Tuesday was going to be a long busy day. I had decided to do all my banking business as well as all my errands to be free to go on more road trips for the rest of the week. My day started shortly before 6 am and things were going well. I usually drive by the port area heading to the gym every Tuesday and Thursday on my way out of the office, which is around 6 pm. Since I wasn't going to the office on this day, I called my trainer and agreed to move my session to an earlier time. What a lucky thought! Because I was back home much earlier than anticipated, I was toying with the idea of driving back to Beirut and passing by the office for a couple of hours. I sat for a minute in the living, thinking whether I should just take the hammock out and read some book or take care of my flowers and plants in the garden. The sun was still blazing hot outside and I was daydreaming of maybe heading to the beach the next day. Suddenly, I thought I heard a plane. Annoyed that my calm time had been disrupted, I faced the large window panes to try and make out whether it was the Lebanese Army, the US Embassy, or something else. Shortly after, a first stomp was loud and clear. My reflex was to jump away from the windowpane, rush to the terrace glass door, and open it. And it was the right move! That's when the second blast went off and the whole house shook. I stood stunned for a couple of seconds and dashed out to look. The big colorful cloud was scary... I hurried and started calling my siblings to make sure everyone was safe. Next, I reached out to my boss, since our offices are around 5 km away from the port area. And then closest friends. Luckily, my loved ones were all more or less safe. Some injuries but nothing deadly. My mind was racing. What had just happened??
Art cover by artist David Garibaldi
It's been 11 days... 11 long days and nights since the horrible and surreal Beirut explosions that occurred on August 4, 2020. I had been feeling numb. Somehow devoid of emotions. Physically and mentally exhausted. From lack of sleep and too much thinking. I had taken that first week in August off of work to wander across the country and rest my mind from all the worries. I started my Monday with a last-minute decision to take on a trip to the North with a friend. We watched a beautiful sunset while listening to some music and waited until it was pitch dark to observe the full moon in the dark skies and amidst the constellations that were very clearly visible, while below our feet, the clouds had simply covered and veiled the Valley of Qadisha and the village of Becharri. I had been lost in my thoughts and was really grateful for nature's beauty and reflected on how little we deserved it and how much it gave me inner peace when I just paused and listened to my senses. Little did I know that this peace would be very soon torn down...
In the age of social media and fast/easy access to information, it was a couple of minutes only until videos and pictures surfaced and were being shared online. Weirdly, we had been facing severe power shortcuts in recent weeks and the electricity was still on after the explosions. Mobile lines were also still operational. And this was different from any other explosion that had occurred in Lebanon previously. I was relieved to be able to reach out to my closest circle. Friends and family living on different continents were calling to make sure we were ok. I tried to remain as rational as possible to understand what had taken place. Every person had their story. It was fortuitous that the explosions had erupted at a time when most people had already left their work and that Covid precautionary measures were recommended to avoid crowds and public places in general. Was it a retaliation act from Israel? Was it fireworks as our officials claimed? What could have possibly flamed up and set off this way? In the next hours, and over the next week, several theories saw the light.
Our government was quick to deny an Israeli attack. This is somehow strange, especially when Hezbollah confirms it. Then we had the municipality of Tel Aviv displaying the Lebanese flag as a humanitarian gesture to join the world in supporting the Lebanese people. Our authorities did promise a clarification within 5 days but, to date, we still do not know exactly what had happened. Some believe the improper storage of the 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate decomposed from their initial state and hence, the fire that had erupted nearby caused the explosions. Others claim they saw a missile hit the area before the big boom detonated. What is sure is that ammonium nitrate does not burn on its own. So far, videos have shown an enormous fire, and it did not involve fireworks, footage revealing what sounded and looked like ammunition being burned. The reddish-colored cloud points at the ammonium nitrate presence. Then again, we don't really know whether other chemicals and/or weapons burst out at that moment too. Additionally, that mushroom-like cloud remains a mystery. Many compared the explosions to the ones in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for the first couple of days, people feared that the explosions had been nuclear or due to a biological/tactical weapon, especially that damages reached a large radius within which most glass panels, windows, doors were shattered. Concrete walls crumbled. Houses were leveled. Families found themselves with no roof over their heads, and if it were not for the wheat silos that were completely blown up by the blast and stood as a shield between that port area and the city of Beirut, damages would have reached a much wider range. Some people implied that a large quantity of the ammonium nitrate had already been smuggled out of the port and only a mere 200 to 300 tons were set off, or else the entire city would have been turned into ashes. Read How powerful was the Beirut blast? for more info. Another article that I found to be interesting, as it tackles the scientific perspective on the explosions and the huge blasts that wiped a large part of the city: what does fluid dynamics tell us about the Beirut explosion?
It wasn't until Thursday, August 6, when I decided to join the volunteers in cleaning up the neighborhoods close to the port area, that I realized the real magnitude of the destruction. Seeing the old buildings torn down, the more modern ones with no glass nor frames standing, their upscale furniture reduced to cinders felt like a hard punch in my stomach. I observed neighborhoods that were once hip and lively barely standing, ravaged, and in ruins. I was at a loss of words. Not even able to take pictures as I usually love doing when strolling around Ashrafieh. I gather hereafter some pictures. Only the one with the flag through the cracked wall was taken by me, while the others are from the Internet. These shots exhibit the ugliness and cruelty of the carnage, as well as the beauty of people of different neighborhoods, and different communities, coming together hand in hand to assist each other, while the Lebanese authorities remained abnormally silent, away, and absent. In these moments, it really felt good and proud to be a Lebanese, which I had never doubted before, but sometimes nagged about. Our main issue was hence never the people who coexisted and supported each other in times of need, filling the void of a system corrupted to its bones...
And that's why after a long hiatus of not taking part in the street protests, actually since December 2019, I geared up and joined friends in the riots in Martyrs' Square on Saturday, August 8 (pictures at the end, all except the first one, were captured by me). We were not easily deterred by the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against us. The people were deeply angry: all their suffering had not compelled the "public servants" to address the devastating event openly, to assist the Lebanese in times of dire need, or to admit they had failed and resign. Their level of insolence was stunning, notably because they kept denying their accountability and didn't want to take responsibility for the tragedy that had hit the people. Yes, we had been devising on many occasions that the times of these corrupt "elites" were done and that change was bound to come and things would then be better. Yet, this establishment did not bulge. Or at least not very much. Moreover, those crooks are so attached to the power positions that the disconnection is simply blatant. Something had to break. And fast. It is no coincidence that French President, Emmanuel Macron, visited Lebanon quite rapidly, less than 48 hours after the explosions rocked the city. After all, there are major matters at stake, such as the probability of oil and gas reserves in the Lebanese territorial waters. It is also no big surprise that Israel and the UAE agreed to normalize their relations. It really seems like a "new Middle East" is in the making. It will have no place for a Lebanon ruled by armed factions or their thugs. A new game is being set and played, and new actors will fall and replace pawns. I do hope reshuffling the regional cards will allow Lebanon to be a neutral participant and that we are finally granted peace.