The August 4th explosion in Beirut’s port is an unprecedented disaster. The explosion of 2700 tonnes of ammonium nitrite confiscated from a vessel in 2013 and stored in the Port, has killed over 135 people, injured over 5000, and left more than 300 000 homeless in a city of rubble and shattered glass. What caused the material to catch fire and explode is still unclear. This text takes a closer look at the Port and the neighbourhoods affected, and the socio-economic moment in which the explosion happened.
The Beirut Port is Lebanon’s primary entry point from the sea, receiving over 90% of the country’s imports. It is also the location of the country’s main grain silos, now largely destroyed. But beyond a loading and trading zone and a storage area, the Port is also a home. The fire followed by the explosion happened in a storage facility directly on the sea water. But the location is near various residential neighbourhoods, markets, the main bus station, and Downtown Beirut. While the explosion is truly affecting everyone in Beirut, people who have been on the margins of poverty, and who have lived or worked in the Port’s surrounding neighbourhoods, have just lost their homes and jobs, suffered injuries, or lost their lives.
Immediately south-east of the Port is the Karantina area, which includes storage buildings, but also residences and markets. The Port and Karantina are marked off from the rest of Beirut by the Charles Helou highway: Karantina is north of the highway, while several densely populated neighbourhoods such as Mar Mikhael, Gemmayze, and Burj Hammoud are south of the highway. Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze are homes to various migrant and refugee communities including the Armenian community and South Asian workers. Over the last decade, the area transformed into a popular café and bar scene familiar to most of Beirut’s visitors. While its old historical buildings have been inhabited by Lebanese families for generations, at the same time, the area has witnessed some of the most violent urban destruction-and-construction projects, squeezing multi storey buildings into tight spots, towering over residents and claiming the primary view of the sea through giant glass windows – the same glass now littering the streets. Moreover, during the trash crisis in 2015-2016, the residents of these neighbourhoods suffered months of toxic and foul smells from the nearby landfill and from excess trash that was stored or dumped along the coastline.
To the West of the explosion are several Waterfront areas with illegally privatized beaches, resorts and cafes, the Martyrs’ Square, and Downtown Beirut, which were reconstructed after the end of the Civil War (1975-1990). Downtown Beirut became a hub for high end stores and “Beirut Souks”, hotels, banks, embassies, and financial and governmental buildings including the Government Palace (Serail) – all suffering various damages in the blast. On a regular day, Downtown Beirut was more of a transition zone for most Beirutis on their way in or out of the Hamra neighbourhood, as most cannot afford to shop or dine in the district. This is also why it became a main site for the 2017 and 2019 protests against governmental and financial corruption. The protests against the trash crisis in 2015 and 2016, as well as the October revolt of 2019 repainted many of the area’s walls with revolutionary art and slogans in an attempt to reclaim Downtown for the public.
Damage is all over the radius of the explosion, including further east in Hamra (home to a shopping and residential district, the American University of Beirut (AUB), and the AUB Medical Center (AUBMC); the Center sacked over 850 employees last month). Beirut’s airport in the further southern edge of the city was also damaged, and some reports say the blast was so powerful it was felt over 200 km away in Cyprus. Many people were unable to receive medical attention due to hospitals running out of space, while others remain missing, feared to be dead under the rubble. The Electricity Company (Electricite du Liban) was also damaged at a time when residents experience unpredictable electricity cuts and shortages of fuel for electricity generators, forbidding many from buying any perishable food if they can afford it.
But the damage to people’s spirits cannot be measured. Those who survived are still trying to make sense of the scale of this tragedy while picking up the pieces of their broken homes and processing shock and despair.
Crucially, this explosion comes in the midst of financial collapse and medical urgency in Lebanon; a time of “multiple crises”. In the span of the past few months, the 2020 financial crisis blew inflation rates through the roof, devaluing the Lebanese lira from 1500 per 1 USD to almost 8000, at times reaching 10000. Shortages of foreign currency led the banks to limit or freeze the withdrawal of USD, effectively cutting people off from their savings and salaries. The rise in prices pushed so many people further into poverty and precarity making the UN warn against the threat of starvation and famine in the country.
All this also comes during the Covid-19 pandemic, the effects of which are nowhere near over in Lebanon. This explosion arrives as a startling and back-breaking blow, following years of political corruption, eroding services and infrastructure, local and regional political instability, and wars and attacks (including the devastating 2006 attacks by Israel that caused mass destruction in the country).
On its own, this explosion is surreal. The destruction it leaves behind is unfathomable from the point of view of an outside observer, and possibly unparalleled in Lebanon’s painful history. Shock is followed by grief, and then by rightful rage against the banal negligence and abuse of human life. The people of Lebanon – whether citizens, refugees, workers, or emigrants – have always been the most resilient. But they are angry at their corrupt leaders that continue to turn them into “hostages” and “accidental survivors”. And they want answers, accountability, revenge, and help.
We must stand with Lebanon today, and we must stand by the people’s right to simply; live. This includes supporting the people’s calls for justice against the prolonged crimes and corruption of the ruling elite. It also includes donating to reliable and non-governmental entities that will ensure the aid is received by the people and not lost or stolen. Below is a preliminary list, please consider donating.
Adriana Ahmad Qubaiova holds a PhD in Comparative Gender Studies. She lived in Beirut in 2013 and conducted several months of research in the city since then. She is currently writing her book “Hedging Queer Sexualities in Beirut”.