The terror and guilt of witnessing Beirut's tragedy from afar

The terror and guilt of witnessing Beirut's tragedy from afar
Beirut, a welcoming cosmopolitan city loved by all those who call it home, lies in ruins. Michal Kranz, a journalist until recently based in Beirut, offers a message of solidarity
6 min read
07 Aug, 2020
At least 137 people were killed by the massive explosion [Getty]
Editor's note: We ask our readers to consider donating to the Lebanon relief effort. More information can be found here.

Imagine being held hostage in a small, pitch dark room with no way to escape. Your captors have taken your wallet and phone, and often only give you food once a day. You notice yourself getting sick, but medical aid from your tormentors never arrives. And then, for whatever reason, someone walks in and shoots you in the stomach.

This may not be an exaggeration of what I imagine people in Lebanon are experiencing right now in the wake of Tuesday's horrifying cataclysm in Beirut, and it's a situation I've been replaying in my mind ever since it took place. Lebanese people's lives were already being torn apart everyday by the political class's epic corruption and economic mismanagement — citizens had already lost their savings in banks, had seen their careers and futures ruined, were facing a mounting surge of Covid-19 cases, were growing hungrier and poorer by the day, were being bankrupted by increases in the price of healthcare, and had been living with nightly blackouts for months due to lack of electricity. All this with increasingly dim prospects of seeking a better life elsewhere.  

What happened on August 4 added a level of horror to this existence that would seem fictively dystopian in its ruthlessness were it not so viscerally real. The explosion, which released as much force as 21 MOAB bombs, appeared to devour whatever stood in the path of its powerful shockwave. It was an event of Lovecraftian scale that in a single instant leveled nearly the entire port of Beirut, turned the popular streetscapes of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael to rubble, and blew out windows and doors in buildings as far as 15 miles away. It touched the life of every Beiruti in varying degrees of magnitude, just like the slow-motion economic and social collapse had done before it.

The explosion that crippled them at the moment of their desperation was the most extreme expression of a reality they knew and hated well — that their leaders did not give one iota about them or their wellbeing

After working in Lebanon on and off for nearly two years, I had left Beirut a couple weeks before Tuesday's explosion, which made watching it from a distance on Twitter all the more gut-wrenching and surreal. When I woke up to the news that a large explosion had taken place, I was prepared for a lone pillar of smoke, or a street block-sized blast. I was not prepared for the hellish, panic-inducing monstrosity that erupted out of port warehouse 12 at 6:07 pm. In countless videos, I watched buildings and monuments I had seen a thousand times before get subsumed into the explosion's rapidly expanding blast radius, and looked on in disbelief as neighbourhoods I had spent dozens of days reporting, strolling, and laughing in were transformed to dust, debris, and broken glass. In terror, I read accounts of streams of blood forming puddles in the streets I knew and loved, and was brought to tears by photos of blood-soaked men, women, and children wandering dazed and in shock through a city they no longer recognised.

I breathlessly exchanged messages with friends and colleagues in Beirut, some of whom had suffered injuries and had their apartments reduced to rubble, hoping in some way to calm the irrational yet unending guilt I felt for not being able to be there. I felt like I had abandoned a dying relative in a time of need, and now I had to watch them take their last breaths through a tiny phone screen.

How could I make sense of something so gargantuanly horrific? How would I be able to find closure while so far removed from the nightmare that had broken my heart? For humans processing grief, it becomes important to contextualise experiences and to fit them into our understanding of our world, however difficult that may be. At the time of writing, I've still found myself unable to do so, and am still waiting to wake up from what must all just be a terrible dream. 

At the same time though, I recognise that this was not about me, nor would it ever be. It was about the hundreds of thousands of traumatised people who had lost their homes, the doctors who broke down upon realising they could no longer treat their patients, the first responders who perished after arriving to fight the warehouse fire that led to the massive blast itself, to the children, mothers, and fathers who had lost people they loved. Last but not least, it was about the efforts of the tireless journalists and reporters in Beirut I will forever look up to for working through the day and night, sometimes after having sustained injuries of their own, to capture the human cost of this disaster and the criminal negligence that led to it.

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It was this negligence, the improper storage of over 2700 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate in a port warehouse for corrupt gain, that has given Beirut's people a way to understand this disaster, and has given them a way forward. The explosion that crippled them at the moment of their desperation was the most extreme expression of a reality they knew and hated well — that their leaders did not give one iota about them or their wellbeing. Protests have already taken place the day after the disaster in opposition to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri's convoy in downtown Beirut, and the hashtag "hang up the nooses" was trending on Twitter the same day. Spurred on by pain, shock, and righteous anger, the traumatised residents of Beirut are beginning to take up the torch of revolution once again, harboring that long-elusive, flickering, yet powerful hope that in a country with nearly zero political accountability, perhaps this time will be different.

As I watch residents of Beirut gather together to pick up the broken pieces of their lives, I can do little besides donate money, console loved ones, and do my small part to amplify the voices and work of those on the ground. With time, my shock will likely dim, as will my disbelief that an "accident" like this could ever be allowed to happen. After all, time heals (almost) every wound. I will return to Beirut again, I will walk its streets again, and I will fall in love with it all over again. But it will be a Beirut whose soul and whose people will never be the same — and that is something I will never be able to recover from.

Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist formerly based in Beirut, covering everything from US national security to refugee issues in Lebanon.

Follow him on Twitter: @Michal_Kranz

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.