Dispatch

‘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.

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.

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.” 

Anchal Vohra is a freelance correspondent for Al Jazeera and regularly writes for Foreign Policy. She is a  Beirut-based journalist covering the Middle East and South Asia. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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