Leader of International Journalism Studies Cluster at City, University of London
5 Oct 2021
A demonstrator holds the Lebanese flag during a protest near Parliament as Lebanon marks the one-year anniversary of the explosion in Beirut, August 4 [Aziz Taher/Reuters]
It was a quiet, balmy August evening. I had just finished running a workshop for Lebanese journalists on the rise of hate speech in Lebanese media and was enjoying summer drinks with three women friends at the Commodore Hotel in Hamra, at the very heart of the Lebanese capital.
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 Beirut Port. The tweet was accompanied by a photo showing clouds of grey smoke above the port. As we did not 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 made a comment about how dangerous such “fake news” can be, especially in a politically unstable country like Lebanon, but we didn’t think much of it.
A few minutes later, we felt a jolt followed by strong tremors that shook our table. It felt like an earthquake, but we instinctively knew 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 started to rain on us. It felt like the world was ending.
It was a scene worse than anything I have seen growing up amid Lebanon’s civil war or covering the many Israeli assaults on my country as a journalist. It was worse than the two suicide bombings I personally witnessed in Beirut in 2013 and 2014.
I must have blacked out because when I opened my eyes, my head was pinned on the wooden surface of the table. I heard my friends scream “something has fallen on Zahera!”
As I pleaded with my friends to “get that thing off me”, all I could think was that my city has betrayed me. The city that I felt safe in even during the toughest of times has abandoned me.
When my friends finally managed to lift the large window frame resting on top of my shoulders and free me, they started shouting: “There’s blood on Zahera’s face!” I couldn’t feel much, so tried to calm them down, saying it was probably just a nose bleed. Deep down, I was scared that 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 running down my face was not a nose bleed – there were three deep cuts across my face that needed stitching. Looking at the chaos around us, we realised there was no point in calling an ambulance. My friends said they would drive me to a nearby hospital.
When we stepped out of the hotel, we found ourselves facing an apocalyptic scene. There were countless windows and doors lying on the street. Injured people, covered in blood, were walking aimlessly among piles of shattered glass.
We were denied access to three hospitals overwhelmed with injured people – people fighting for their lives. I felt hopeless, scared. I knew that my city was doomed.
Once I finally managed to get myself admitted to a hospital and my wounds treated, I started to recollect our search for the cause of the explosion. First, we thought it was an Israeli air raid. Then, a story started circulating on WhatsApp, claiming that it was a suicide bombing at 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 in fact about a fire that broke out in a warehouse full of fireworks. That fire had spread into a nearby facility holding some 2,500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate and caused the devastating explosion.
At least 218 people were dead and thousands were injured. A third of the city was completely destroyed and some 300,000 people were displaced. And this devastation was caused not by an outside force, but an enemy within.
On that day, alongside the explosion, a sense of despair also hit the nation. We could not believe that the ruling class had allowed tonnes of explosives to be stored at the Beirut Port for more than 6 years – a ticking time bomb at the heart of the city. We couldn’t believe that our politicians and civil servants were negligent and corrupt enough to have facilitated such a grave human tragedy.
As we tried to pick up the pieces of our lives and comprehend how much we had lost in a matter of minutes, we realised 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” run by a group of corrupt warlords focused only on their own financial and political interests.
After learning the depth of negligence and corruption that led to Beirut’s destruction, I decided to stop referring to Lebanese politicians as “political leaders”. “Leaders” do not condemn their own people to death. They do not physically and psychologically cripple their own capital city.
Lebanon has collapsed but, more than a year later, its rulers are still spending most of their energy on blaming each other for this catastrophe. Each sect, each political party, is blaming another for what happened to our country.
Those ruling Lebanon are not “leaders” but thugs who need to be brought to justice.
In one of the journalism workshops I ran in the aftermath of the explosion, a prominent Lebanese investigative journalist asked: “Would it be hate speech if I called Beirut Port officials criminals?”
“My investigation showed that they knew of the dangers of storing large quantities of ammonium nitrate in a population centre and still did nothing,” the journalist said, “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, perhaps it is up to journalists to decide for themselves. Personally, I have made my decision.
It has been more than a year since the explosion. But the people of Lebanon are still waiting for justice. We are waiting for those directly or indirectly responsible for our collective assassination to be held accountable for their crimes.
Beirut today is a shadow of the city we once knew. The port blast, followed by the total collapse of the Lebanese economy, took its toll on the capital – and its people.
Not only Beirut, but the whole of Lebanon is now a trauma zone. Trauma has become a dominant ingredient of our national identity. We want to heal, we try to heal – but there is no healing without justice. For the Lebanese people to once again look at the future with hope, those who tampered with our economic and physical safety need to be put behind bars.
Their recent move to “suspend” the investigation into the explosion, following complaints filed by two MPs summoned for interrogation accusing the leading investigative judge of “bias”, was the most recent proof that they will do anything in their power to obstruct justice.
But the Lebanese people will not give up. The families of those lost to this explosion will not give up. They are determined in their quest to find justice for their loved ones despite multiple brazen attempts to silence them and cripple their protests.
Reading this, you may think that I’m still stuck in that fateful moment when I realised Beirut had been ruined and the Lebanese state had collapsed. I am stuck, but I am not alone. Every single Beiruti is still stuck in that moment. Our lives are still defined by what happened during a few moments on that August evening more than a year ago.
The Lebanese people are known for their resilience. Our resilience allowed us to come out of 15 years of civil war and rebuild our lives and our country. Sadly, after the Beirut Port explosion, we ran out of resilience. Anger and despair prevailed. Only justice for the victims can give some comfort and hope to this colonial political structure called Lebanon.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
Leader of International Journalism Studies Cluster at City, University of London
Dr Zahera Harb is Leader of International Journalism Studies Cluster at City, University of London. She previously worked as a broadcast Journalist in Lebanon for local and international news organisations. She is board member of Ethical Journalism Network, Dart Centre Europe for Journalism and Trauma and several other professional and academic editorial boards. Harb has published extensively on Middle Eastern media and politics.