vaulted-stone bunker, the cocktail bar’s aged arches having withstood the worst. He says that people need a place to gather and talk.
But the wounds are deep. This morning my largest scar opened again after my stitches came out. Back at the emergency room it became clear that in the chaotic early hours after the explosion, the heroic medics who sewed me back together had missed the carnage that the flying glass had wrought to my foot. Two tendons had been severed. I thought back to my visit to one of Beirut’s biggest hospitals a few days earlier, meeting patients who would never walk or see, or use their brains properly again. How many thousands of families will have to hear, in the coming weeks, of the brutal ways in which those few seconds have changed their lives forever?
The surgery today went well and my reattached tendons should allow me to walk normally again. That won’t be for several weeks. But when I do climb the stairs to my little Lebanese balcony and regale my neighbours with the adventures I’ve had, the homecoming will be all the sweeter.
“We are staying.” The sign hangs from every other home and business in the ravaged square mile around the port. It’s what I say when friends call to ask me if I’m coming home. But this is my home. The haphazard boulevard of Mar Mikhael might host some of Beirut’s chicest bars but the alleys that burrow through the surrounding area are filled with a tight-knit, low-income community that has lived here for decades. They welcomed me in with their invasive questions and aggressive cheek-pinching and burning hot coffee and made me one of their own.
Many, Lebanese and foreign, have boarded planes in recent days but others are determined to help with the rebuild. Tala Hajjar, who runs an incubator for fashion brands, has worked with her husband’s fabric company Skaff to provide material to cover destroyed windows. Some are still torn: Rana Salam, whose lifelong dream of her own design studio lies in pieces around the corner, says that her mind tells her to flee and rebuild somewhere more secure, while her heart begs her to stay. Many local business owners are doing what they can to regenerate the area as quickly as possible.
Beirut will rise again because that’s what it does. The Lebanese people will rebuild because that’s who they are. But how much suffering must a people take before they can hope for a life lived without holding their breath, waiting for the next disaster. Salemtik, li Beirut. I’m sorry. I love you. I wish I could take the pain away.
It took less than 48 hours for Emmanuel Macron to fly into Beirut. The French president went to the site of the port explosion and walked around the Gemmayze neighbourhood. He spoke to victims’ families, who were exasperated by their corrupt regime. He listened to their demands for a “regime change”. No Lebanese state officials had shown up to talk to the grieving bystanders.
Later, Macron met with the Lebanese president, ministers and members of various other political factions, including Hezbollah. The meeting took place at the French ambassador’s residence, which was the home of the French high commissioner during the French mandate for Syria and present-day Lebanon, from 1920 to 1941. Macron handed them all a to-do list: an international investigation into the accident was needed; a new government had to be formed in order to initiate drastic reforms, without which there would be no international economic assistance. Humanitarian aid would go to the victims directly, through ngos rather than official Lebanese channels.
Is it appropriate for the head of state of a former colonial power to be so explicit in what he expects from the ruling elites of a sovereign country? In reality, everybody understands what is happening: Lebanon is drowning and France is trying to throw it a lifejacket. The explosion happened in a dramatic context for Lebanon. Its economy had collapsed and the Lebanese have been out in the streets since October 2019, protesting the system of power-sharing between the same old corrupt political families. Then add the pandemic to the list of challenges.
So can France deliver? The ailments at the root of the Lebanese predicament are unlikely to be cured without changing the outdated model of confessional governance that has been in place since the end of the civil war in 1989. This needs to be built by the Lebanese themselves.
What Paris can do is facilitate a national dialogue; it holds some leverage because the global donors’ community has not challenged France’s primacy in the international efforts. France could offer a platform for dialogue between the Lebanese political class and civil society. Among external powers, only the French could lead such a move but they should involve other partners, notably the EU. It could bring together representatives of the traditional parties and civil society, meeting alternately in Beirut and in European capitals. If this space for dialogue is not created – alongside an economic package that is conditioned by key reforms – the people of Lebanon will lose all hope and more young Lebanese will continue to flee abroad.