Melissa Fathallah recalls the power lines that hung all over Rue Pasteur in the Gemmayzeh district, not far from the port of Beirut, on the evening of August 4, 2020. “They looked like the black tentacles of a monster,” she says. People lay in pools of blood between rubble and wrecked cars. It was a nightmare…
Melissa Fathallah recalls the power lines that hung all over Rue Pasteur in the Gemmayzeh district, not far from the port of Beirut, on the evening of August 4, 2020. “They looked like the black tentacles of a monster,” she says. People lay in pools of blood between rubble and wrecked cars. It was a nightmare of red and black, of moans and screams, that Fathallah had to work his way through.
Melissa Fathallah made her way to Hotel Em Nazih. The helper would have been on duty at the front desk that evening. She should have received doctors and nurses who, burned out from their services, were looking for a place to rest in the Covid ward of a nearby clinic. But Fathallah stayed at home longer on the evening of August 4, 2020 due to an ailment. That was her luck.
Almost a year after August 4, 2020, German helper Serkan Eren from Stuttgart is walking along Rue Pasteur with Melissa Fathallah to the former Hotel Em Nazih. He is in Beirut to buy material for Fathallah’s organization Baytna Baytak with donations from his association “Stelp” in Stuttgart.
Eren and Fathallah may have bumped into each other in the chaos of the dying and the seriously injured the night after the explosion. Shortly before August 4, Eren traveled to Lebanon to establish contacts for aid projects in the country, which had been ravaged by an economic crisis. He was traveling outside of Beirut when he felt the blast. He drove back to the town that had disappeared under a mushroom cloud and a yellow fog bank. His retirement was in Gemmayzeh district. Once there, Eren heard the screams of the destroyed buildings nearby and ran away.
The German helper remembers a firefighter who mistook him for a half-collapsed house. “He said if I go in there to look for people, I’ll be in ruins myself,” he says. Then Eren thinks of an arm sticking out of a mess. He was sure he was exhuming a body. ‘The man was still alive. He didn’t yell, he just stared at me.’
The helper has been digging with his bare hands all night for burials in the alleys of the Gemmayzeh district. The man from Stuttgart kept passing a parking lot on Rue Gouraud at night. It was filling up with the dead from the chambers by morning.
The Lebanese and Germans stand in the skeleton that was once the Hotel Em Nazih and then Baytna Baytak’s first aid station for doctors and first responders on the corona front. The pressure wave pushed the tile floor in front of it like water and piled it up into a ledge in the center of the room. The harbor grain silo can be seen through a hole in the wall a few hundred yards away. The semi-destroyed structure now borders a crater 124 meters wide and 43 meters deep and filled by the sea. There, 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate were stored in a hall until 6:08 PM on August 4, 2020.
The salt, used to make both ammunition and fertilizer, sat next to fireworks for seven years. On August 4, 2020, welding work initially ignited the black powder in the rockets. Then the ammonium nitrate ignited with a force – depending on the estimate – equivalent to 500 to 1,100 tons of the explosive trinitrotoluene (TNT). A pressure wave swept through downtown Beirut like a semicircular cloud of evaporated water. It smashed house walls, collapsed buildings and threw cars through the air. It stripped the skyscrapers of Beirut’s skyline of their glass facades and sent a deadly shower of splinters back to the people on the streets. According to official information, 190 people died under rubble and glass.
The city’s hospitals, half damaged by the blast, filled with 6,500 injured on the night of August 4-5. Beirut’s rubble-strewn downtown suddenly looked like it had been transported back in a time machine to the time of the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990. 300,000 of Beirut’s 2.3 million residents lost their roofs in seconds .
A year after the disaster, some facades of Pasteurstraat were framed by scaffolding. In many others there are cuts and empty window boxes, as if the port of Beirut has just been blown up. Through the blown-up empty floors of the destroyed state headquarters on Armenien-Straße, the view falls unimpeded to the half-destroyed grain silo in the harbor and the azure blue sea beyond. Where there is hammering, there are references to private donors. Melissa Fathallah believes this is the case all over downtown Beirut – there is no trace of state reconstruction.
Carnegie Foundation analyst Josiane Matar recalls her first thoughts when she saw the rubble landscape after the disaster. “I felt like my country had become a complete stranger to me,” she says. The Lebanese have always viewed their state as corrupt, Matar explains. But they trusted that he was not indifferent to the lives of his citizens, the analyst says. This certainty also diluted on August 4, 2020.
A financial bubble burst in 2019 as Lebanon’s financiers from the wealthy Gulf countries increasingly withdrew due to Iran’s influence and the power of the Shia party and militia Hezbollah. They left the Lebanese banks with their debts, just like their customers who used to use a credit card.
There were golden times when Lebanon removed the traces of a civil war after 1990 with money from Saudi Arabia or the United Emirates. The facades of the Beirut skyline shone silver in the sun. Club B018 opened in a former bunker and had international DJ greats fly in. Former warlords swapped saddles and fed the frenzied nightlife in Beirut with cocaine. Celebration and joie de vivre drew millions of tourists from Europe and the Gulf States.
The inflation of 2019 caused a rough awakening and drove the youth onto the streets. There is always unrest. Josiane Matar, however, has doubts about an imminent popular uprising. “People are completely preoccupied with their survival,” says the analyst.
Lebanon’s Christian President Michel Aoun named billionaire Najib Mikati on July 26 to succeed Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned in mid-July. Like his predecessor, Mikati is Sunni. Because the constitution requires it. The President of Lebanon must be Christian and the Speaker of Parliament must be Shia. In the end, the same people ruled from the same circles of power that had been formed during the Civil War, the analyst explains. They successfully fed the population’s fear of each other along the old rifts of the Civil War.
Mikati ruled Lebanon in 2005 and from 2011 to 2014. A ship flying the Moldovan flag carrying thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate docked at the port of Beirut in 2013. It remained in port because its owner did not have the means to navigate the Suez Canal. Authorities stored the ammonium nitrate in the port’s hall in 2014 and over the years have not agreed on what to do with the high-explosive cargo. The end of the story is known.
Khuloud Abdessamad, 27 years old and architect, is an activist of the Minteshreen movement, which was founded in the fall of 2019. She fights for an end to the order based on the division of power between religious communities, for civil marriages and a secular state. Parliamentary elections will be held next year. “We will participate in it or, from our point of view, support suitable candidates,” Abdessamad said. Lebanon’s revolutionaries are now beginning to march through the institutions after a failed street campaign that has lasted nearly two years. The opposing elite has all the levers in their hands. The new strategy can be called democratic or crazy. Abdessamad tells of a landslide victory for the grassroots candidates over the established forces in an election in late July in a powerful trade union federation. That gives you hope. A little.