Touted as one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history, the Beirut blast that took place on August 4, 2020 left at least 135 people dead, 5000 injured and 250,000 driven to homelessness. Roar spoke to three King’s students about their experience in Lebanon before and after the incident.
The Beirut blast only added fuel to the fire of thawrat sabataash teshrine (ثورة ١٧ تشرين), or the Lebanese “Revolution of October 17th.” Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Lebanon was facing both an economic and political crisis; and the Lebanese government’s negligence in storing large amounts of Ammonium Nitrate without proper safety measures in place was the nail to its coffin. On August 10, six days after the explosion, Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned along with the Lebanese cabinet. This was most likely due to pressure from the citizens of Lebanon, who had taken to the streets to voice their anger against the government.
Protests against the Government
Talking about these protests, second-year Digital Culture student Yasmine Ghandour said: “I agree with the protests against the government. All of them are corrupted. All of them were aware of the Ammonium Nitrate in the port and did nothing about it.” Yasmine also remarked that she would have joined the protesters if she hadn’t been injured during the blast.
Emma El-Asmar, an incoming Medical Physiology student, shared a similar opinion. She had been participating in protests since October 2019 and mentioned that there was a noticeable difference in the protests commencing after the blast. Detailing this to Roar, she said: “People were angrier this time. I saw a girl standing on a car and reading the names of all the people that died out loud. We were all paying respect to them by chanting.”
Emma further explained that there were two sides to the protest – the atmosphere fluctuated between unity and anger. According to her, “there was one side next to the Parliament where they were a little more violent. They tried to break into the Parliament.” The police used tear gas and smoke bombs against the protesters in this area; and Emma, who was in the vicinity, stated: “The place was so big that I just had a little bit of tear gas in my eye and in my nose.” She had to leave the protest soon after because of a shooting.
When asked about the nature of protests amid a global pandemic, she emphasised that everyone was wearing a mask and acting self-aware, but that “it was not the first priority.” She further explained that there were doctors present at the scene, giving safety instructions to protesting citizens.
Hope for the future?
There have been furious debates around the consequences of the resignation of the Lebanese leadership. When asked about this, Yasmine was somewhat optimistic: “The resignation was just the start of a hopefully larger, positive step, but there is still a very long way to go. There will be no change until the rest of the government resigns.” She explained that though the primary leadership has lost most of its power, “until a new Cabinet is formed, they have to continue to occupy their previous roles — although not in the same way.”
Conversely, Emma did not share Yasmine’s optimism for the future. “Even if the Prime Minister and Cabinet resigned, I’m sure that the people that are going to replace them will be just like them. I also don’t think that Beirut will get over what happened; not this year, not next year. We were already in the middle of an extreme economic crisis before the blast — there was a lot of famine and all the middle-class people became poor. Now, the financial burden will not be worse, but it will not change,” she told Roar.
Dorine Aksar, a second-year Pharmacy student who volunteered in Beirut after the explosion, spoke about the potential causes of the resignation: “It is not the result of these protests alone, but the result of a series of protests that have been happening since 17 October 2019.
“There might also be a deal between the French and Lebanese governments, because when Macron visited Lebanon after the disaster he promised the people a lot of changes concerning the government. So I would say that the resignation is the result of a governmental malfunction and a need for change — one which was supposed to happen years and years ago.”
She further elaborated that Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Beirut in the aftermath of the blast only disheartened people more: “They were more disappointed than sad; disappointed that their government was not doing anything and that another President was doing what our President was supposed to do.”
Impact on return to University
When asked if the explosion and its after-effects would impact their return to London for university, Emma spoke about the economic crisis in Lebanon. She said that while her personal circumstances remain unchanged, many of her friends have been negatively impacted. According to her, they “don’t know how to pay for their university because all the banks and bank accounts are closed, so we can’t use our own money.” It has also become increasingly difficult to transfer funds internationally.
Yasmine, on the other hand, mentioned that online classes meant that she was already in two minds about returning to London before the explosion. “Now,” she said, “I’m most probably not coming back, especially if my wounds haven’t healed by the time university starts.”
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