Beirut is a city in shock but its residents are clear-eyed about who they see as the culprit behind the disaster at the port.
Carmen Haddad was just watering her plants on her tiny balcony, as she often does around sunset, but especially during the summer’s sweltering heat, when she suddenly saw a massive plume of smoke appear above the sea.
Thinking nothing of it at first, as she was not wearing her glasses and is used to large clouds of pollution hovering over the city, she then felt what she initially thought was ‘an earthquake.’
“The whole house was shaking and luckily I threw myself on the ground because that way I wasn’t facing the windows,” Carmen told TRT World. While she was lying on the floor, violently shaking and not knowing what exactly happened, only one thought went through her mind. “We are being attacked by Israel. And everyone is going to die.”
That thought undoubtedly – and not unexpectedly – went through the minds of many Lebanese as soon as the impact of the blast was felt as the border dispute had flared up in recent months and thinly veiled threats have been lobbed back and forth in recent weeks between Israeli and Hezbollah officials.
Everyone who spoke to TRT World, many of whom were still reeling and in complete shock, said that no matter what the reason behind the blast turns out to be, they unequivocally blamed the government and all the previous governments.
One Beirut resident who wishes to remain anonymous told TRT World that the government, “instead of protecting its people on every level, which is their main if not only role, robbed them blind and proactively endangered their lives on a daily basis for decades through corruption and boundless greed.”
“May they all rot in hell,” the resident added, saying that he and his friend were now celebrating the destruction of the state electricity company, Electricite du Liban, which is located in Gemmazyeh, one of the neighborhoods that was hit hardest by the blast, as it’s widely considered to be one of the main symbols of state-sanctioned corruption.
The unprecedented blast that tore through Beirut Tuesday afternoon, left almost no neighbourhood of the city completely untouched and its reverberations reached as far as the city’s outskirts.
Buildings as far away as 10 kilometers from the site of the explosion were heavily damaged. Shards of glass filled the famously winding tiny streets in the heart of Beirut, and the few street lights that still functioned were extinguished by its force. The blast registered as a 3.3 magnitude earthquake
At the time of writing, local media reported that at least 135 people had been killed and more than 5,000 wounded, the health minister told media. At least 300,000 residents have been displaced, many of whom still rushed to hospitals to donate blood.
"Luckily I was taking a cigarette break from doing some work behind the computer, because the desk I usually work at was hurled all across the room from the impact of the blast,” Youssef Masri, a freelance designer told TRT World.
Masri, who asked for his last name to be changed as his emotions were running ‘dangerously high’, lives in the lively Gemmayzeh neighborhood, in which most buildings had their entire facades ripped out, and now resembled nothing short of a warzone.
"I really thought I’d seen everything in this godforsaken country. How much more are we supposed to take? If I hear one more person referring to us as ‘resilient’, I will lose it. F**k resilience. We don’t want to be resilient. We just want to live!”
Another eyewitness, who also lives in Gemmayzeh in a building facing the port, around a kilometer from where the explosion occurred, was home alone with her two young children.
In between sobs, she tries to paint a picture of the devastating impact: “No-one died, Alhamdulillah (Thank God) but we were all badly injured and required many stitches. I walked with my two children because I couldn’t take my car as all the roads were covered in debris. I have no idea how we made it out there alive. It’s a miracle and I don’t even believe in God.”
She adds that the two hospitals she reached, were unable to treat them because they were already overflowing, "it was hard to look at and listen to. But I had to keep moving get my girls help.”
Eventually she managed to get some tetanus shots through a neighborhood WhatsApp group, which she says was extremely helpful and felt like an extended family. Her building was completely destroyed but luckily many offered her a place to stay. “The people on the streets, many of them hurt and in shock as well, were incredibly kind.”
Although she’s physically safe now, she’s still in complete shock and worried about the impact it might have on her children.
“My six-year-old daughter had three head injuries - that’s it! We’re leaving. I see no future for us here.”
The final straw
The blast comes at a time when the tiny Mediterranean country is already crumbling at every level imaginable. People are struggling to keep their head above water amidst an economic meltdown, soaring unemployment, an almost worthless local currency and poverty rates rocketing above 50 percent.
As if that weren’t enough, on Friday, a UN-backed Special Tribunal is expected to issue a verdict on the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, which many predict will further intensify sectarian tensions that had already been flaring up since the October protests.
The blast at Beirut's port formed a mushroom cloud and its impact was so colossal that it could be heard and seen all the way on the island of Cyprus. Initial conflicting reports on what might have caused the explosion – which was first blamed on a major fire at a warehouse for fireworks near the port – only fed the intense fear already felt in a country reeling.
Social media exploded with theories and the director of the general security directorate later said the blast was caused by confiscated "high explosive materials," but did not provide further details.
Red billowing smoke illuminated the city’s sky that had ironically been shrouded in darkness the past few weeks due to increased electricity shortages while its residents – around 4 million people – many covered in blood and dust, frantically checked in with their family and friends while often being betrayed by the country’s notoriously bad internet and electricity coverage.
"Beirut port is completely destroyed," an eyewitness told TRT World, describing the "surreal" scenes in front of her eyes as“something out of a very intense dystopian movie."
“I don’t think we will ever get over this,” she added, barely suppressing a sudden deep sob.
Lebanon's Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, said that 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used primarily in fertilisers, and often in bombs by non-state actors, had been stored for six years at a port warehouse without safety measures, "endangering the safety of citizens," according to a statement.
The prime minister called the storage of the material "unacceptable" and called for an investigation into the cause of the blast, with the results to be released within five days, the statement said.
The city's governor Marwan Abboud said on Tuesday that the scene reminded him of "Hiroshima and Nagasaki," adding on Wednesday morning that the value of the damages exceeded 5 billion dollars.
"In my life I haven't seen destruction on this scale," Abboud said. "This is a national catastrophe."
Between fear and anger
On social media, responses from officials, especially those from the United States and Israel were met with derision and anger. While similar sentiments had previously been uttered in mere jest online, in tandem with the famed Lebanese pitch-black sense of humor, many now echoed the sentiment that those responsible should be ‘executed’ and calls to ‘bring back the guillotine’ were retweeted and cheered on by many.
On Tuesday night, a call to execute Director General of Lebanese Customs Badri Daher was trending on Twitter under the hashtag #الاعدام_لبدري_ضاهر (#ExecuteBadriDaher).
Many expressed intense anger at the ruling elite, especially the government, for taking what was regarded as an excruciatingly long time to shed light on the disaster and provide its citizens with a much-needed public statement to at least try and assuage some of the widespread panic.
Economist and political activist Jad Chaaban was widely said to have succinctly summarised people’s rage which emerged after the initial shock and fear when he wrote on Twitter: "This was not an 'accident'. This was not 'negligence'. People from port employees to the head of the state knew what was there for years. This is a crime, an attack by thugs in state positions against their own people. And we shall treat it as such.”
“Jobless people don’t have money to repair anything. No one has dollars to pay imports of reconstruction material. Hospitals drained & don’t have resources for medical supplies. We need massive support to rebuild our city. We need to get rid of all this criminal political class,” Chaaban added in a follow-up tweet.
On Wednesday afternoon, protestors were seen throwing rocks at ex-Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s convoy in downtown Beirut and clashing with his supporters.