Award-winning children’s author Basma El Khatib, whose work has been published by QF’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University Press, was in her home country of Lebanon when a huge explosion tore through its capital Beirut. One month on, these are her reflections on the tragedy, the anger it has unleashed – and the change it must lead to.
They seemed to happen one after another – a successive, growing, fracturing slew of disappointments and frustrations that came to define us. We, the Lebanese, had come to expect a meteor to hit us from the sky. We used to say this sarcastically; perhaps our innate ability to mock and diminish the cruelness of our existence would give us the hope to hold on and continue with this harsh reality.
To our surprise, the meteor was the one mocking us; it passed by earth but didn’t hit it. Instead, a nuclear bomb imploded from the heart of Beirut. Most of it was sucked up by the Mediterranean, a third of it was absorbed by the ‘grain silos’, and the rest of its destructive effects wiped out the land in the vicinity of the explosion.
Shock, numbness, and hysteria. These are the emotions that consumed us following the blast and they continue to until this day. I guess it will take us many more weeks before we get over the trauma. The echo of the explosion is still thundering in our souls.
The smell of the corpses and body parts buried under the rubble, even the ones that were swallowed by the sea, this too, will linger on for much longer. It is encased under our ribcages, and we will forever carry it in ourselves. We will taste it with the bitterness we feel whenever we look at our stricken city.
When the smoke cleared, we opened our eyes to try and see what happened around us. Our eyes watered, partly from the dust still stuck in our eyes, but mostly because we saw the destiny of Beirut. Since the dawn of its history, this city has been stitching its wounds, always pulling itself together and healing with patience. But after already enduring more than any other city in the world, on that day, Beirut had fallen.
Cities have the right to weep, to take their time to be able to stand again. How many times can it rise from under the rubble? How often can it rebuild itself in mock defiance of its killers?
With mercy, we let it weep. Cities have the right to weep, to take their time to be able to stand again. How many times can it rise from under the rubble? How often can it rebuild itself in mock defiance of its killers? How many times can it laugh in the face of its rapists? This time, it is too much and it needs to kneel down and weep.
What happened to Beirut is, terribly, much more than the history of any city could bare. What has happened and is happening to the people of Lebanon is too horrifying and too much to endure in a single lifetime. A human being lives a life that has both moments of joy and sadness, but for the bitterness and constant calamities to prevail over the course of a life is…unbearable.
Almost a year ago, I returned to Lebanon after living in Qatar for 15 years. I returned to be in my home country, to be near my father, who had cancer, and my weary mother, on whom life has taken its toll. I was happy working and living in Qatar with my children, who were born there and lived a life that was free and carefree. But we decided to return to Lebanon to be with my parents, so their daughter and grandchildren could finally be near them after all those years apart.
A lot of people would say this was a crazy or a reckless decision, leaving my job at Qatar Foundation. But I wasn’t thinking rationally. My actions were led by my emotions. I had been far from my family for too long. I could no longer leave my parents behind in such a desolate place in their old age. To stand on the top of a mountain where the air is fresh and clear and watch them suffer is nothing but ingratitude.
My father did not respond to his cancer treatment until the uprising broke out in Lebanon in October 2019. He told us: "I thank God that he gave me the opportunity to see this day, and to see the Lebanese rise up against the corrupt political class and instinctive sectarianism." Lebanon stood on the brink of economic collapse, and nothing had yet saved it from that fate. Just like the treatment and the latest medication couldn’t save my father.
After a few good months where he responded well to the cancer treatment, he suffered a relapse, then recovered, then again faced another setback. That’s when the doctors declared that they couldn’t do anything other than relieve his pain.
This news coincided with the outbreak of coronavirus. We went into home isolation and everyone fell into a bitter depression. My father was joking with his doctor, saying: "I don’t mind the trade-off – take the cancer and give me the coronavirus.”
It was a bitter experience for my children, despite all my attempts to hide my pain. They felt it, and found themselves facing questions about life and death, and life after death. All of this in addition to their difficult school year, interrupted by the uprising, and then the because of the pandemic, happened under a harsh and lonely home quarantine.
But still they held out hope. Everything they endured would be OK if they could just return to Qatar. I promised them that we would return as soon as the pandemic ends. We planned our next visit: the places we would go, the friends we would meet, and the activities we missed. There was no competition in their hearts between Doha and Beirut; there was a unique love for both. They wanted to live in the two cities together.
Whether it was a deliberate act or an accident, the crime is the corruption. The same corruption that drove Lebanon into economic collapse, grinding poverty, and despair
Then, Beirut exploded. Two simple, meager words: Beirut exploded. Yet these two words are burdened with all the tragedies humanity has ever known.
Injustice, oppression, corruption, killing, destruction, uprooting trees, scattering clouds, smashing glass, crashing walls and ceilings, shattering dreams, violating sanctities, eternal darkness, digging graves, slaughtering cultural heritage, distorting the face of civilization, trampling over the alphabet, blowing ashes (to prevent the mythical phoenix from ever rising again), and tainting innocent faces with permanent scars and engraving stitches around skulls to engrave the memory of these crimes into flesh, into bodies.
Stitches and scars; so many of them everywhere. Between the sidewalks, between every building, house, every terrace, and window.
I was not at my home in Beirut. What happened to the house was the easiest thing for me. God’s mercy meant we were destined to be away from our home and from Beirut at that moment.
Everyone started texting each other. The ones who survived started posting that they were well and had made it through, marking themselves as ‘safe’ on Facebook. I tried to do the same but couldn’t. How could I be fine? How could I be well with all the wreckage carried within my heart? With all the crushed glass stuck in my throat? Don’t believe what’s on Facebook, or the people who tried to assure you that they are OK. Nobody was well – how could we possibly be? How can anyone be fine when their city’s innards have been ripped away and its heart has been inexplicably broken?
The hastily-written story was that it started with a fire. But the true story proves that it started with the corruption and arrogance which made those whom are responsible for the safety of Lebanon, its lands, and its citizens, cultivate a time bomb and sponsor it year after year.
Then, in a fateful moment six years later, a fire broke out. The firefighting and civil defense teams were sent to control it. Tragedy was waiting for them, and for us all. This was not a normal fire that a few firefighters could be summoned to get under control. Rather, it required an evacuation request and a warning to the city. Only this would have saved many lives.
Since the day after the bombing, volunteers from all over Lebanon filled the streets of stricken Beirut. Their grief can only be described by the ruin of their city; their anger cannot be weighed except by the extent of their determination
The port officials knew that dangerous explosive materials were stored at the scene of the fire. Certainly not 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, because experts estimated that what exploded was only about 300 tons – perhaps luckily for us. The fumes that filled the sky were of different colors and densities, indicating that what exploded was a number of materials and not only one.
But still, teams of courageous and brave men and women were sent to die in a vain attempt to control a fire that would set off the explosives, a small semi-nuclear bomb, that were ticking for years in the heart of our capital.
Detonating a bomb. This is what it was. Whether it was a deliberate act or an accident, the crime is the corruption. The same corruption that drove Lebanon into economic collapse, grinding poverty, and despair.
While the tremendous efforts by the people of Lebanon, its civil institutions, and friendly countries are concentrated on helping Beirut and its people repair what has been destroyed, we must not lose focus on the most difficult and deserving assistance that Lebanon needs: reforming its political system, holding the corrupt accountable, and returning its stolen wealth and wasted dignity.
As I write these words, more bodies are being recovered, more body parts are being found, and about 50 people are still missing. More than 180 children and adults have been killed. The cost of the damage runs into billions of dollars. Thousands of families lost their homes; thousands more lost their livelihoods. Since the day after the bombing, volunteers from all over Lebanon filled the streets of stricken Beirut. Their grief can only be described by the ruin of their city; their anger cannot be weighed except by the extent of their determination.
I am haunted by flashing images of the demolished offices and damaged homes of my brothers and loved ones and by the memories of how they once stood. I assure myself for the umpteenth time that they were not there at the time of the bombing. That they are…OK.
I don't care about the investigations. What I want is assurance that this will be the last ‘accident’ and that there won’t be others. Should every Hiroshima be followed with a Nagasaki?