Just before 6:00 p.m. on August 4, 2020, a large fire broke out in one of the warehouses—Hangar 12—at the Beirut port. Firefighters sent to the location reported that “something is wrong” as the blaze was enormous and produced a “crazy sound.” At 6:07 p.m. a first explosion sent up a large cloud of smoke. Shortly thereafter, a second explosion would change the face of Beirut. It destroyed the port and the nearby neighborhoods of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, and heavily damaged half of the Lebanese capital, leaving 214 people dead, more than 6,500 injured, and around 300,000 people homeless.
I won’t soon forget that fateful moment when the ground under me shook and the glass door behind me shattered. In the seconds after the blast, I assumed the explosion was from a car-bomb in my neighborhood (I was around 3 kilometers away from the port). Realizing that I was injured, I rushed to the American University of Beirut hospital, and on the way there began to absorb what had happened. All I could see was glass on the streets, stunned people milling around, and convoys of motorcycles circling Beirut as if they were a swarm of bees released from their hive.
The images from the hospital are imprinted in my mind. No Hollywood film had prepared me for the number of bloodied people flooding into the facility. I saw men, women, and children on gurneys to my left and right, and physicians treating several patients simultaneously in the corridors of the emergency room. It seemed like the day of reckoning was upon us.
A year on, much has been said and written about the blast and its aftermath. The explosion of what was likely around 550 metric tons of ammonium nitrate is still not even close to being fully understood. Lebanon’s inhabitants are still struggling to make sense of exactly what happened on a day that turned their lives upside down.
Many have rebuilt what was damaged, while others have decided to leave Lebanon altogether. Some have chosen to focus on assisting the families of the victims, the injured, and the homeless. Numerous people are seeking some kind of truth and want to know who is responsible for the destruction of their city. However, the record of investigations into major crimes in Lebanon is not reassuring, even if seeking justice is important and must be pursued.
But for someone like me, an inhabitant of Beirut who was directly affected by what occurred, I was struck by the absence of a coherent narrative to explain it. The official story—that a welder had accidentally started the fire that detonated the ammonium nitrate—is unconvincing for a majority of Lebanese. But some kind of account is needed if people are to transcend their perpetual anxiety with regard to that day. Because the Lebanese don’t fully understand what took place, what is to prevent it from happening again? How do they know another devastating explosion will not occur in Beirut?
It may seem strange to regard the August 4 explosion as uniquely distressing in a city that was invaded by the armies of neighboring states, witnessed takeovers by countless militias, and lived through years of car-bomb attacks. But the port explosion was diabolically unique because the Lebanese still cannot make any sense of it, nor do their political leaders and security officials have any intention of helping them in that regard. Indeed, their aim is to obfuscate reality.
When Israel entered Beirut in 1982, the Lebanese had contending narratives about what was going on. Left-wing militias and their partisans explained in their own way why the Israelis had invaded the city, while right-wing militias and their supporters did the same. Each side had its own particular interpretation of events. Even if these were biased, they allowed people caught in the middle to impose a form of cohesion on developments around them.
Similarly, when Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated on the streets of the capital in February 2005, immediately there was a clear narrative about what had happened. Some accused Syria of being behind the assassination, while those close to Syria accused Israel. The killing exacerbated political tensions, but each side believed it had an explanation for the crime, one that made sense of the ambient chaos.
Today, at best we have unpersuasive tidbits and a refusal by the political class to get to the bottom of things. This will keep alive the fear that under Lebanon’s current leadership the country may witness such a cataclysm again. Only when the Lebanese can be certain about what happened can they begin to move on.
Beyond that, what does Lebanon’s inability to arrive at a convincing common narrative about one of the most traumatic days in its history tell us about the society moving forward? The ultimate consequence of this shortcoming is that there may be no way back for the Lebanese state, which has lost legitimacy in the eyes of its people. The current leadership may win parliamentary seats in the elections of 2022, but that will have more to do with an electoral law that it shaped in its own favor, and the absence of an organized opposition, than with its appeal. The ideological framework that once held Lebanon together has now disintegrated. Only time will tell if something can replace it.
Perhaps that point will only come once Lebanon’s victims have had their own day of reckoning with the politicians behind their pain.