The Guardian’s Middle East writers reflect on a week of devastation and anger after a blast that shocked the world
An aerial view of Beirut’s port in the aftermath of the explosion. Photograph: EPA
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
For most of my 15 years in the Middle East, I’ve had a home in Beirut. It’s been a sanctuary to return to from countless trips around the region, a place where the rigours, and sometimes dangers, of Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere could be set aside for a while.
In Lebanon, I could get things done. For all its faults, it’s a can-do place, where resourcefulness has got its people through. And it’s needed to be. Almost nothing works as it’s supposed to here: just getting by requires the spirit of an entrepreneur and a handyman.
Few of the things we would take for granted elsewhere – electricity, clean water, waste disposal, the internet – are a given here. I’ve become proficient at each, just as I have in overlooking the country’s profound flaws. The dysfunction that underwrites Lebanon is part of the pact of living here. But no one could have guessed that it would end up destroying Beirut – literally.
The explosion that thundered through the city on 4 August was clearly not normal. Since the end of the civil war, there had only been a few explosions here – car bombs that assassinated people. But this cataclysmic event was of a different magnitude. Whole streets of buildings were wrecked; the closer to the port, the greater the chaos. I’d experienced explosions in Baghdad, Aleppo, Gaza, Mosul and southern Lebanon, but always during war and never on this scale. What on earth had just happened?
As the dust cleared that fateful night, as the cascading of glass from high-rise towers slowed, the panicked aftermath of the blast turned to cold anger; this had probably been very preventable. It wasn’t a hostile act, but a disaster borne of staggering incompetence and indifference to the welfare of the city’s residents.
Nearly 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, one of the more lethal explosive compounds, had been stored in a shed at the entrance to town for six years. Within days of the blast, we learned that fireworks had been kept in the same shed, and a welder may have started a fire that ignited it all.
The chain of events was unfathomable, as was the sheer scale of the damage. All the places where my formative memories of Beirut took shape were destroyed. Many of the people who helped shape them were wounded, some of them badly. I’ve made a career in the Middle East trying to keep a dispassionate distance from the events I’ve covered and people I’ve met. But that nominal barrier didn’t apply this time. This was personal.
Everything that had blighted Lebanon – the corruption and incompetence of its leaders, the indifference of officials, nepotism, non-state actors, the widespread abuse of power – had come together in an apocalyptic storm that had shocked the world. How on earth could it have been allowed to happen?
More than a week later, a broken city is still wrestling with the aftermath, as it is with the truly existential question of whether a functioning country can emerge from the ruins. Paying for the damage is beyond the capability of a bankrupt state already brought to its knees by three decades of industrial-scale corruption.
International aid will help with the first stages of recovery. Life will go on for the Lebanese who decide to stay, or can’t leave. But what sort of an existence will it be here? If this isn’t the impetus to put the state on a more credible and sovereign footing, could anything succeed in turning things around?
My house is repaired (I was 1.2 miles from the centre of the explosion), as are those of friends and colleagues who were closer to the port. If there is a “normal” left in Lebanon, I’m somewhere near it. But life here is unsettling now, more so than at any point in Lebanese history; this is the moment of reckoning.
Bethan McKernan, Turkey and Middle East correspondent
I moved to Istanbul from Beirut 18 months ago, and I’ve been back a few times since. Every trip it’s been obvious how quickly Lebanon is sinking into intense poverty because of the financial crisis. It’s been sad to watch it unfold from afar. I was actually supposed to be travelling to Beirut for the first time since Covid-19 lockdowns lifted the week of the explosion anyway, and had already braced myself to see a much changed country. I didn’t expect to be frantically making phone calls and sending messages to check on the whereabouts of friends in the aftermath of one of the most powerful explosions ever recorded.
One thing that will stick with me is the sound of broken glass: falling from tower blocks; being swept or bulldozed out of half a city; crunching under your shoes like fresh snow
When you’re flying into Beirut, one of the easiest landmarks to spot from the plane is the port, with its giant grain silos towering over the eastern, Christian side of the city. I used to use it as a marker to figure out where my old apartment was from the air. The night after the explosion, the whole docks area was ablaze with rescue teams’ floodlights, and the hipster-ish neighbourhood of Mar Mikhaël behind it – my old home – lay in total darkness. It was surreal.
It truly is difficult to comprehend the scale of this disaster. A friend showed me the remains of his flat and I couldn’t understand how he was still alive. The first apartment I lived in in Beirut, 900 metres from the port, was blown to smithereens. Luckily, my elderly neighbours were not home at the time.
The speed with which teams of volunteers from all over the country mobilised to help those whose homes were affected is a true testament to the kindness and generosity of ordinary Lebanese people. Their dedication to helping out neighbours and strangers alike stands in stark contrast to the non-existent clean-up effort from the state. More than once I saw groups of police and soldiers standing by, looking on as citizens did all the work.
One thing that will probably stick with me – and all Beirutis – forever is the sound of broken glass, absolutely everywhere, all the time: falling from tower blocks and skyscrapers; being swept or bulldozed out of half a city; crunching under your shoes like fresh snow.
It’s one thing to report in war zones and dangerous places when you’ve made careful calculations about risk and you know what to expect when you arrive. Scenes of devastation akin to Syria or Iraq in a place you considered as home, and as safe, is heartbreaking in a different way. The people of Lebanon deserve so much better.