The tragedy unites an indignant population with its political class. Several port officials, under house arrest for the duration of the investigation. The government promises to punish the “negligent”.
Once again, it was the young Lebanese who took to the streets of Beirut this Wednesday waving the national flag, but unlike other days, they did not carry protest banners, but shovels and brooms. They walked silently and perplexed, focused on helping in the rescue and clean-up work, among the tons of debris left by the devastating explosion that shook the port of the capital the previous afternoon and caused at least 135 deaths and 5,000 injuries.
Everything is hyperbole in a country that is going through its worst crisis in half a century, registers the highest number of daily infections since the beginning of the pandemic and is reeling, for the umpteenth time, from its foundations. A rarefied atmosphere has taken over the city, still smoking.
The Lebanese President, Michel Aoun, has assured that those responsible for the tragedy, whom he called “negligent”, will be punished in the “most severe way”. The authorities have already ordered several officials from the Beirut Port Authority to be placed under house arrest. The Minister of the Interior, Mohamed Fahmy, has explained that this measure will be limited for the moment to people who held high positions in the port.
Rescue personnel and volunteer citizens searched the rubble for survivors. Young people from other cities in the country, such as Sunni Sidon, travelled by bus to help out in the rescue efforts. Dozens of people are still missing.
“It is outrageous that the greed of a handful of corrupt and greedy politicians has led us to this,” protested Albert Sehnaoui, a 23-year-old university student, with open arms as if embracing the war scene that surrounded him.
He was among gutted buildings and blown up cars, in the Christian neighbourhood of Gemeize, a few hundred meters from the epicentre of the explosion. It holds the ruling political class responsible for what happened for the carelessness with which it manages the country and its infrastructures, including the deposit of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored without security measures next to another that contained fireworks.
That was the cause of the explosion, according to the Lebanese government, which has promised that those responsible will pay for it. “We are determined to move forward with the investigations to expose the circumstances of what happened as soon as possible, to hold those responsible and the negligent to account and punish them with the most severe punishment,” Aoun said. Several groups of protesters, angry after what happened, have attacked the Executive in downtown Beirut on Wednesday.
A few minutes after six in the afternoon on Tuesday – an hour less in mainland Spain – buildings, businesses and homes located within a radius of several kilometres from the port were shaken by a powerful expansive wave. The neighbours were propelled for a few seconds in the air too, depending on the proximity to the epicentre, fall to the ground or under the walls and glass that collapsed on them.
A deafening explosion followed what everyone thought was an earthquake onset, as the rumble was heard in Cyprus – more than 200 kilometres away – and the magnitude was recorded by the Jordan Seismic Observatory as equivalent to 4.5 on the Richter scale.
The initial commotion was followed by chaos between screams and smoke, bloody wounded and the deployment of ambulances and the military. Passers-by searched with their mobile flashlights for any human trace among the overturned cars on the highway, the houses gutted like dollhouses, sidewalks full of glass and shops without doors.
Three days of national mourning have been declared and a state of emergency has been decreed for two weeks. Many Lebanese took pains to sweep the carpet of glass that covers a third of the city, where 300,000 people have had to leave their homes (2.2 million people reside in the greater metropolitan area) and material damage is estimated in thousands. million euros, according to Beirut Governor Maruan Abboud.
The investigation opened by the government raises scepticism among Gemeize residents. “It will be like all the investigations that are opened and then throw dirt over it because there is always one of those from above involved,” said an irritated passerby on Wednesday. Precisely this Friday, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was going to rule on the car bomb assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut for 15 years. But the reading of the sentence has been postponed to August 18 to respect the mourning after the explosion.
Saad Hariri, also a former prime minister and son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, has been one of the first politicians to publicly express “serious doubts” about the fortuitous nature of the accident due to “the conditions, location and time of the explosion.” The chemical compound in the deposit is known for its use as a fertiliser, but also for making missile warheads, and the site of the silo that burned in the blast is a restricted area that Lebanese military sources associate with the Hezbollah militia-party. In a country addicted to conspiracy theories, the versions of what happened to differ.
“We don’t believe anything about them [because of the politicians]. They all have to go! ”, Continued the Sehnaoui university student, perched on top of a car that he and his companions were trying to get out of the way. But the truth is that it is his generation that leaves the country in the face of massive unemployment and a broken system. Like so many others, this young man has chosen to study abroad in Madrid, from where he returned just a week ago to visit his family.
The optimism of the young people who have planted a Phoenix in the Martyrs’ Square in Beirut as a symbol of “the civic capacity to be reborn every time the leaders destroy the country” – in the words of the artist Hayat Nazer and author of the sculpture – collides with the defeatism of the generation that led the civil war (1975-1990).
For the 70-year-old Omar Shami, there is no longer a solution for a Lebanon “structurally sectarian and corrupt to the core”. “It is better for young people to leave, I have never seen this country so bad,” lamented the old man sitting under a makeshift tent where citizens and local NGOs deposited food and water for neighbours and volunteers.
Unusual non-denominational solidarity is now germinating in the rubble as it has done among Lebanese civil society since popular protests broke out on October 18 demanding the fall of the ruling class en bloc. They accuse politicians of parasitising state resources and sharing power based on confessional quotas (18 officially recognized in the country).
In the midst of the tragedy, there have been some moments of hope, such as when the young Hissam was rescued after being trapped under the rubble for 15 hours. Those present have received him with applause.
But desolation is a general feeling. People have learned to hug each other with their eyes, sometimes sad over face masks. They cannot hug each other in times of pandemic and tragedy.