Clarissa Ward is CNN’s Chief International Correspondent and the author of the forthcoming “On All Fronts,” from which this piece is partly adapted.
(CNN)”This time, it’s different,” my Lebanese friend said.
He was talking about the devastating explosion that ripped through Beirut a week earlier, when a staggering 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated. The blast left at least 180 people dead and 300,000 displaced. For many around the world, it brought Lebanon’s strife into sharp focus for the first time in years. The horrific explosion, it soon became clear, was caused by gross negligence. The stockpile of explosives had been sitting in the port for years with no proper safeguards, despite multiple warnings of the dangers. Clarissa WardMy friend’s advertising and branding business, which he had lovingly built up from scratch, was smashed to pieces. In recent years, the company had just managed to survive the bleak economic climate in Lebanon, but for now there is no possibility of rebuilding. The cost is too great, and the risks are too high. No one wants to invest a penny more into the country’s economy without real hope that things will change. Lebanon is no stranger to violence. In the ’70s and ’80s it endured a grueling 15-year civil war that left more than 100,000 people dead. The country has been invaded several times by Israel and occupied by Syrian troops for some 29 years. Lebanon has survived bombing campaigns and terrorism and sectarian strife. More recently, it has been consumed by economic crisis. Prices have soared as the currency’s value has plummeted. More than 55% percent of its people now live below the poverty line.How to help Beirut explosion victims Throughout it all, the same band of feudal warlords and their families have remained in power, in part because of a law passed to help end the civil war that dictates that the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the Parliament a Shi’a.Read MoreTraditionally, sectarian loyalties have trumped outrage over corruption and mismanagement. But the sheer senselessness of this horrific blast and the grotesque incompetence of those in power could make it a turning point.”It’s not even war. It’s pathetic,” my friend went on to say. “We are traumatized. Angry. Disgusted.” Like so many who have spent time in Beirut, the images of the explosion left me stupefied, sickened, and desperately saddened. To live in Lebanon, even as an outsider, is to embark on an intense and often painful love affair. Photos: Huge explosion rocks Beirut Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA rescue worker walks along a pile of rubble at the explosion site in Beirut, Lebanon, on Saturday, August 8.Hide Caption 1 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutVolunteers conduct research at the explosion site on Saturday.Hide Caption 2 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA man sits inside a damaged home in Beirut, Lebanon, on Friday.Hide Caption 3 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutBooks are seen in the blast debris on Friday.Hide Caption 4 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA woman and her sister-in-law show a photo of a missing man on Friday. Hundreds of people have been reported missing.Hide Caption 5 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutRescue workers search for missing people at the site of the explosion.Hide Caption 6 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutPeople remove debris from a house on Friday.Hide Caption 7 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA French rescue worker rests on Friday.Hide Caption 8 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA man whose legs were injured because of the explosion looks at a destroyed house on Friday.Hide Caption 9 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA Russian rescue worker and dog search the Beirut port on Friday.Hide Caption 10 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutLebanese soldiers stand guard in front of destroyed ships Thursday.Hide Caption 11 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutChristelle Helou hugs the coffin of her cousin Nicole in Sarba, Lebanon, on Thursday.Hide Caption 12 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA person hugs French President Emmanuel Macron during his visit to the Gemmayzeh neighborhood in Beirut on Thursday. Large crowds, chanting “revolution, revolution,” mobbed Macron as he toured the neighborhood. France has sent an aid package to Lebanon that includes two military planes, 55 personnel, 15 tons of equipment and a mobile clinic that’s able care for 500 wounded people.Hide Caption 13 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutWorkers remove rubble on Thursday.Hide Caption 14 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA woman, whose son is said to be missing after Tuesday’s explosion, waits outside Beirut’s port on Thursday to receive information from rescue teams.Hide Caption 15 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA man carries his belongings as he leaves his destroyed house on Thursday. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.Hide Caption 16 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutRelatives of people who are missing hold hands Thursday as they wait outside the port to receive information from rescue teams.Hide Caption 17 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA man leaves his damaged house on Thursday.Hide Caption 18 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutThis aerial photo, taken Wednesday, shows the aftermath of the explosion.Hide Caption 19 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA statue representing the Lebanese expatriate is seen Wednesday in front of a building that was damaged by the explosion.Hide Caption 20 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA woman walks with her belongings on Wednesday.Hide Caption 21 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutThis aerial photo, taken on Wednesday, shows ruined structures at the port.Hide Caption 22 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutLebanese soldiers search for survivors on Wednesday.Hide Caption 23 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutDamage is seen inside an apartment on Wednesday.Hide Caption 24 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutDebris hangs from a damaged facade.Hide Caption 25 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA woman walks over rubble in her apartment on Wednesday.Hide Caption 26 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutThis satellite image, obtained by CNN from Planet Labs Inc., shows a massive crater at the site of Tuesday’s explosion. See the before-and-after picturesHide Caption 27 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutAn injured man sits next to a restaurant in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood on Wednesday.Hide Caption 28 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutLebanese soldiers search for survivors on Wednesday.Hide Caption 29 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutDebris litters the floor of the Lebanese Parliament on Wednesday.Hide Caption 30 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutBeirut was declared a “disaster city” by authorities on Wednesday. Hide Caption 31 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA woman looks out of the collapsed facade of a Beirut apartment on Wednesday.Hide Caption 32 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutThe Beirut neighborhood of Mar Mikhael sits in ruins.Hide Caption 33 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA Lebanese army helicopter flies over Beirut on Wednesday.Hide Caption 34 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA damaged hospital room is seen on Wednesday.Hide Caption 35 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutPeople walk Wednesday along a road littered with debris and abandoned vehicles.Hide Caption 36 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA helicopter fights a fire Tuesday at the scene of the explosion.Hide Caption 37 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA nurse takes care of three babies in a damaged Beirut hospital on Tuesday.Hide Caption 38 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutRescue crews search a street for survivors on Tuesday night. “People are asking the emergency department about their loved ones, and it is difficult to search at night because there is no electricity,” Health Minister Hamad Hassan told the Reuters news agency. “We are facing a real catastrophe and need time to assess the extent of damages.”Hide Caption 39 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA wounded man is helped as he walks through debris following the explosion.Hide Caption 40 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutSmoke rises after the blast. This image was obtained from a video on social media.Hide Caption 41 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutLebanese Red Cross officers carry an injured woman on Tuesday night.Hide Caption 42 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA building’s facade is shattered after Tuesday’s explosion.Hide Caption 43 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutWounded people wait to received help outside a hospital. Emergency wards have been inundated.Hide Caption 44 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutAn investigation into the explosion was announced by Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab.Hide Caption 45 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutPeople run for cover following the explosion. Bachar Ghattas, an eyewitness, described scenes of chaos: “You can see injured people all over the streets in Beirut, glass all over the place, cars are damaged. It is like an apocalypse.”Hide Caption 46 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutInjured people sit on a street after the blast.Hide Caption 47 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutLebanese soldiers watch as a helicopter fights a fire at the scene of the explosion.Hide Caption 48 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA man sits near the site of the blast.Hide Caption 49 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutFirefighters work at the scene on Tuesday.Hide Caption 50 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA wounded person is carried after the blast.Hide Caption 51 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutThe explosion was near the port in the Lebanese capital.Hide Caption 52 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutSmoke billows following the explosion.Hide Caption 53 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA wounded man walks near the scene.Hide Caption 54 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutPeople gather by damaged buildings after the blast.Hide Caption 55 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutFirefighters use a water hose on flaming debris.Hide Caption 56 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutRed smoke rises after the explosion, which could be felt for miles. “What I felt was that it was an earthquake,” Beirut resident Rania Masri told CNN.Hide Caption 57 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutPeople walk near the scene of the explosion.Hide Caption 58 of 59 Photos: Huge explosion rocks BeirutA man reacts at the scene soon after the explosion.Hide Caption 59 of 59As one journalist, Josie Ensor, who was once based in Beirut, recently wrote, “If you don’t fall in love with it, you’ve misunderstood it. If you don’t hate it, you’ve done something wrong.”I first moved there in 2005. I needed a base to spend time between grueling, six-week assignments in Baghdad, and Beirut was perfect. It is a microcosm of the Middle East and in that way an apt introduction. There are Sunni and Shi’a Muslims and Druze (an isolationist offshoot of Islam whose people have historically lived in the mountains); Maronite and Orthodox Christians; Catholics, Armenians and Assyrians. The diversity is vibrant and fascinating; it has also been a source of misery.Yet, for the most part, the Lebanese have no patience for self-pity. In times of war or peace, the mentality has remained: “Tonight we party for tomorrow we may die.” This hedonism is set against a stunning Mediterranean backdrop. The people are warm and charming and attractive and smart.I lived in a neighborhood called Clemenceau. The view from my balcony would have been fantastic, were it not for the bullet-riddled skeleton of the Holiday Inn. Built in the 1970s, it had become the frontline of Lebanon’s civil war and the site of some of the fiercest fighting. After the war, it had been stripped of everything but the concrete. Now, it stood as a grim testament to a conflict whose underlying enmities remained. The Lebanese acted as if it wasn’t there.In July of 2006, the Shi’ite militia, Hezbollah, launched a cross border raid that left three Israeli soldiers dead, two captured, and two wounded.Israel responded immediately, targeting dozens of buildings in Dahiyeh, Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut, as well as roads, bridges — even the airport. Thousands of Hezbollah rockets rained down across the border as Israeli airstrikes smashed the south of the country. My neighborhood quickly became a destination for displaced people.Many of the country’s elites simply decamped to the mountains. Restaurants and nightclubs followed suit and life continued, as normal, but transplanted about 30 miles from the conflict.One night during the war, I decided to visit some Lebanese friends in the mountains for a quick break. They took me to one of the most popular clubs, Element. Inside, wealthy Lebanese girls with perfect French manicures danced on the bar, looking down at me with pity as I sat watching them, filthy and exhausted. They must have been able to see the judgment in my eyes. “It’s not our war, hayati (sweetheart),” one of them said. The words lingered long after my hangover was gone. The ability to find life in the face of devastation demonstrated an impressive resilience. But it risked devolving into a dull acceptance of violence. The conflict lasted exactly 34 days, but the destruction it wrought was enormous. Power stations and water and sewage treatment plants were hit, and much of Lebanon ground to a halt. Tourists and dual citizens were evacuated out of the country. Beirut, normally buzzing during the summer months, became a ghost town as people fled to the safety of the mountains. An estimated 1,109 Lebanese people were killed, mostly civilians.A Lebanese filmmaker told me about the numbness he felt at that time. There was no electricity, and we were sitting by candlelight. Beirut felt particularly spooky that night, all black and empty.”It’s like someone has cut our wrist and given us a shot of morphine,” my friend said. “We’re bleeding to death, but we can’t feel it, we can’t even feel it.”Things feel different today. Lebanon is hemorrhaging, and almost everyone is feeling it acutely.A tide of popular revulsion against the long-reigning kleptocrats was rising long before the country was roiled by coronavirus, a collapse in the currency, and then the port explosion. Now, revulsion has hardened into inchoate anger, especially among the young, who have no memory of the civil war.Could it be that the corruption and incompetence laid bare by the devastation will finally liberate Lebanon from the dead hand of sectarian elites who have long forgotten the people they are meant to represent?The government has been dissolved, but there is no guarantee that a new government will be any different unless the sectarian power sharing agreement that underpins Lebanon’s political system changes.There is genuine hope that this could be an inflection point but also deep fear that the country will quickly fall back into the familiar cycle of anger and then resignation. I long to see Lebanon’s vibrant and creative spirit nurtured and its businesses rebuilt, with substantive, long-term support from the international community. The Lebanese people deserve better.For many, it feels like the last chance for a fresh start.”We are all desperate,” my friend said to me before hanging up the phone. “If this won’t change anything then to hell with us all.”
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