Beirut in the 1960s. Rebuilt after the civil war, the city’s downtown, west of the port, suffered significant damage in the 2020 explosion.
I had never really thought about my windows, about the thickness of the panes or the type of glass. Like so many things that I’ll never again take for granted, they were simply there, and then they were gone. My apartment in the Lebanese capital is a brisk walk away from the city’s now-infamous port, the site of a massive explosion on August 4. Shortly after 6 p.m., some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, recklessly and improperly stored since 2014 in a facility called Warehouse 12, suddenly ignited. The explosion was one of the largest non-nuclear blasts ever recorded, with a force so great that it rattled windows in Cyprus, about 150 miles away across the Mediterranean Sea. It sent a mushroom cloud into the sky and lethal shock waves mostly through the eastern half of the city, killing more than 200 people, injuring more than 6,000 others, and damaging 85,744 properties: schools, stores, hospitals, and homes—including mine.
I wasn’t in my apartment at the time, and in an instant, I didn’t know if I still had one. Hundreds of thousands of people were abruptly, violently rendered homeless by the blast. My neighborhood of restaurants, bars, and art galleries, many lodged in Ottoman-era buildings with elegant trifora windows, looked more like the war zones I’ve covered for years as a journalist. Several neighbors were injured by flying glass and debris, requiring medical treatment, and all of the 21 apartments in my building were extensively damaged, as were all of the buildings nearby.
Where do you start? Whom do you turn to for help? In Lebanon, a small country of some 6.8 million, including more than 1.5 million refugees, the answer is: not the state. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, the country’s affairs have been dominated by sectarian warlords turned sectarian politicians, and by dynastic political families. This entrenched political class provides little for its citizenry— not even the basics, such as 24-hour electricity and a clean, constant water supply in a land blessed with abundant natural springs. Lebanon is a do-it-yourself country, where citizens resort to private generator networks to get around the daily power cuts, and to private water companies to make up for water shortages. Paying two bills for a basic utility is a way of life.
In October 2019, large numbers of Lebanese took part in nationwide protests against their political overlords, fed up with rampant corruption and decades of mismanagement. The government resigned; another was formed. The new government resigned days after the explosion.
It is generally considered a basic responsibility of a state to protect its people, but after the blast, local investigative journalists produced evidence that a number of high-level security, judicial, customs, and political figures, including the current president and the interim prime minister, knew about the dangerous material stored in Warehouse 12, and didn’t remove it. Some two dozen low- and mid-level officials were detained as part of an ongoing investigation, but victims’ families are demanding accountability for more senior figures. Some are calling for an international investigation. Lebanon’s judiciary, full of political appointees, has not made any findings public or declared what caused the blast. Was it an accident, the result of negligence, a criminal act, terrorism? Without that verdict, most insurance companies won’t pay out compensation. Citizens are on their own.
Which brings me back to my windows, or what remained of them.
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