Running to the living room for a better view of the plume of smoke leaping from above the port hundreds of meters into the sky, I had almost made it to the balcony when the bang arrived.
In February, media around the world shared a video from Syria of a father who had taught his 3-year-old daughter to laugh at the sound of airstrikes around their home, as though it were a fun game, hoping this might prevent her being traumatized. In the first couple of seconds after the blast, believing I was seeing the opening salvo of an Israeli air campaign that could inaugurate weeks of war, I wondered: Would I now become like that father, forced to find new ways every day to alleviate my daughter’s terror?
The bang turned out to have a different cause — turned out, in fact, to likely be fireworks, though not in a way any of us could have imagined. All indications at present are that an accidental fire at Beirut’s port set off an explosion which then ignited 2,750 tons of nearby ammonium nitrate. The New York Times reports that “it was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in recent history.” Our home is more than 6 miles from the blast site, yet it sounded as though lightning had struck our doorstep — the world’s largest hammer crashing down on its heaviest anvil.
Mercifully, we were far enough away to be unscathed, and nothing happened to our house except a few cabinet doors blowing open. Somehow, we managed to put on a show of composure and continue the bath, books and bed routine, all while our hands shook with adrenaline and we could see the city burning from every window. (It’s remarkable, the strength children can give adults in such moments.) There are no words to express how grateful we are that our daughter has shown no signs, so far at least, of having been marked by the event.
Yet a huge number of children were not so fortunate. There were minors of all ages among the 7,000 injured, including newborns showered with flying glass shards in maternity wards. Some children, such as 3-year-old Alexandra Naggear, whose cherubic face now fills Lebanese social media timelines, were among the more than 220 people who lost their lives. A staggering 80,000 children have been displaced by the damage to homes, according to UNICEF, which added that a “children’s hospital in the Karantina area, which had a specialized unit treating critical newborns, was destroyed.” The stories of children placed into situations of unfathomable horror are too numerous to document. One week on, there remain children missing and unaccounted for.
For all these children, an incalculable physical and psychological toll awaits. Already, reports are widespread of children wetting themselves repeatedly, jumping at the slightest noises, asking to hold their parents’ hands at all times and reenacting the scene of being thrown across the room. Who can say what these kids — the country’s future — will suffer in years to come? What’s certain is no support will be forthcoming from the government, which left victims to clear up the debris by themselves.
My wife, born four years before the end of the civil war, with vivid memories of hiding in bathrooms as artillery battered her neighborhood, was supposed to belong to the last generation of Lebanese children to grow up amid the cacophony of bombs. Yet the explosions didn’t end for long in postwar Lebanon, and now here we are, 30 years on, raising our own child to the same abominable sound.
On Saturday, I accompanied my wife to a large demonstration in downtown Beirut, where tens of thousands of her compatriots demanded those responsible for Tuesday’s massacre be held fully to account, as a first step in a comprehensive overhaul of the country’s moribund — and murderous — political system. The authorities responded with a hailstorm of tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring hundreds and engulfing the city center once again in smoke and chaos, all while the ground was still smothered in smashed glass and rubble.
On Monday evening, Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his resignation. This was the bare minimum sought by the angry, anguished Lebanese who took to the streets. But unless far more extensive change takes place at all levels of the system, ousting the warlords and mafiosi for whom Diab was a mere frontman, the cycle of death and dysfunction will continue without end.
Those with the means to do so will join the rapidly-growing convoy of one-way flights out of Beirut. The rest will be left to raise their children in a broken country, at the mercy of criminals who would quite literally see the capital burn rather than govern responsibly.