Beirut tragedy: The darkest hour of a city that's seen it all

Beirut tragedy: The darkest hour of a city that's seen it all
A picture shows the devastated Beirut port on August 7, 2020, three days after a massive blast there shook the Lebanese capital. Picture: Joseph Eid / AFP via Getty Images

T​urns out, it only takes a split second for 150 people to die. Only takes a split second for 300,000 people to become homeless. 

It only takes a second for a city, a nation, a people to be felled by a blow so cruel it barely seems real. 

At 6.04pm on Tuesday evening, Beirut was its usual entropic self; traffic was suffocating, the heat unmerciful. But, as with all great love stories, the very idiosyncrasies that would drive a man to drink are the ones that make a place so easy to love. 

The beating heart of this city is its chaos. To live here is in it itself an act of love. If you didn’t, you’d simply leave.

Full disclosure; I was asked to write a first person account of what happened on Tuesday evening. I’ve no desire to. I’d much rather a Beiruti could tell their story. It seems to me, in the raw aftermath, that my pain is one, visceral, asphyxiating thing. But theirs is something else entirely. But, since I have a voice, it’s better to use it than bottle it. Maybe some good will come from that.

So, forgive the “I”, forgive the “me”, they are the necessary tools of this tragic storytelling. But, this is not my story, this is the story of a city - a country and it’s people that seem irreversibly cursed. I used to think curses were for Mayo and the Red Sox.

Tuesday evening destroyed that naivety.

Not long before 6pm, I rolled down the Gemmayze strip, my home these past two years, considering a run later that evening. By the time the angelus bells rang, I was sitting on the rooftop of my building with a friend. Then, we heard a booming noise I will never forget. We looked skyward, towards the endless blue, as if curiously accepting something truly terrible was about to happen. It was.

Maybe it was Orwell, maybe it was Hemingway, but one of them wrote that the gitanos – the gypsies of southern Spain - believe a man's world will ‘move’ twice in his life. It may be as light as a tremor, or as violent as an earthquake, but move it will. I had always figured the sentiment was figurative, not literal, which perhaps points to the complacency and privilege of my upbringing. Well, when the blast came, I was blown some 20 feet. But the blast itself was only the start of it. The real hell was to follow.

Descending the stairs, the devastation was quickly apparent, punctuated by the screams of delirious neighbours.

The violence that followed beats me. I’m not good enough or talented enough or together enough to articulate it in print. There does not exist enough whiskey in the Levant to aid me. I tip my cap to those friends who were also there, who did it so well. I feel no guilt for not being able to write it better. The guilt is for other things, like being left without so much as a scratch, while so many others suffered.

All I know for certain is, a minute later, at least 150 people were killed. They may not have died in that instant, but it was the events of that terrifying minute that killed them.

A minute that rendered well over a quarter of a million people homeless and over five thousand people injured. Many of them my friends. By the time I made it to the street it seemed the world was ending; shirtless men with bloodied heads running aimlessly.

A drone picture shows the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. A massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the city's port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. Picture: AP Photo/Hussein Malla
A drone picture shows the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. A massive explosion rocked Beirut on Tuesday, flattening much of the city's port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. Picture: AP Photo/Hussein Malla

Women in bare feet carrying bloodied kids, sprinting for what they were only guessing was safety. Everyone was bracing for a second blast. The bookstore I live above, run by Niamh from Laois, was a mangled mess. This was the street my kids learned to scoot on. The street upon which I drank cold beers on long hot evenings. The street I ran intervals on. Now, it was Picasso’s Guernica realised.

I live two hundred metres from the Red Cross. I couldn't see the building for the smoke and dust and debris. We eventually found two young medics to help us move an injured neighbour. We got her to the car, now without windows and a collapsed roof, and we set off in gridlocked traffic for the hospital. Any hospital.

All of us here saw and felt it differently; one friend was visiting former students of hers, migrant workers from Sudan who came to Beirut for a better life. They saw the smoke and went outside before being blown back indoors. Many others, sitting in traffic saw the mushroom cloud, then felt the force of the blast. Those inside their homes were smashed by doors blown off hinges.

Hours later, when I returned to what was left of my apartment, I found an elderly neighbour sitting on a plastic chair in his doorway. His place was decimated. Yet, it was there he was going to spend the night. He was not for moving. Honestly, there was no place to bring him.

In the two days that followed, thousands of volunteers, many of them among the homeless, descended on Gemmayze and Mar Mikhel - the ground zero of this God awful mess - and began the clean-up. It was humbling to witness. You’d guess if this was anywhere else, the streets would justifiably be empty for fear of personal safety.

Not here. They are wired differently in Beirut. They shouldn’t have to be, however.

It has seemed for so long that Lebanon has been broken, but not broken enough to be fixed.

The platitudes we will all bestow them, saluting their resilience - disguises a harder truth; nobody should need to be this resilient.

It may be they are so because of something inherent, or it may simply be the world they live in has left them with no choice.

This too shall pass. The sun also rises. Whatever. Beirutis have heard it all before. This is a city that has seen it all, but this may just be its darkest hour.

“Pity the Nation” wrote Kahlil Gibran, but trust me, they don’t need nor want pity. They deserve much, much more than that.

Comdt. Colin Sheridan is a member of the Irish Defence Forces, deployed in Beirut, Lebanon as a military observer with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO)

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