Skip to main content

Dispatch

The view from the ground.

‘This is Lebanon, This is Our Destiny’

A pair of gigantic blasts that obliterated Beirut’s port and smashed the city center is the last thing we needed.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a Brussels-based columnist for Foreign Policy who writes about Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
A man in a mask stands before smoldering buildings near Beirut's port on Aug. 5.
A man in a mask stands before smoldering buildings near Beirut's port on Aug. 5.
A man in a mask stands before smoldering buildings near Beirut's port on Aug. 5. Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images

BEIRUT—Had I been sitting in my study, an oval-shaped room with large glass windows, or the dining room, decorated with art deco doors, I could have died. Had I been with my husband, we both could have died. 

I didn’t. We didn’t. We were lucky. 

At least 100 people died and an estimated 4,000 were injured as two enormous explosions Tuesday afternoon at Beirut’s port rocked Lebanon’s capital. The second, massive blast enveloped Beirut in dark gray smoke and left the city looking like a war zone. It smashed windows and doors in a 4-mile radius and littered the entire city with chunks of glass. The blast resonated 50 miles away in north Lebanon and was heard 160 miles across the Mediterranean in Cyprus. Close to the port, it was nightmarish.

BEIRUT—Had I been sitting in my study, an oval-shaped room with large glass windows, or the dining room, decorated with art deco doors, I could have died. Had I been with my husband, we both could have died. 

I didn’t. We didn’t. We were lucky. 

At least 100 people died and an estimated 4,000 were injured as two enormous explosions Tuesday afternoon at Beirut’s port rocked Lebanon’s capital. The second, massive blast enveloped Beirut in dark gray smoke and left the city looking like a war zone. It smashed windows and doors in a 4-mile radius and littered the entire city with chunks of glass. The blast resonated 50 miles away in north Lebanon and was heard 160 miles across the Mediterranean in Cyprus. Close to the port, it was nightmarish.

We lived just over a mile from the harbor. My house in Christian-dominated West Beirut was among those hardest hit. 

At 5:30 in the afternoon, I decided to take a break from writing and watch a bit of Netflix. Half an hour later, I heard a loud rumbling. As I looked out on up-market Gemmayze Street, even louder rumbling shook our building, followed by a strong blast of wind that tossed me to the other side of the room.

Shards of glass had pierced my neck, and I picked up a soft toy—luckily lying atop the rubble—and used it to suppress the bleeding. My foot was broken, too, but there was nothing I could do about it. Our house had come crumbling down: The walls were still standing, but all those glass doors and windows were shattered and on the floor.

Terrified and shocked, we wondered if Lebanon was at war. There had been tensions between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah on the southern border just last week. Under the fallen paintings and crushed glass, sofa cushions, and a mound of splintered doors, we searched frantically for our phones, passports, and wallets. Soon after, I limped down through a blood-splattered staircase and met several of my neighbors, who were also bleeding. Some had head wounds; one was found five hours later buried under her cupboard. 

The scene outside my house, in the parking lot next to our building, on a street with hipster cafes frequented by locals and expats alike, was straight out of a movie. Soaked in blood, people walked around like zombies. Red Cross workers, from their office on the same street, quickly scrambled to provide first aid.

One of them bandaged my neck and advised me to rush to a doctor to take care of my foot, which was swollen and rotten green. An old man on my left was drenched in blood and hardly breathing. An older woman in front of me was fainting. People tried to help each other as they cried. “Baddak shi?” at least 10 people asked me. “What do you need?” 

It’s still not entirely clear if the explosions were the result of an accident or a deliberate attack. Lebanon’s interior minister told a local TV channel that huge quantities of ammonium nitrate stored at the port had likely caused the catastrophe. Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab later said 2,750 metric tons of the stuff, commonly used as fertilizer (and sometimes to make bombs), had been stored for years in a warehouse at the port. 

But people still speculated about other culprits. A few women on my street blamed rivalry between Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel. “What do they want from us?” asked my neighbor rhetorically. “Who else but Israel could do this?” Israel was quick to deny responsibility and, for the first time, formally offered humanitarian aid to Lebanon. 

The Lebanese are surprised at their own bad luck. The country has been undergoing its worst economic crisis in decades, and people are struggling to buy basic necessities. Earlier in the day, I had written a story on how the price of bread had doubled as a bankrupt government, cash-strapped and loaded with huge debt, had reduced the flour subsidy. It will get worse: The blast obliterated the port of Beirut. That was the entry point for the overwhelming bulk of grain the country needs to feed itself. 

There is a fuel shortage, too. Electricity is available for two or three hours a day, and nighttime power cuts have been imposed on most households, even the middle and upper-middle classes. 

But those travails seemed almost trivial in the aftermath of this tragedy. As evening fell, and the pain in my foot became unbearable, we borrowed a friend’s smashed car (we’re not sure whose) to drive to another friend’s house. They drove me to a hospital outside Beirut; most of the ones in the city were overwhelmed with patients with much more severe injuries.  

As the doctors stitched three deep gashes in my neck, a nurse ran her hand through my hair.

“This is Lebanon,” she said. “This is our destiny.” 

 Twitter: @anchalvohra

More from Foreign Policy

A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
A propaganda poster from the 1960s shows Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Xi’s Great Leap Backward

Beijing is running out of recipes for its looming jobs crisis—and reviving Mao-era policies.

A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.
A textile worker at the Maxport factory in Hanoi on Sept. 21, 2021.

Companies Are Fleeing China for Friendlier Shores

“Friendshoring” is the new trend as geopolitics bites.

German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.
German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.

Why Superpower Crises Are a Good Thing

A new era of tensions will focus minds and break logjams, as Cold War history shows.

Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.
Vacationers sit on a beach in Greece.

The Mediterranean as We Know It Is Vanishing

From Saint-Tropez to Amalfi, the region’s most attractive tourist destinations are also its most vulnerable.

Expand your perspective with unlimited access to FP.

Subscribe Now

Loading graphics

Welcome to a world of insight.

Explore the benefits of your FP subscription.

Stay updated on the topics you care about with email alerts. Sign up below.

Choose a few newsletters that interest you.

Here are some we think you might like.

  • Morning Brief thumbnail
  • Africa Brief thumbnail
  • Latin America Brief thumbnail
  • China Brief thumbnail
  • South Asia Brief thumbnail
  • Situation Report thumbnail

Analyze the world’s biggest events.

Join in-depth conversations and interact with foreign-policy experts.

FP Live: Samantha Power

Register now

In her role as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Samantha Power is often thrust into the forefront of some of the world’s biggest crises. From working to ensu...Show more

FP Live: The Future of Afghanistan

Last summer, the United States decided to end its longest war. But just days after the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan, Kabul fell—and the Taliban took control of the country. Aug....Show more

FP Live: Reporters’ Notebooks

Want the inside scoop on Russian arms sales to Africa? Care to learn more about how Ukraine is arming itself and how Beijing views Washington’s support for Taiwan? FP subscribers are alrea...Show more