The blast that blew away Lebanon's faith in itself

By Samia Nakhoul
BEIRUT (Reuters) - They gather in black groups in the shadows of buildings destroyed by the explosion that struck that city on August 4th. Men, women and children from Christian and Muslim sects weigh portraits of their dead.
Beirut was thrown back into the vigil of its 1975-1990 civil war. The families then requested information about relatives who had disappeared. Many never found out what happened even though the country was rebuilt. Today's mourners know what happened. You just don't know why.
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Four months later, authorities did not blame anyone for the explosion, which killed 200 people, injured 6,000 and left 300,000 homeless. Many questions remain unanswered. Chief among them: Why was flammable material knowingly left in the port in the heart of the city for almost seven years?
For me, the harbor explosion awakened memories that I forgot for 30 years. As a reporter for Reuters, I covered the civil war, the invasion and occupation of Lebanon by Israel and Syria - and the assassinations, air strikes, kidnappings, kidnappings and suicide bombings that marked all of these conflicts.
But the explosion has questioned me and many other Lebanese people about what became of a country that seems to have left its people. This time, the lack of answers about the catastrophe of an already crippled nation makes it difficult to rise from the ashes.
"I am ashamed to be Lebanese," said Shoushan Bezdjian, whose daughter Jessica - a 21-year-old nurse - died on duty when the blast pierced her hospital.
It took 15 years of sectarian bloodshed to destroy Beirut during the civil war. The reconstruction then took 15 years - with a lot of help from abroad. In 1990 billions of dollars flowed from western and Gulf Arab countries and from a distant Lebanese diaspora estimated to be at least three times the size of the country's 6 million people.
The result was impressive: Beirut was reborn as a glamorous city featured in travel magazines as an exciting destination for culture and parties. Tourists came for the city's nightlife, international festivals in Greco-Roman and Ottoman environments, museums and archaeological sites from Phoenician times.
Many well-educated expatriates - academics, doctors, engineers, and artists - returned to take part in their nation's rebirth. Among them was Youssef Comair, a neurosurgeon who left Lebanon in 1982 to pursue a specialization in the United States.
Comair then served as Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at UCLA and Head of Epilepsy at Cleveland Clinic, where he pioneered the use of surgery as a therapy for epilepsy. When he landed back in Beirut to work as the head of surgery at the American University of Beirut, Comair believed the country had turned a corner. Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the industrialist turned politician who rebuilt Beirut after the war, was in power and promised a new age of prosperity.
"I longed for a life and a place ... receptive to all kinds of civilizations. This was what we were in Lebanon before the war," Comair recalled.
Behind the splendor of Beirut, however, Lebanon was built on shaky political ground after the civil war.
At the end of the war, militia leaders on all sides took off their tired clothes, put on suits, shook hands after the 1989 Taif peace agreement brokered by Saudi Arabia and were largely disarmed. But the nation's political leaders, it seemed to many here, continued to pay more attention to a revolving door of foreign patrons than to creating a stable state.
The country's Shiite Muslims turned to Iran and its Arab ally Syria, whose troops invaded Lebanon in 1976 and stayed for three decades. The Sunnis were looking for wealthy oil producers in the Gulf. Christians, whose political influence was severely restricted in the post-war treaty, had difficulty finding reliable partners over the years and switched covenants. Domestic policy has been dictated at various times by the tightest-budget foreign power.
The return from Comair to Beirut was also favorable for me. While I was reporting on the US invasion of Baghdad in 2003, I was seriously injured in the head by shrapnel from a US tank shell that was fired at the Reuters office in the Palestine Hotel. After an emergency operation in Baghdad, I was evacuated by US marines to neighboring Kuwait and then to Lebanon for further treatment. Beirut had become a medical competence center for the region - and Comair was my doctor. During my stays in Dubai and London, I returned to Beirut and Comair regularly for years to make sure I was healed.
But my country was under pressure again. After the Iranian-backed Hezbollah drove the Israeli forces in southern Lebanon out of the country in 2000, the group steadily increased its military and political influence. In 2005, Hariri was assassinated and again dealt a blow to those who believed Lebanon had a bright future. Once again, top Lebanese professionals emigrated. Comair accepted a position at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston in 2006. I settled in London.
We were both determined to return. Returning home was a way for me to expose my children, who were in elementary school at the time, to my family and culture. The 2010 Arab Spring was the moment. While protests erupted and dictators were overthrown in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, Lebanon appeared to be an oasis in a troubled region. Beirut was busy again. By 2012 both Comair and I were back in Beirut.
We were lulled into a sense of security: traditional family Sunday dinner; Sunset drinks on the decks of Beirut's beaches; Music and film festivals; Wine tasting in the vineyards at the foot of Lebanon, skiing on the slopes. Friends and family came to visit in greater numbers when Lebanon's reputation was forgotten during the war. Tourism peaked in Lebanon in 2010 when the number of visitors reached almost 2.2 million, according to official statistics, an increase of 17% over 2009.
Life stopped
Again, Lebanon's foundations were weak. The country lived beyond its means, and successive governments piled up debts, which, according to the Lebanese Treasury, rose to 170% of national production in March 2020. This time, the national banks bore the brunt of government spending. At the beginning of last year, their losses on loans to the state amounted to $ 83 billion, well above Lebanon's annual gross domestic product. The banks responded by closing their doors, freezing all accounts, effectively bringing the Lebanese economy to a standstill.
For more than a year, people in Lebanon have been unable to transfer money or withdraw more than $ 500 a week. The bank shutdown blocked another important stream of income for the Lebanese economy - money from the diaspora.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Lebanon's economic output had shrunk by 6.7% in 2019. In 2020 the economy is expected to shrink by another 20%. According to government figures, more than 50,000 children left private school and enrolled in government education last year. This shows the erosion of the country's middle class. According to Sharaf Abou Sharaf, head of the doctors' union, nearly 700 doctors left Lebanon in the past year.
What many Beirutis did not know before August is that an even greater threat lay within them.
In 2013, a ship docked in the port of Beirut with a supply of the highly flammable chemical ammonium nitrate. It was - and is still not clear - why the ship went to Lebanon. However, the arrival and storage of the material was known to a revolving door by port and national security officers installed by various government factions who could never agree on how to remove the chemical shipment. It lay untouched for more than six years in a warehouse in Beirut Harbor, just a short walk from the bustling city center.
As I covered the Civil War, I recorded the deaths of dozens of victims who were overlooked in the larger events: two sisters drowned at sea to desperately flee from fire; three brothers sacrificed in a supermarket; young school children shot at their bus. One morning in 1989, I walked into a morgue wearing a mask that couldn't suppress the suffocating stench of 20 army soldiers shot in the head with their hands still cuffed behind their backs.
But I will never forget the horror in the eyes of my twin children that August afternoon when our car was suddenly thrown to the side of the road as an orange and white mushroom cloud of dust and debris rose over our heads. "Duck and cover," I yelled, and immediately threw myself back to the bombs of my conflict zone reporting days. Glass and bricks from collapsing buildings fell near the car; uprooted trees blocked the streets. People ran everywhere; howling ambulances tried to reach the wounded.
"Life stopped on August 4th," said Rita Hitti, whose son Najib was a firefighter who was killed along with two other family members while fighting the flames that ignited the explosives in the port.
"I don't have a feeling for anything anymore - my country or anything else."
After the explosion, the government resigned in the face of popular anger. However, the various ruling factions in Lebanon remain too divided to create a new government that can help rebuild the city and the Lebanese economy. Their loyalty is divided between the United States, Europe and the Gulf States on the one hand, and Iran and Syria on the other. Attempts by French President Emmanuel Macron to help build a new government have so far failed.
A divided society
Today the division between the Lebanese elite and the wider population is great. Lebanese tycoons are a regular feature of Forbes' list of the richest people in the world. Among the six listed in 2020 were members of the family of al-Hariri, the murdered prime minister, and another former prime minister, Najib Mikati, and his brother Taha. Other leaders, many of them former militia chiefs, now live in grand mansions surrounded by security forces, in Beirut's affluent suburbs or remote hills.
According to a report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for West Asia, the richest 10% owned around 70% of the country's personal wealth in 2019. More than half of the population is in poverty, the report added.
Samia Doughan, 48, recently joined a protest in the port of Beirut against the heads of state and government. She sobbed as she held a picture of her dead husband in her hand. "Every day we wake up crying and sleep crying," said Doughan, the mother of twin girls. "These leaders should have been overthrown a long time ago. They ruled us for 30 years, it is enough."
In contrast to the postwar period when foreign support poured in, foreign donors said they would not fund Lebanon until a new government can show their money is not being wasted.
Many Lebanese emigrated during the civil war. This time too, people are looking for an exit. Information International, a Beirut-based research firm that has conducted extensive research on migration, said an estimated 33,000 people left in 2018 and 66,000 in 2019.
Immediately after the explosion in August, searches in Lebanon for the word "immigration" on Google Trends reached a 10-year high. A recent search by the Arab Opinion Index found that four in five Lebanese between the ages of 18 and 24 are considering emigrating. Sharaf, head of the doctors' union, says he receives between five and ten requests for referrals every day from doctors seeking work in hospitals abroad.
The heart of the capital, which is usually full over Christmas, is deserted. Shops and restaurants are closed. Martyrs Square, which was the front line between the Muslim west and Christian east of Beirut during the civil war before it was rebuilt, is no longer illuminated at night.
Comair and I are now both considering leaving Lebanon again. My doctor spends his days rebuilding his hospital that was destroyed in the explosion. But he has little faith in the country's long-term revival.
"We are witnessing the destruction of Lebanon," he told me. "I have no hope that this land can rise."
(Reporting by Samia Nakhoul in Beirut; additional reporting by Imad Creidi; editing by Alessandra Galloni and Michael Williams)
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