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11 August 2020

“The only safe place I had is broken”: how Beirut’s blast sparked political fury

Lebanon’s government has resigned in the wake of the explosion, as years of mismanagement have upended lives and homes.

By Lizzie Porter

An explosion brings a whole new meaning to the term “micro-aggression”, I think to myself, as I brush dust off my stripy underwear hanging on the washing rack and hoover shards of glass from my flatmate’s mattress. 

The enormous blast that rocked Beirut just after 6pm on 4 August has led to more than $3bn damage, according to official estimates. It was caused by the detonation of 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, improperly stored in the Lebanese capital’s port with the knowledge of senior officials since 2013. 

The Lebanese government resigned on Monday night, less than a week later, amid fury over its lacklustre response to the catastrophe: in the absence of widescale state clean-up efforts, volunteers and youth groups with brooms have come out to collect the rubble instead.

The government’s departure – with ministers remaining in a caretaker capacity, further limiting their ability to make decisions or get much done – will not speed up repairs to citizen’s lives, however. In streets more than a kilometre from the blast site, every single apartment has been damaged. Family photos, mementoes, furniture and personal belongings have been shaken like broken beads in a rattle. Tight-knit communities have been scattered.

The human losses caused by the explosion are colossal, and the death toll now stands at 220, according to Beirut’s governor, with 6,000 injured.

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For those who survived, even relatively small-scale damages are still a deep blow to dignity, with walls, windows and doors blasted away and intimate spaces left exposed to the world.

Elias Haswany, 22, is a baccalaureate piano student at the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music. When he saw how glass debris had struck the grand piano in his east Beirut family home, he felt it as a personal affront.

“I felt like I didn’t have control over stuff and I felt kind of violated,” said Haswany, who escaped physical injury because he was visiting a friend at the time of the explosion. “Music is my passion – it means a lot to me on a deep personal level. Although I wasn’t injured from the blast, my instrument got injured.” 

A resident of Gemmayze, among the worst-hit districts, described how his sex toy collection was uncovered when friends and volunteers came to help clear up his mangled apartment. “I tried to cover it up, but then once I got caught I just embraced it for a laugh, albeit with a bit of embarrassment,” said the individual, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons.

It’s not that such invasions – small, relative to the loss of life – are life-changing. It’s that they constitute further microaggressions to lives already stressed and strained by years of political dithering, insecurity and absent state services.

For decades, people in Lebanon have lived with daily power cuts, rubbish piling in their streets and glacial internet speed, all because of corruption, political and economic mismanagement and successive governments’ failures to plan for the long term.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic and last week’s blast, the country had been suffering an unprecedented economic collapse: the currency lost 80 per cent of its value against the US dollar, making basic goods unaffordable in the import-reliant country. The financial crisis has caused hundreds of thousands of job losses and bankruptcies as a result of long-term economic mismanagement that policy experts widely blame on the central bank, financial institutions and government policy.

And now state ineptitude is also widely suspected to be behind the blast: leaked documents show senior officials knew about the risks of storing the large ammonium nitrate stocks so close to the city centre, but failed to act to remove them. 

For some, such as Joelle Bassoul, this context means damage to possessions gathered over a lifetime is not just “heart-breaking”, but also symbolic of deeper injustice. “I worked really hard and had a mortgage for ten years in order to be able to own a flat,” said Bassoul, who grew up in Beirut and works for a human rights organisation. She feels let down, for instance, by the authorities’ contributions to clean-up efforts. “Ever since this happened, who has been cleaning? Who has been removing the rubble? Teenagers and young volunteers. This is mind-boggling. I pay several hundred dollars a year in taxes, and for what?”

Where exactly these grievances will lead Lebanon is still uncertain, but increasing instability is a widespread concern. 

Thousands protested in Beirut this weekend demanding that the government resign. It turned violent: a police officer was killed, army soldiers beat up a Human Rights Watch researcher and hundreds were injured as security forces deployed rubber bullets, pellets and tear gas on the crowds.

“Spiralling violence is a concern, of course, because the internal security forces and the Lebanese army are under tremendous pressure: like the rest of the Lebanese, they’ve also seen their incomes decimated completely and now they are under increasing pressure to repress their fellow citizens. Not all of them are happy with that,” said Maha Yayha, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center think tank. “It could go either way: they could become more and more brutal or you could see more and more people giving up.”

The blast has reignited protests that began in October 2019: back then, people were calling for resignations and system reform, as ministers proposed tax rises despite the worsening economy. Now, people are still calling for political change, but some are adding to that demand for executions of the political elite.

Whether authorities will allow an independent international investigation into the disaster remains unclear, although that is what observers and human rights watchers are widely calling for. 

Meanwhile, just as in thousands of other homes across Beirut, my own apartment is being patched up as I write: Syrian workmen have fixed the toilets and others have come to take measurements for new windows, after the previous frames and panes were destroyed in the blast. 

For weeks and months to come, people will still be picking shards of glass from their laundry racks, jewellery boxes and bedside tables. For many Lebanese, these are the tiny wounds that come with perpetual bigger blows.

“It’s not about broken glass or broken windows,” continued Joelle Bassoul. “It’s about knowing that the only safe place you had, the place where you had put your life savings and hard work, is basically broken, and needs to be fixed now.”