August 4, 2020, is another date added to a long list which represents disaster in Lebanon. On this day, nearly 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, carelessly stored by the government in the Port of Beirut for six years, exploded. Almost 200 people were killed, over 6,000 injured, and an estimated 300,000 were displaced.
Lebanon’s timeline is decorated with hardship. The small country, which could fit into Tasmania six times over with room to spare, has been twice conquered: once by the Ottomans and once by the French; endured a 15-year civil war; and faced ongoing conflicts with neighbours, Syria and Israel.
In the last year alone, the people of Lebanon have mourned a failed revolution, drowned in an economic crisis and, like the rest of the world, been victims of COVID-19. The Beirut explosion was another marker on the timeline, amplifying the present suffering.
Woefully, the explosion was due to an incompetent government and corrupt political elites; though, it was the civil society who suffered. The government resigned in the wake of the explosion, leaving Lebanese civilians to carry the weight of rebuilding a dishevelled country. In their time of need, the State was absent.
Marc Ghazali, a Political Science graduate from the American University of Beirut, is now an employee with Legal Agenda, an non-government organisation (NGO) which analyses law and public policy in Lebanon and the Arab region. Since the explosion, Marc has worked with the families of those lost in the explosion and has seen devastation spread across his country. Marc wasn’t in Beirut on August 4 but was sent into shock after a phone call notifying him of the disaster.
“I didn’t really understand the gravity of the situation until I watched footage of the explosion and the damage it caused,” says Marc.
“I was in a state of shock from the time of the explosion until the night after.
“I remember after walking around the city on August 5th , just speechless, my head went into denial mode, like this is all just a dream…that night, after I came back home, the denial started to ware off and then came tears.”
Despite the endless crises and atrocities in Lebanon’s history, its people have always felt a relative sense of safety and security in their country; however, after the explosion, security, like Beirut, was left in ruins.
“This [security] was compromised now with the explosion as people were hurt and some died simply while being in what they thought was the safety of their home,” says Marc.
The little faith there was in the ruling class dissipated as the Lebanese people sunk into endangerment. Consequences come from such peril, one being the exodus of Lebanese citizens, particularly the youth. It must be noted, especially amid an economic crisis, that the disparity in social and economic class means only a small portion of the population have the privileged means to leave.
But, beneath the turmoil there is a resilience sustained by the eternal love affair the Lebanese people have with their homeland. It is a relationship built on a history of construction, destruction, reconstruction, re-destruction: this love will prevail through construction yet again.
This relationship has not always been a healthy one. Lebanese musician and Beirut resident Guy Manoukian told Al Jazeera it is like a “love with no hope”.
“The relationship we have with this country is toxic, but not because of the country,” says Manoukian.
“It’s been run in a very bad way.”
Yazan Halwani, a visual artist from Beirut, echoed Manoukian’s sentiments, saying Lebanese people experience a complex connection with their country: “When you’re here you want to be out; when you are out you want to be here”. Ultimately, many chose to stay, as the longing for home outweighs the actions of the corrupt ruling class.
The current living conditions, or as Halwani puts it “symptoms of the system we live in”, is a uniting force for Lebanese people, transcending religious sects which have often divided the country. We saw this solidity from the Lebanese during the revolution last year, and we will see it again in Lebanon’s rebuild.
“I honestly thought that the explosion was going to fuel rage among the people,” says Marc.
“I thought another round of protests is going to erupt.”
There was no eruption, nor were there acts of hatred. There was sorrow and helplessness, and there was a necessity to pick up the pieces. Finally, there was a commitment to Lebanon, even if there was no commitment to the people in power.
“The youth and civil society are the main drive behind all reconstruction efforts,” says Marc.
“They were already filling the streets on August 5th to clean up their government’s mess and plans to rebuild started almost instantly.
“The youth knew that the government isn’t going to fix this, they knew that if they don’t do it no one will.”
Countless NGOs have stepped up, standing where a government should in a crisis.
“There are the big well-established NGOs that are operating alongside small initiative groups of friends who gathered money through online funding pages,” says Marc.
“Some NGOs are handling the reconstruction from A to Z in certain neighbourhoods; some initiatives only fix doors and windows for example, and some give donations to a few residents directly.”
Even in this chaos, minorities were not forgotten.
“There were also initiatives that targeted people affected form marginalised communities such as the LGBTQ+ community and migrant workers as they face more difficulties in accessing services provided by NGOs,” says Marc.
Reconstructing a city, one with vibrancy and soul like Beirut, is a mammoth endeavour. Right now, normality feels like an ideology, and has not yet emerged on the horizon.
“It feels like people are just surviving, not living,” says Marc.
It is easy to lose the Beirut explosion in amongst 2020’s dense horror; nevertheless, it is crucial we find it again because there is survival. The Lebanese, once again, have come out to put their country back together.