By Halima Khayar, political activist
On August 4, 2020, time stood still in Lebanon. Not only was a city mutilated on that terrible day, but an entire population. Numbers became public: 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, 215 fatalities, more than 6,500 injured, at least two victims who are still in a coma after a year, over 70,000 damaged housing units, more than 300,000 people homeless. Estimated $ 8 billion in property damage. Priceless loss of life. The crucial number are the seven million traumatized people in Lebanon and abroad who are fighting for justice.
A year has passed since that day. The ghost of impunity still hovers over the August 4th explosion – called “Beirutshima” by many, which brought them near nuclear destruction. Lebanese society is in a massive crisis of desperation and disappointment It’s a deadly combination: the country’s crashing currency, banks holding back their customers’ money, the pandemic and a near-nuclear disaster.
As early as the summer of 2019, when the banks were restricting withdrawals from business and personal accounts, there were signs of a financial collapse. On October 17, 2019, millions of Lebanese went to the streets to protest against new taxes. That changed the political dynamic. The political class saw the demonstrations as an opportunity to smuggle billions of dollars out of the country and spread a new narrative: The financial collapse was caused by the protests.
The political elite in Lebanon emerged from the civil war that ended in 1990. It was startled by the protests: Suddenly the Lebanese people united under the slogan “Kellon yaane kellon!” (Arabic for “All of them means all of them!”), against the political decision-makers. In doing so, they explicitly accused everyone who had held political office since 1990 and demanded that they be held accountable for mismanagement and corruption. The ruling parties were very upset by this slogan. In some parts of the country, protesters were attacked by thugs linked to the political parties.
Then came March 2020: the pandemic helped the regime drive the angry people off the streets. The ruling parties saw the lockdown as an opportunity to consolidate their position. The tents that demonstrators had set up across the country to meet and discuss political issues were burned down by security forces. The parties distributed hygiene boxes and food parcels with their names and logos to supporters and families in need.
The collapse, however, came faster than expected. In July 2020, the Lebanese pound fell to a record low of 8,000 per US dollar. The government exploited the pandemic to solve its problem: whenever prices – especially for bread – rose significantly, it imposed a lockdown.
August 4, 2020 began as the first “normal” day after one of these irrational five-day lockdowns. Shops closed at 5 pm and the usual daily traffic jams occurred in Beirut. At 5.40 pm a fire broke out in warehouse 12 in the Beirut port, firefighters were alerted. At 6:07 pm there was a first loud explosion. Those in Beirut who could hear it went outside to see what had happened. Less than 40 seconds later … well, the whole world saw what happened, the detonation could still be heard and felt in Cyprus.
When you hear a loud noise in a country like Lebanon, which is marked by constant unrest and violence, you instinctively run off. This time, everything was different: there was no place to take refuge. Everything was pierced by shards of glass and metal within a radius of ten kilometers.
I live just one kilometer from the center of the explosion. I’ve seen pictures that no Hollywood movie could ever reproduce. I was walking down a street that was full of blood. Adults and children ran around like zombies, screaming uncontrollably. The hardest part was not taking care of the bodies on the floor. Or to walk past the destroyed hospitals whose employees were trying to evacuate bleeding patients onto the street. Or to see a destroyed funeral home whose coffins had been scattered outside by the force of the explosion. No, the hardest part of the day was running around for over five hours trying to save the wounded – not knowing what had actually happened. Another war? An invasion? When would the next explosion come?
On the morning of August 5th, the air was heavy. The atmosphere in Beirut was full of dust and death. As the cloud of the exploded ammonium nitrate settled over the destroyed houses and cars, it covered the city with a pink veil. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of Lebanese people with shovels, brooms and garbage bags from all regions flocked to clean up their capital and show solidarity with the victims.
The state, the silent culprit, did not lift a finger to support the volunteers in their relief and cleanup work. Instead, he chose to use tear gas and bullets to meet angry survivors and protesters who protested near Parliament on August 8th. Not a single police officer was held responsible for the serious injuries suffered by the protesters. At least 35 people lost an eye that day.
Today, a year later, the state has completely failed and the economy has completely collapsed. After the ruling class smuggled their money out of the country, the central bank’s reserves were completely depleted. Parliament has allowed US $ 200 million from reserves – investor money – to be used to import gasoline and other goods. The exchange rate against the US dollar is breaking new records every day and currently stands at 23,000 pounds. There is a lack of essential medical supplies in the country. The health sector is on its knees. Electricity is only available for three hours a day.
This week, in which tens of thousands in Lebanon, together with the families of the victims, remember August 4, 2020, eyes are on examining magistrate Tarek Bitar. The Lebanese expect him to take unprecedentedly courageous decisions and to name the culprits. Policy makers have repeatedly admitted that they knew about the ammonium nitrate in warehouse 12. These include President Michel Aoun himself, who said in a television interview in August 2020 that he was informed about it on July 20 – in his opinion “too late”. As a former general, Aoun probably knows the dangers of such explosives very well. Happened Aoun has spent the last ten months negotiating with former and intermittent Prime Minister Saad Hariri, both of which are preventing the formation of a new government that could give hope to the Lebanese people.
On August 5, Judge Bitar moved to lift the immunity of several prominent former decision-makers who may be linked to the events. Parliament rejected this. In the meantime, alternative media platforms are conducting investigative research in order to bring facts about the procurement and storage of ammonium nitrate to light. The Lebanese people, especially the youth, have lost faith in accountability and justice. They also lost faith in the international community, they dream of a visa and a one-way ticket.