Beirut has long been synonymous with the word explosion. The city was the main flashpoint of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, one of the world’s longest. And in the last 15 years alone, it has witnessed a string of assassinations, a days-long civil conflict, a month-long international war, and years of economic and political turmoil.
Throughout these decades, the residents of Beirut tried to show the world that they were more than the sum of their crises. That for millions of Lebanese and hundreds of thousands of refugees living there, home boasted vistas of green hills against an azure blue coastal backdrop. That deep communal bonds were built there, and enterprise and art proliferated on the anxiety-ridden streets. That the city was quintessentially human because of its ability to conquer the deluge of problems that sprung from one of the world’s most tense geopolitical fault-lines.
But as a massive explosion from the country’s main port ripped through Beirut and its outskirts on Tuesday, its people seemed to have finally been rendered powerless.
The blast, which caused damage some 10 kilometers (6 miles) away, was the worst single violent event the city had ever seen. Whole neighborhoods lay in tatters. Hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents were displaced. The streets were covered in shards of glass. People sat on sidewalks outside their destroyed houses, their faces soaked in tears. Screaming Beirutis frantically looked for their loved ones under the rubble. The cries of bloodied babies reverberated in hospital wards full of the wounded. Some of the doctors operated on survivors under the lights of cellphones because of the city’s frequent and long power outages.
In a city that was long a hodgepodge of political, religious and economic differences, the damage spared no one. At least 135 people are dead, with dozens more missing, according to the health minister. More than 4,000 people have been injured.
Beirut’s port – Lebanon’s main lifeline with the outside world – was obliterated and the vast majority of the city’s residents found themselves trapped in a seemingly endless sequence of desperate, apocalyptic scenes. Silence fell over conflict-seasoned inhabitants. The mysterious event prompted speculation, but sorrow seemed to have eclipsed rage.
Responding to a UN representative in Lebanon’s condolences to the public, American University of Beirut associate professor Carmen Geha tweeted: “Thank you, the only condolences we currently accept are ones with the international’s community commitment to justice and aid.”
“We are still counting our dead and pulling bodies from under the rubble,” she added.
Beirut will never again be the same, city residents and analysts said.
“It is a huge psychological moment,” said Karim Makdisi, another associate professor at the American University of Beirut. “I don’t think Beirut will be the same after this. Its lifeline to the world has literally and metaphorically been destroyed.”
“As an individual moment the explosion was unbelievable in its sheer violence and symbolism.”
In a country buckling under one of the worst economic meltdowns in its history, the port of Beirut remained one of the few centers of active commercial activity. Even as the currency tanked and poverty soared, shipments of goods continued to shuttle in.
Lebanon relies heavily on imports to meet its basic needs. The country’s main grain silo was destroyed in the explosion, raising fears of major wheat shortages in the weeks to come.
Authorities are trying to divert shipments to the much smaller port of the northern city of Tripoli, but there are concerns its harbor lacks the capacity to receive large ships.
“Once the grief and shock subsides, either the anger and grief spills into renewed protests and demands that these politicians over the last two or three decades are held to account in a way,” said Makdisi. “The other possibility is submission to the powers that be and a retrenchment of political groupings.”
The most prominent theories about the cataclysmic explosion point to the authorities’ neglect.
Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who has styled himself as an anti-establishment reformer, has promised to hold the culprits accountable, indicating that the exploded warehouse has been in “dangerous” condition for six years. The head of Lebanese customs Badri Daher said he sent six memos to the judiciary warning of dangerous substances being kept at the port.
The military has declared a two-week state of emergency, adding to the deep sense of foreboding as the city’s residents try to rebuild.
The explosion came just hours after health officials sounded alarm bells about Lebanon’s response to a recent surge in Covid-19 cases. On Tuesday morning, the head of the country’s main public hospital treating coronavirus patients announced that his facilities were approaching full capacity.
It was a statement that seemed to foretell the worst case scenario for Lebanon’s healthcare system, already buckling under the weight of the economic catastrophe. Hours after the announcement, the explosion sent thousands of people into Beirut’s hospitals.
One woman who was showered with broken glass was transferred from one healthcare facility to the next, and was repeatedly turned away. Eventually she was admitted to a hospital in a mountain village, where she received 40 stitches.
A US citizen in Beirut told CNN that he visited the St. George Hospital in Beirut – one of two hospitals damaged in the explosion – offering to donate blood. The security guard turned him away. “We don’t need blood, because there is no hospital. We are zero,” the guard said.
Lebanon’s health ministry has said it will set up field hospitals to treat thousands of wounded people, but it’s unclear how it plans to tackle its rising Covid-19 cases in the midst of the devastation.
“Good luck trying to have a lockdown when most people are rebuilding their homes and two hospitals have been destroyed. Who’s going to be doing PCR?” said Makdisi, referring to Covid-19 tests.
“It’s like coronavirus has disappeared, but it has not disappeared. It’s like the financial crisis has disappeared, but it has not disappeared,” Makdisi said. “How do you put these crises on top of each other and try to protest?”
“People have a sense of loss and helplessness, and everyone wants to leave and get out of the country. They’ve given up on it.”
Still, some protesters are defiant, believing that renewed protests could once again chart a new political future.
And many are already seething.
“Today, we grieve and help. Tomorrow, we bury our dead,” wrote activist and stand-up comedian Shaden Fakih on her Facebook page on Tuesday. “Later, we erect the gallows.”