BEIRUT - Hours after I filed a report on the economic crisis in Lebanon and how a plummeting Lebanese pound had led to a tripling, even quadrupling of prices of basic commodities and made them unaffordable for many, Lebanon faced another — and perhaps much bigger — tragedy.
One or more massive explosions at the port in Beirut, about a five-minute walk from my neighborhood, had shaken the city and turned much of my home’s interior — doors, windows, and furniture — into rubble. I wasn’t alone. My neighbors, the whole street, and much of the city in my adopted country, Lebanon, were shrouded in smoke and a layer of shattered glass.
People were in disbelief — an economic collapse, worsened by the COVID-19 lockdown, then renewed tensions with Israel on the border, and now this.
But what was this?
At the time, I wrote this it was still unclear if this disaster was the result was a deliberate attack or an accidental explosion. The first reaction of many on the street was to blame the animosity between Israel and Hezbollah — the Iran-backed armed militia and political group. But as authorities began to speak, the possibility emerged that the powerful blast may have been an accidental detonation of a massive amount of ammonium nitrate — a fertilizer — stored at a warehouse in in the port area.
These are situations and scenes I had seen on TV and covered many times as a war correspondent, but for the first time, I was in it along with friends, acquaintances and neighbors. I frantically called my friends, other journalists, and texted my editors to let them know what was happening.
I was bleeding from my neck and limping with a swollen foot that felt like it was broken. But there were many others around me much more severely injured. The young volunteers of the Red Cross sprung into action and started bandaging people, carrying them on stretchers, and wiping their wounds.
Luckily for me, their office was on our street.
“Are you OK?” people cried to each other in English and Arabic. “Do you need anything? Are you hurt, can I help you?”
Amid the chaos, humanity was on display and it was heartwarming.
The world looked at Lebanon, and offered to help. France, Britain, the U.S., and even archenemy and neighbor Israel offered support. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi immediately offered emergency assistance.
British ambassador Chris Rampling tweeted condolences, conveying the sentiments of his prime minister and foreign minister. “Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab all made clear the UK is urgently looking at how to support,” read Rampling’s tweet.
The day after, the port was a scene of destruction with warehouses blasted wide open, its central tower seen in dramatic videos still smoldering at the base.
“It was burning in the beginning and then it all suddenly blew up. No one was left in the buildings and nothing there is left now,” said Ahmad Ali, who runs a grocery store near the port.
All along the streets of East Beirut, people were sweeping up broken glass — a seemingly hopeless job compared to the scale of the damage.