Beirut blast a 'knockout punch' after succession of crippling blows to Lebanon

Tuesday's blast in Beirut came as Lebanon was barely limping through an economic and political crisis, writes Nahlah Ayed.

War, negligence, impunity are all part of Lebanon’s recent history

A statue in Beirut's port representing Lebanese expatriates was still intact after the blast on Tuesday, even though the building behind it was severely damaged. (Hussein Malla/The Associated Press)

Within shouting distance of the cratered shoreline that is now the Beirut port, a statue dedicated to the Lebanese diaspora has somehow remained standing despite the force of Tuesday's blast.

The monument was put there back in 2003 to honour and remember the contributions of all those early Lebanese emigrants who left via the port for new lives abroad. The backdrop now is a smashed capital with hundreds of thousands forcibly displaced from their homes ― for whom that port is now a lifeline severed.

For a country and capital repeatedly shaped by conflict, the blow they were dealt on Tuesday was far beyond the grotesquely familiar.

Never in Lebanon's recent memory has loss been so instant and so encompassing. The horrifying blast is believed to have been the detonation of more than 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored and then neglected for years at the port.

A survivor is taken out of the rubble after the massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday. (Hassan Ammar/The Associated Press)

A team of British scientists said the explosion was "unquestionably one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history," about a tenth of the power of the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima.

It was "Lebanon's Chernobyl" said one front-page headline, leaving a "country without a capital," according to another.

That it seems the catastrophe was effectively self-inflicted through official negligence only deepens the agony and the anger.

That it comes on the heels of years of crippling blows makes Tuesday's tragedy — in the uncharacteristically dark words of a good friend in Beirut — a "knockout punch."

'We just can't handle it'

It is a sentiment that echoes from the glass-littered alleys of Beirut's Hamra neighbourhood all the way to the broken balconies of the Ashrafieh district and back to the ravaged, abandoned building of the ministry of economy.

"We just can't handle it," recently installed Minister of Economy Raoul Nehme told CBC radio show As It Happens. "We don't have the means to handle it."

Lately, the blows have been plentiful and unrelenting.

WATCH | Beirut explosion came at a breaking point for the country:

Beirut explosion came at a breaking point for the country

3 years ago
Duration 2:10
After enduring crisis after crisis, it was inevitable the fragile situation in Lebanon was about to blow up, says freelance journalist and Concordia alumna Fatima Dia, who witnessed Tuesday's explosion in Beirut.

Lebanon has been barely limping through an economic and political crisis, which has seen the deep devaluation of the currency, the steep rise in the cost of everything, the increasingly dysfunctional electricity grid and the inability to pay salaries or rent.

The inflation has even hit the army, which has gone vegetarian because it could no longer afford to feed its soldiers meat.

People who actually have money can't withdraw it from the banks. All this in the time of COVID-19 lockdowns, as well as record-breaking heat. Before the pandemic, there was a clampdown on protests over the widespread corruption and dysfunction of government ― or politicians' inability to form a new government at all.

Punch after crippling punch left Lebanon on the brink of failure. And all that in just the past year or so.

A lengthy recovery

Now, the port that received and stored crucial supplies is in ruins just when people need them most, and when Lebanon is at its lowest.

Thousands are injured and the dead are still being counted. The recovery will most certainly take years.

All the elements of this tragedy, outsized as it may be, stem from familiar terrain. For Lebanon, conflict, negligence, corruption and impunity have long claimed the lives and the futures of its people — among the reasons so many have been forced to leave.

People ride their scooters and motorcycles in front of a house that was destroyed in the explosion. (Hussein Malla/The Associated Press)

When the civil war started in 1975, Lebanese left the country in droves to seek safety, stability and a chance at a peaceful life. The end of the civil war in 1990 signalled an opportunity for optimism that Lebanon could be liveable again.

That optimism was short-lived. What progress was achieved steadily unspooled beginning in the early 2000s: the bombs, political assassinations, conflicts both within and without — and a ruling class (which included many former warlords and their cronies) that seemed bent on benefiting itself at the expense of the people, with utter impunity for their acts during and after the war.

What was also problematic was the still-growing number of people with grievances and injustices that have never been addressed.

Tweeting on Tuesday, Lama Fakih, a crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch in Beirut, wrote, "The news about the injured, missing and dead feels like an almost impossible burden to shoulder, but the fear of impunity suffocates. How many victims without justice can our history hold?"

Waiting for justice

It's a constant question. First there were the uncountable civil-war dead, the countless others forcibly disappeared or displaced. Then, there were those killed in a series of assassinations in 2004 and 2005, still unresolved. The dead and injured in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict and the 2008 Beirut clashes, as well as the victims of a renewed bombing campaign as Syria next door was plunged into its own conflict a decade ago.

There were those killed and injured when another devastating explosion near the port shattered windows for kilometres: the 2005 truck bomb that targeted and killed former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Fifteen years later, a rare UN-backed tribunal is set to issue a ruling in his killing. It was initially scheduled for this Friday, but in light of what's happened, the announcement was postponed until later this month.

People in Beirut walk at sunset on Wednesday past a row of buildings damaged by the explosion a day earlier. (Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images)

There is no guarantee the four men tried in absentia ― members of the militant group Hezbollah ― will actually be brought to justice if they're found guilty. Hezbollah denies all involvement and accuses the court of bias. Its supporters agree.

And now, many more Lebanese begin another wait for justice. With dozens still missing from Tuesday's blast, some likely under the rubble, the number of victims continues to grow.

Documents made public so far seem damning, the indication being that repeated warnings about the danger of keeping such a vast amount of ammonium nitrate at the port were ignored and protocols skirted.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab has promised an investigation. Port officials are now under house arrest. However, the many skeptics won't trust an internal investigation ― they want a neutral international body to conduct one.

Will someone be made to pay this time?

Reliant on outside help

In the meantime, Beirut is down. It is a disaster zone in a state of unqualified emergency.  Who lifts it from this knockout punch?

As they have often in the past, other countries are pitching in. Pointedly, some, like Canada, say they're sending cash to "trusted" humanitarian organizations like the Lebanese Red Cross, in what appears to be an oblique acknowledgement of the corruption of would-be "official" aid recipients of the state.

During a visit on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated what many Lebanese have been demanding for years: It is high time for a new political deal for Lebanon. For political and economic reform.

If not, Macron said, "Lebanon will continue sinking."

A woman from the Lebanese community in Paris holds a placard that reads, 'For Beirut we cry' during a vigil on Wednesday in front of Sacre Coeur Basilica in memory of victims of the deadly blast in Beirut. (Michel Euler/The Associated Press)

Perennially resilient, the ordinary people who live in Lebanon have banded together in grief, in solidarity and in unprecedented anger. Ordinary citizens are key to overcoming this outsized setback. Beirut has been brought back from the dead before: after wars, devastating earthquakes and famines.

Part of the current effort will be holding leaders accountable as protesters were angrily attempting to do before COVID shut them down. That rage has only deepened.

In keeping with the country's ease with contradictions, even in the darkest days, there is still a hint of optimism.

"Always, there is light at the end of the tunnel," said Nehme. "It is going to be difficult. It's going to be hard. It's going to be painful ― very painful. But we will succeed."

In its many hours of need, Lebanon has always counted on all the family who left ― "from Lebanon to the world," as the sign on the statue near the port says. They've helped keep the country afloat for years, and through countless setbacks, with support and remittances from abroad.

To the many Canadians with family in Lebanon who feel hopeless watching from afar, Nehme said: "We need your help."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.