October 26, 2021

Time for a full clearout. Why we will not forgive the men who did this to Beirut | Lina Mounzer

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My eyes fly open and the horror is already there. The full range of it: what happened, and how, and who is responsible. It’s 4am. My heart is pounding so fast I think I might throw up. Terrible images flash through my mind.

I’ve experienced debilitating grief before. It at least allows you short respite when you first open your eyes. Some seconds of oblivion just before you are slammed with the memory of how your life has been shattered. But there is no respite here. And it’s not just my life that has been shattered. It’s the whole world that sustains it, from loved ones to cityscape. I’ve barely slept. Just like the night before.

I think I’m not sleeping because I’m afraid of my bed. I think I’m afraid of my bed because I was in it when the explosion hit. I remember trying to leave the bed but it was listing like a ship. I had to climb off it. It took forever.

We are, all of us in Beirut – and those who left Beirut but love Beirut – wrecked with exhaustion, grief and, increasingly, murderous rage. We can only think about, talk about one thing. What happened, and how, and who is responsible.

What happened: a massive explosion thundered through Beirut, its streets and homes, at 6.08pm on Tuesday. It was so huge it was heard in Cyprus. It was so huge it shattered glass and ripped doors off their hinges kilometres away. It incinerated trees, tore the red roofs off centuries-old buildings and brought the blue sea inland. It left 5,000 injured and 154 dead – so far. There are many still missing under the rubble.

The best guess right now is there were 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate being stored in hangar 12 at the Beirut port. Perhaps right next to a warehouse filled with fireworks. We don’t really know how this ammonium nitrate, confiscated from a ship and stored in unsafe conditions in the middle of our city for six years, ignited. Because those who are responsible are actively rejecting an international investigation.

Let’s be clear who they are, those responsible: every last grizzled warlord and their underachieving sons, nephews and sons-in-law who hold the highest seats of power. Every loyalist they have personally picked and manoeuvred into influential positions across every conceivable sector, public and private. Every minister and bureaucrat too self-interested or too craven to speak up. This mafia is what is broadly referred to in Lebanon as the “political class”; the “ruling elite”.

If I sound unhinged with anger, it’s because I am. Equal to my grief over the devastation of the beloved city where I was born and raised, over the people dead, missing and injured, over the debris that now litters its streets – glass and stone, but also clothes and books and photographs and paintings, all the keepsakes of a life – is my rage at the men who did this to us.

Because this was no “unfortunate accident” – it was lethal neglect. We’ve known for a long time that our safety, wellbeing and lives meant nothing to these men.

They are the same people we tried to oust when we took to the streets in October 2019, in a wave of mass anti-government protests that exploded across the country. “All of them means all of them,” we insisted, even when we were beaten by various party loyalists for the chant.

Sparked by a proposed tax on WhatsApp, the protests were in fact the result of years of accumulated frustration over public sector mismanagement and corruption so rampant it had sunk the country into $86bn of debt. Thirty years after the end of the civil war, we still didn’t have 24-hour electricity, proper water, proper sanitation or reliable rubbish collection. We had only endless construction sites, erecting posh real estate inaccessible to all but the ultra-rich.

We were angry then, but it was an anger powered by fierce joy. We danced and whooped and marvelled that so many of us had come together over sectarian and class lines. We managed to oust the government and we were elated in our victory. But it was short-lived: the new government appointed to take its place traded only names, not parties or policies.

Since then, our economy has fully imploded. Our currency has devalued more than 80%. Banks limited our withdrawals while bankers smuggled $6bn out of the country. Salaries and life savings have become worthless overnight. The government will not agree to the transparency measures necessary to unlock a loan from the IMF.

During the coronavirus lockdown, no aid was distributed to a population now destitute. The banks shut their doors to us for weeks on end. There were mass layoffs. Public suicides. People reduced to bartering their humblest belongings for baby formula and diapers.

And then the blast.

The blast caused by neglect so egregious, incompetence so spectacular, it would defy comprehension if we didn’t already intimately know the callous disregard and contempt these men hold for our lives. Every authority figure, from the president down, denies responsibility, pleads ignorance, shifts blame. Nor has the state made any effort in the clean-up or retrieval of bodies. All of it has been undertaken by private citizens.

People are organising for mass protests. The anger I’ve seen is like nothing I’ve ever witnessed. I know because it boils in my own body too. Unlike the first time we took to the streets, there is no talk of grassroots overhaul or constitutional mechanisms that might be used to remove the ruling elite from power. The most ubiquitous hashtag accompanying the calls for protest is “prepare the nooses”.

The state has already made the fatal mistake of neglecting flammable material, leaving it in unsafe conditions. A potential explosion just waiting for a spark. This time, when it blows up in their faces, they cannot plead ignorance.

Lina Mounzer is a writer and translator based in Beirut

This post originally appeared on and written by:
Lina Mounzer
The Guardian 2020-08-09 08:15:00

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