It was a sweet, sweet August evening. I had just finished a workshop for Lebanese journalists on the rise of hate speech in the Lebanese media and I was having a summer drink with three friends at the Commodore Hotel in Hamra, in the heart of the Lebanese capital.
At around 6pm, we received a message on WhatsApp from a friend in London, informing us of a tweet he saw about an “explosion” at the Port of Beirut. The tweet was accompanied by a photo showing clouds of gray smoke over the harbor. Since we didn’t hear an explosion, we doubted the story, but still went straight to our phones to check if there were any corroborating reports. We found nothing. I commented on how dangerous such “fake news” is, especially in a politically unstable country like Lebanon, but we haven’t given it much thought.
A few minutes later we felt a shake followed by strong shaking that rocked our table. It looked like an earthquake, but we instinctively knew that what we were experiencing was not a natural disaster. A fraction of a second later, we heard a loud bang and pieces of shattered glass began to rain down on us. It was as if the world was ending.
It was a scene worse than anything I have seen growing up amid the civil war in Lebanon or covering the many Israeli assaults on my country as a journalist. It was worse than the two suicide attacks that I personally witnessed in Beirut in 2013 and 2014.
I must have passed out because when I opened my eyes my head was stuck on the wooden surface of the table. I heard my friends shout “something has fallen on Zahera!”
As I begged my friends to “take this thing off of me” all I could think of was that my town had betrayed me. The city in which I felt safe even in the most difficult times abandoned me.
When my friends finally managed to lift the large window frame resting on my shoulders and free me, they started shouting, “There is blood on Zahera’s face! I didn’t feel much, so I tried to calm them down, saying it was probably just a nosebleed. Deep down, I was afraid I was about to become one of the many Lebanese victims of violence whose stories I have covered over the years.
Soon it became clear to us that the blood flowing down my face was not a nosebleed – there were three deep cuts on my face that needed to be sewn up. Looking at the chaos around us, we realized there was no point in calling an ambulance. My friends said they would take me to a nearby hospital.
When we left the hotel, we found ourselves facing an apocalyptic scene. There were countless windows and doors to the street. The wounded, covered in blood, walked aimlessly among piles of broken glass.
We were denied access to three hospitals overwhelmed with wounded – people fighting for their lives. I felt hopeless, scared. I knew my city was doomed.
After I finally managed to get admitted to a hospital and my injuries were treated, I began to remember our search for the cause of the explosion. First of all, we thought it was an Israeli air raid. Then a story started circulating on WhatsApp claiming that it was a suicide bombing attack on the nearby residence of Saad Hariri, former prime minister and son of assassinated prime minister Rafik Hariri.
A few hours later, we learned what really happened. The tweet we saw earlier in the evening warning of an “explosion” at the port was actually about a fire that broke out in a warehouse filled with fireworks. This fire had spread to a nearby facility containing some 2,500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate and caused the devastating explosion.
At least 218 people have died and thousands have been injured. A third of the city was completely destroyed and some 300,000 people were displaced. And this devastation was not caused by an outside force, but by an enemy within.
On that day, alongside the explosion, a sense of hopelessness also hit the nation. We couldn’t believe the ruling class had allowed tons of explosives to be stored at the Port of Beirut for over 6 years – a time bomb in the heart of the city. We couldn’t believe that our politicians and officials were careless and corrupt enough to have facilitated such a dire human tragedy.
As we tried to pick up the pieces of our lives and figure out how much we had lost in a matter of minutes, we realized that our country had officially entered the club of failed and collapsed states.
Indeed, Lebanon could no longer be described as anything other than an “entity” ruled by a group of corrupt warlords focused solely on their own financial and political interests.
After learning about the depth of neglect and corruption that led to the destruction of Beirut, I decided to stop calling Lebanese politicians “political leaders”. The “rulers” do not condemn their own people to death. They do not physically and psychologically cripple their own capital.
Lebanon collapsed but, more than a year later, its leaders still devote most of their energy to blaming each other for this catastrophe. Each sect, each political party, blames another for what has happened to our country.
Those who run Lebanon are not “rulers” but thugs who must be brought to justice.
In one of the journalism workshops I conducted in the aftermath of the explosion, a prominent Lebanese investigative journalist asked, “Would it be hate speech if I called Beirut port officials as bad guys?” criminals?
“My investigation showed that they were aware of the dangers of storing large quantities of ammonium nitrate in a population center and still did nothing,” said the journalist. “Would it be considered hate speech if I called them killers?”
I didn’t know how to answer the question. In a country where the judiciary is also controlled by the same corrupt ruling class, it may be up to journalists to decide for themselves. Personally, I have made my decision.
It has been over a year since the explosion. But the Lebanese people are still waiting for justice. We expect those directly or indirectly responsible for our collective assassination to be held responsible for their crimes.
Beirut today is the shadow of the city we once knew. The explosion of the port, followed by the total collapse of the Lebanese economy, wreaked havoc on the capital – and its people.
Not only Beirut, but all of Lebanon is now a zone of trauma. Trauma has become a dominant ingredient in our national identity. We want to heal, we try to heal – but there is no healing without righteousness. In order for the Lebanese people to look to the future with hope again, those who have impaired our economic and physical security must be put behind bars.
The thugs who rule us, however, are determined to shirk responsibility.
Their recent decision to “suspend” the investigation into the explosion, following complaints by two deputies summoned for questioning accusing the principal investigating judge of “bias,” was the most recent evidence they will provide. everything in their power to obstruct justice.
But the Lebanese people will not give up. The families of those lost in this explosion will not give up. They are determined in their quest for justice for their loved ones despite multiple brazen attempts to silence them and cripple their protests.
Reading this you may think that I am still stuck in that fateful moment when I realized that Beirut had been ruined and the Lebanese state had collapsed. I’m stuck, but I’m not alone. Every Beirut is still stuck in this moment. Our lives are still defined by what happened for a few moments that August evening over a year ago.
The Lebanese people are known for their resilience. Our resilience has enabled us to emerge from 15 years of civil war and rebuild our lives and our country. Unfortunately, after the explosion of the Port of Beirut, we lacked resilience. Anger and despair prevailed. Only justice for the victims can give some comfort and hope to this colonial political structure that is Lebanon.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.