Day 6·Q&A

How the Beirut explosion has twisted the future of a country already in crisis

As frantic tweets and videos began streaming out of Beirut earlier this week, Sarah Aoun's concern immediately went to her family and friends still living there.

'I feel completely broken. And I'm not there,' says Aoun, who is from Beirut but lives in Brooklyn

A rescue team surveys the site of this week's massive explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon on Aug. 7. (Thibault Camus/Associated Press)

As frantic tweets and videos began streaming out of Beirut earlier this week, Sarah Aoun's concern immediately went to her family and friends still living there.

It quickly became clear that disaster had struck, in the form of a massive explosion at the city's port that killed nearly 150 people and wounded thousands more.

"For the rest of the day, I essentially stayed glued to my phone and my laptop, just sitting in the exact same position that I had been," Aoun, a technology-focused human rights activist, told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

Aoun, a Beirut native who lives in Brooklyn, says the explosion and resulting aftermath have further rocked the city already dealing with months of civil unrest, economic collapse and government corruption.

Here is part of their conversation.

Beirut is your home. Your family is there. One of the first videos you posted was of your aunt's house in Beirut. Can you describe it?

My mother sent me videos of her sister's house and my aunt's house that had been completely hit and destroyed by the blast. It's a house in which I've spent a lot of time growing up as a kid.

And just seeing these rooms that are so familiar that I've obviously spent like years of my life in, in the state that they were today was really difficult to see and to process.

I'm really sorry that your family members were among the thousands of people who were injured. How are they coping four days after the explosion?

People are going through all stages of grief, if you want to call it that. I mean, it's going through the shock and anger and the hopelessness and the confusion. There [are] so many different feelings intertwined in a moment like this… So it's been a lot of ups and downs of emotions, of people trying to process what happened.

It would've been one thing if Lebanon had been attacked. But it's a whole other level when the explosion happened just because of gross negligence and incompetence of the government.

Protests have erupted in Beirut, and security forces have fired tear gas at those who are protesting. People are very, very angry. Is that what you expected when you found out about the blast?

Honestly, a mix of that, and people just being tired.

I don't know if you've ever protested nonstop for weeks on end, but it's incredibly tiring. And so, so hard to go through. So in some ways, I just expected people to be so done and tired with this and just want to sit at home, or just leave or escape or not really have the energy to put in protest anymore. And that's completely understandable.

And then in other ways, you know, people don't have anything left to lose. Like, truly, truly, they don't have anything left to lose.

It had been months of economic collapse, and the complete collapse of the middle class in Lebanon, and people not being able to afford basic goods. So there was already very little to lose at that moment.

When you get to a point where truly your life does not matter, or at least it's being treated as such by the government … and you've lost your home and you've lost your possessions and you're displaced, I am not surprised that at that point, like, the only space that still exists for people is the streets and to take the streets back because there's really nothing to lose at this point.

Do you expect now that protests will — even in the face of the hopelessness — that protests will resume or that they'll become more pointed?

I'm honestly not sure. I was there in October at the beginning of the revolution. And there was so much energy and so much hope. And that's really what fuelled us.

But to imagine the state of my people today and the folks on the ground and the level of hopelessness and despair, I know that if I was there, I would feel completely broken right now. I mean, I feel completely broken. And I'm not there.

I think it will be a mix on the ground, of some folks really incredibly tired and hopeless and just wanting to get out. And then others [will be] re-energized, mostly because they have nothing to lose.

Canada's aid to Lebanon apparently is going to bypass the government because they want to avoid any corrupt use of funds that could be sent. And [France's President] Macron has said something similar.

Do you think that the disaster could be the catalyst that brings political reform, or do you think that that's too much to ask?

I mean, I hope so, because to tell you the truth, if this disaster is not the one that will bring about political reform and change in Lebanon, nothing will.

The folks that are in their governmental seats right now are the same people that were in power during the civil war in Lebanon. So they've been ruling us for decades at this point. And if it's not them, it's their nephews or their cousins or their uncles or basically some extended family member…. And people have demanded their resignation for decades.

I mean, COVID didn't manage to get them out of there. So this hopefully is the catalyst and a moment that will get actual change in government.

Sarah, I'm glad you're safe. I'm very sorry that your family members have lost so much. But apparently they've all survived the blast, as far as you know. Do you wish that you were there? You wish you were in Beirut now?

There is a particular type of pain in watching this unfold from afar and not being there, especially if you've grown up in Lebanon and your family is there and your friends are there.

So to witness this and see it unfold from far is incredibly difficult and a different type of pain.

I already have some friends that have sent me screenshots of their [plane] tickets that they bought very impulsively in the past day or two to get back to Lebanon. [I've been] fighting every bone in my body not to do the same.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Pedro Sanchez. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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