The Beirut Explosion
On August 4th, 2020, Lebanon’s capital was devastated by a massive explosion at the Beirut port. The disaster was caused by the improper storage of hundreds of tonnes of explosive ammonium nitrate, creating a mushroom-shaped cloud shockwave and causing a 3.3 magnitude earthquake.
The explosion’s impact was felt hundreds of miles away from its epicentre and caused approximately $4.6 billion of physical damage. The detonation killed more than 200 individuals and injured approximately 6,000 others.
The blast also left approximately 300,000 individuals homeless. While many citizens found new homes or moved in with relatives, some have been living in empty damaged buildings. As the community banded together to recover in the aftermath, families even welcomed those who needed aid into their homes.
The country’s inability to bounce back from the explosion is rooted in the collected debt caused by the 1975 Lebanese Civil War. Unable to pay back post-civil-war damages, approximating USD $10-15 billion in 1990, the country’s debt had piled up immensely. By 2019, Lebanon became the third most indebted country, with a debt to GDP ratio of 152 percent. According to the World Bank, Lebanon is possibly on the path to reaching the top 3 most severe worldwide financial crises since the 1850s.
That said, the $4.6 billion of debt piled on by the Beirut explosion has overwhelmed Lebanon’s economic state. With no legitimate governmental party, financial hardships continue to intensify. Approximately 77 percent of the country’s population is facing shortages of food, clean water, fuel, and medicine. Electricity has also become a privilege for citizens and refugees in the country, with only two hours a day being afforded to everyone.
The Remaining Debris
Even though a year has passed since the explosion, the situation remains unstable. Urban recovery is stalling, with debris still covering the area. Currently, approximately 25 pick-up trucks are still being filled with debris daily. One of the main problems the slow process poses is the continued health risks associated with the remaining debris. Elie Mansour, a Lebanese engineer, stated “rubble is contaminated with all sorts of … ammonium nitrate and other hazardous substances stored there.” For instance, asbestos was found, which requires protective gear to be properly cleared and dealt with. However, due to Lebanon’s liquidity crisis, alongside COVID-19, the country is unable to manufacture its own cleanup supplies, nor import them.
Political corruption in Lebanon has been widespread for decades, with the inability to form a legitimate government contributing to the situation. Taking cues from this legacy of unaccountability, politicians refused to take responsibility for the Beirut blast. Rival politicians pointed fingers at each other, while the judicial system continues to refuse to hold any state officials accountable. This has led human rights activists to demand an international investigation. After Fadi Sawan, the chief prosecutor who led the first investigation into the blast was removed due to his questioning of three government ministers, Lebanese citizens realized that only the United Nations or an outside agency could provide true aid.
Documents prove that Lebanese officials were warned about the ammonium nitrate in 2014. That said, the courts recently appointed Tarek Bitar to investigate the same ministers as Sawwan, alongside others whom he believes to have known about the stockpile of chemicals in Beirut’s port. As sectarian leaders and officials have immunity in Lebanon, this investigation is difficult to conduct. Bitar, however, has requested to lift this impunity, which leaders in parliament are heavily against.
Lebanon’s designated Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, also resigned this past July, after his failed attempts to form a legitimate government. His resignation followed a meeting with President Michel Aoun, after which he stated that “Aoun demanded some amendments, which he considered essential, and said we will not be able to reach an understanding with each other… And may God save this country.” As the two’s disagreements intensified over the years, and after Hariri’s departure from the Lebanese government, the country has been left in a more severe state of limbo.
A year following the tragic Beirut explosion, families are still coping with the loss of loved ones. They are requesting for the government to “to pay for what they did,” seeking justice for their losses. Many horrific stories have been shared as the community attempts to cope with the blast. 36-year-old survivor Shady Rizk states that every day feels like August 4th, 2020, as the blast still replays in his mind daily. Rizk’s near-death experience resulted in over 350 stitches and partially impaired his vision. For Karlen Hitti-Karam’s husband, brother, and cousin, however, the results were less fortunate. The men, on shift as firefighters, were extinguishing the fire at the port, moments before the explosion. All three were killed in the blast.
From all this pain emerged protests for justice in Lebanon’s capital, on August 4th, 2021, exactly one year since the blast. The stalling investigation has had citizens gathering by the parliament, throwing stones at the building. They were met, however, with tear gas by security forces. The Red Cross has reported approximately 50 injuries.
A memorial service was also held at the port on August 4th, around 6:08 pm, when the blast had occurred. Thousands of Lebanese citizens attended while holding up pictures of the victims, as well as the Lebanese flag. A banner at the port read “Hostages of a Murderous State” to portray how the government’s criminal negligence has been affecting the people.
Portraits of the victims are also being drawn all over the city, with individuals leaving white roses at the works of art. The portraits were drawn side-by-side, spanning over three football fields in downtown Beirut. The work is called “#theymatter” to remember the victims and push the government to take action.
Being one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, it has been very difficult for the country to recover, considering a lack of a legitimate government. With Lebanese citizens facing yet another detrimental incident, they are begging the government to finally take action. It does not seem, however, that the country will be getting a silver lining anytime soon.