I was at my office, having just seen a couple patients in clinic, when my friend Elia texts me: “there’s been an explosion at the Beirut port, check on your family.”
I had seen pictures of it on Twitter, affixed to the speculation that it was fireworks related. I didn’t think much of it until I saw a video in which a mushroom cloud ballooned over the port’s hangars, and expanded, taking everything in its wake. In the space of less than thirty seconds, the city where I grew up was essentially no more.
I was lucky to have been able to get in touch with my family right away. They were physically safe, but I wasn’t too sure about their mental state. My brother was in a daze. The apartment where my grandparents lived, where my father and all his siblings grew up, in the heart of Achrafieh, was completely destroyed. The dressoir that stored a lot of our family’s possessions lay broken. Not even the civil war had scraped it, as its battles raged outside those very same windows that now lay on the floor, shattered, like the collective nation in which they existed.
Lebanon has broken me, and many others, so many times. But what I saw out of Beirut was something else.
Saint George Hospital, the place that turned me a doctor, was destroyed and lay in rubbles. My brother, a medical student there, ran to help his colleagues attend to the wounded. He described a scene out of a Grey’s Anatomy finale, because Hollywood drama is the closest we have to compare things to, and that’s coming from a country that’s survived terrorist attacks and a civil war.
He and my other colleagues told me stories about the worst day of their lives as doctors, as bodies lay on the ground, as wounded crammed the streets outside a now non-functional emergency room, being attended to on the asphalt, as a nurse cradled three newborns all at once, in an office whose windows were now dust on the floor. They told me about how they were themselves bleeding and didn’t notice, how some of their colleagues were also injured, and some had passed.
But that was the fate of the entire city, and the country as a whole. It wasn’t just one neighborhood, one building, one street. Every building in Beirut was damaged. Every family was affected. Every neighborhood was shattered. Every single life was broken, some gone forever.
Our parents lived the civil war. Some of our grandparents had lived through the great famine where most of the Lebanese population had died. We lived through Syrian and Israeli occupation, a plethora of terrorist bombings and Israeli wars. Still, we persevered. Resilient is what they called us, but resiliency is no more. The fate of the Lebanese is, it seems, to forever exist on soaking up the trans-generational collective trauma that now plagues our lives as Lebanese citizens. “I will never forget that explosion until I die,” is what my brother told me. The sentiment was shared by every person that I knew, and I believe it. The videos are ingrained in my memory, and I had seen them off an iPhone screen, thousands of miles away.
Today, I am helpless. As an expat, so far from home at a time like this, whose childhood home lay in ruins in a city he once called home, unable to help beyond the measly dollars to donate in the hopes of atonement. I am helpless to see my friends and family in so much despair, at a situation beyond their control. Because COVID-19 wasn’t enough. Because a free-falling currency wasn’t enough. Because rotten chicken wasn’t enough. Because no running electricity and water were not enough. Because life in Lebanon, in all of its joie de vivre hell, was not enough.
Today, I’m also angry. I’m not angry at the notion that “if this had happened in a Western capital, the outcry would have been so much worse.” I don’t even have the bandwidth to wrap my head around what if’s. This happened, this is real, this is tangible, this happened to people we know, to a city we all lived in, to streets whose pavement we all walked on.
I am angry because of that mother who went on television to describe her son’s sweet face and hazel eyes only to realize he was gone moments later, his obituary affixed to her crying face in a picture that cannot leave my mind. Is the fate of our mothers to always be crying, either in hospitals, television screens or airports?
I am angry because nurses whose only fault was them doing their job at at the hospital where I trained are now dead, their only fault being at the wrong place, at the wrong time, as is the fate of so many others of my country-men.
I am angry because that’s the only emotion I can process today. It took the government five whole hours to issue a statement on an explosion that decimated the only city in the country they cared about. Five whole fucking hours of silence, of conspiracy theories ravaging Twitter and WhatsApp, of our firefighter and Red Cross heroes risking their lives to save people at the site of the explosion and around, as hospitals were flooded with injured folks they couldn’t treat, as people were found dead on the street, as parents wept, and as expats mourned. Five whole hours of silence culminated in a statement that was worth garbage, telling us they were going to investigate, when we all know it was their fault.
I am angry to see those videos of parents hiding their children under cabinet, of windows exploding on little boys and girls whose only fault was be curious at the smoke coming out of the seaside of their city.
I am angry because Donald Trump went on TV, in one of his many COVID-19 briefings, in the same day after he called 1000+ Americans dying daily of COVID-19 “it is what it is,” to tell the world he thought the Beirut explosion was a bomb, when all signs point it isn’t. I’m angry the leader of the free world, if you can even call him that, fans the flame for conspiracy theories just because he felt like it.
I am angry because 2800 fucking tonnes of ammonium nitrate lay in a hangar at the Beirut port since 2014, untouched, inappropriately managed, improperly handled, illegally maintained, and incompetently not attended to, until they blew up and took a whole city with them.
I am angry because the government fucking knew about the explosives, the head of the port knew about the chemicals, they knew how dangerous they could be, and like everything else that they do, they disregarded it and moved on, in their collective circle jerks of corruption.
I am angry because the president’s response the following day was to read a speech written by someone else, off a dell laptop. I’m angry because the only worry that our politicians have is about their careers and nothing else. I’m angry because I get to be angry at watching my home explode in front of my eyes, and those responsible have still not resigned.
What happened in Beirut was not terrorism, it was criminal negligence. And that makes it so much worse, because what happened was preventable. All the lives lost, all the homes destroyed, all the streets that are now unrecognizable could have gone about their day on August 5th, 2020, worrying about COVID-19 and a depreciating currency, as it was on August 4th before 6PM their time. Instead, we mourn.
What happened in Beirut was not terrorism. If it had been, the explosion as difficult as it was, would have been a little more palatable, something beyond our control, something we couldn’t do anything about, something that we couldn’t have prevented even if we tried. But this didn’t need to happen.
Every single life that was lost, body that was injured, building that was damaged is on our government and entire political body for gambling our lives and livelihood away with their unfathomable incompetence, unmatched negligence, and grotesque carelessness. They kill us every single day, with their corruption that’s ruined the economy, with their lack of leadership and oversight that’s affected every single aspect of our lives in Lebanon. They killed us yesterday when they conveniently forgot about chemicals that exploded with the force of the strongest explosion the world has seen since Hiroshima.
You should be angry too. I don’t give a shit about their so-called investigations, we know who’s responsible. They are, every single one of them. Their incompetence was abstract for so long, but that is no more: it’s now tangible. You can see it in a destroyed city. They destroyed Beirut, it’s on them. We deserve more than what we are given in politicians who are telling us now is not the time to be angry, but to pray. Fuck their prayers, their laments, their crocodile tears. I can pray and be angry at the same time.
This was preventable. Say it again and again until you’re angry too. Also, if you can, donate to the Lebanese Red Cross using their app.