Beirut Blast And Us: A New Generation Of The Lebanese Diaspora Finds Its Voice
Lebanese citizens spread around the world have gradually gotten connected in new ways, thanks to the internet and social media. But the author recalls how the massive explosion in the port of Beirut triggered something altogether different.
PARIS — In a Paris emptied by the pandemic’s first summer, I was in the Jardin du Luxembourg when the images of the Beirut explosion started showing up in my Instagram feed.
There was a huge detonation, then an even bigger blast, followed by a massive mushroom cloud — red, white, and orange.
The posts showing images of the wounded and damage in the streets soon followed. It was quickly clear that people had been killed and the magnitude of the blast had destroyed buildings around the city.
We’d find out later that the explosions — which were first triggered on August, 4th, 2020, in 6:07 p.m. local time, — detonated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the Port of Beirut. That’s equal to 1.1 kilotons of TNT, and the explosions shook virtually every corner of the country of 6 million people and were heard more than 240 kilometers (150 miles) away on the island of Cyprus.
It is considered the most powerful non-nuclear explosion in history.
In the 30-second interval between the two explosions, many people living in Beirut rushed into the relative safety of their bathroom — an old habit inherited from the country’s civil war that raged for 15 years, from 1975 to 1990.
The stories of that war and the troubled years that followed have been part of every Lebanese person’s life.
I personally left Lebanon at the age of eight to move to France with my family, joining the considered part of the broader Lebanese diaspora around the world of up to 14 million people. The last time I visited the country was in the summer of 2019. My native country’s vibrant atmosphere and lively art scene contrasted with the various crises the country had been experiencing due to endemic government neglect and deep-seated corruption.
Back in Paris, a few months later, I saw the Lebanese people taking the streets of Beirut, Tripoli, and Tyre through my Instagram stories. They were protesting against the government's incompetence in addressing deepening shortages of gas and bread.
More generally, it was the expression of a rage accumulated for years against the political rulers and a sectarian regime. Lebanon was facing one of the worst economic crises experienced by any country since the mid-1800s. According to the World Bank, poverty in Lebanon hovered close to 27% in 2011, before the Syrian Civil War. Now, more than half the population was living below the poverty line, with the price of food rising by 670%.
While I was devouring Instagram stories of the popular movement, feeling that hope getting contagious, I realized that I was experiencing a new kind of phenomenon. The past generations of the Lebanese diaspora of citizens and their offspring had always gotten news from their home country through TV broadcasts, newspapers, or calls with relatives. In October 2019, my generation started to witness all of this through live Instagram stories, and more generally, social networks — an immersive, puzzling, intense experience. Also, a deeply political one.
Diaspora and social networks
On the night of the port explosion, after having watched clips for hours on my phone, I walked back home, puzzled by what I saw: Parisians enjoying their summer’s night with a kind of blissful innocence that I obviously could not share.
We didn’t know if there was anything to do. But social media was there at the tips of our fingers.
There was a new reality now, a reality inside my phone, inaccessible to the people around me. Every minute, another piece of information appeared on my phone’s screen: this person is safe, this person is injured, ammonium nitrate was hidden in the port, what did politicians know … and so on.
We all started reposting stories, trying to somehow draw attention from the rest of the world — and raise funds for the victims and the rebuilding to come. We didn't know exactly what we were doing. We didn’t know if there was anything to do. But social media was there at the tips of our fingers.
"My government did this" tag on a wall near the Beirut explosion
Political neglect had built up over decades
The port blast was not a terrorist attack, nor a natural disaster: it is the narrative of criminal political neglect that built up over decades until it literally blew up. An estimated 300,000 people suddenly found themselves without a home. Property damage was north of $15 billion. The human toll was 218 dead and more than 7,000 injured.
If this can occur and be unpunished, what else can happen? And have no consequences?
If the exact circumstances of the explosion remain unknown, the political responsibility is undeniable. A report by the NGO “Human Rights Watch” published in August 2021, clearly states that “some leaders were fully conscious that ammonium nitrate was stocked in the port, that this could provoke death, and tacitly accepted to take the risk.” Then Prime Minister Hassan Diab told the NGO that he had received information in June 2020 about the nitrate, “but then forgot about it.” Then Lebanese President Michel Aoun received the same information around the same time; in a public report in September 2020, he said that “it was too late” to act on it.
The same summer, in 2021, one of my friends, who survived the explosion, told me how angry she still feels. “This is one of the biggest explosions in the world’s history, and no measure has been taken to punish anyone responsible,” she said. “If this can occur and be unpunished, what else can happen? And have no consequences?”
Hope for an international investigation?
These days — around two-and-a-half years later — I am starting to see Beirut-blast-related content popping up on my social network feeds again here in Paris. The internal investigation, supposed to shed light on what happened and who was responsible, was suspended for 13 months. In late January, Lebanon’s top prosecutor, who works with the government, exonerated all 17 current suspects. I also see posts of victims' families protesting for justice that the government is denying them — and the scenes of them getting arrested.
According to NGOs and activists, international investigations could be launched, but many have lost faith both in the Lebanese government and the international community. “Our only hope is the lawsuits taking place outside the country for non-Lebanese,” the mother of a teenager who was killed by the blast told the newspaper the New Arab. “As Lebanese, we have no value. I hope that victims from other nationalities will pursue justice.”
There is a video that has been widely circulated on Twitter in the past few weeks that caught my eye. The faces of the Beirut blast victims, which were painted on murals around the city, were being power-erased in the middle of the night. The timing coincided with the new wave of protests, and the exoneration of the government suspects.
The clip perfectly embodies what is going on: like a thief in the night, a government is trying to erase every attempt made to shed light, ease the victims’ pain and find some closure for the nation, both those still living in the country and in the Lebanese diaspora. But in this new age of social media, it’s impossible to pretend that one of the biggest catastrophes in recent history never happened.