For the last three decades, the most reliable feature of Lebanon’s government has been its relentless decline.
Here was a country so brazenly corrupt the World Bank abandoned its usual diplomatic language in 2015, declaring the country “increasingly governed by bribery and nepotism practices, failing to deliver basic human services.” Among ordinary people, the lived reality of Lebanese politics produced a gall that rose like the stench of the garbage that has accumulated on the capital’s streets because officials cannot figure out where to put it. In October, the announcement of higher taxes triggered gigantic daily protests across the country. But they have not yet led to any substantial change.
The question now is whether the catastrophic explosion of Aug. 4, which wiped away more than 220 lives and the homes of 300,000 people in Beirut, will ultimately take down Lebanon’s unique political system. The country’s constitution — which guarantees government positions to 18 separate religious sects — was intended to balance the interests and needs of a diverse, cosmopolitan nation. In reality, it provides semi-permanent employment for self-dealing elites in political parties that look after themselves, rather than a greater good.
“We have been living next to an atomic bomb for six years. We stroll around, we walk by it, but we know nothing about it,” says resident Jad Estephan, of what produced one of the largest man-made (non-nuclear) explosions in global history. “How can the people in charge be this conscienceless?”
For a week after the blast, photographer Myriam Boulos moved through the wreckage of her native city, documenting an aftermath nearly as extraordinary as the explosion: Soldiers and police stood idle while ordinary people bent to the task of clearing debris. (“They carry guns,” says Boulos. “They don’t help with anything.”) As she photographed, she also asked questions. “It’s important that we tell our own stories,” she says. “It’s so important to listen to people, because at the end of the day the country is people.”
Citizens complain about their government in every country, but few have better cause than the Lebanese. In a country that made its national symbol a tree, “the Lebanese people had to put out fires that were devastating our forests because our government was unable to do its job,” Nour Saliba noted, recalling a series of forest fires last October. It was the month daily demonstrations erupted in the capital. Protesters demanded an end to corruption and a new constitution.
The pandemic was still months away, but misrule had already sent the country’s economy into free fall, and almost half the 6.8 million residents (including 1.5 million Syrian refugees) lived in poverty. After two weeks of protests in October, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned. His replacement lasted mere months, stepping down on Aug. 10 after the protests, which had dwindled during the pandemic, resumed with a seething new anger. “The explosion, it cannot not define us, in a way,” says Boulos. “Of course it’s a turning point.”
Riad Hussein Al Hussein was buying vegetables in the city’s Mar Mikhael neighborhood when he was knocked to the ground by the blast wave. He noticed he was bleeding from his head. Someone came to help him. “He used a cotton compress and pressed on my wounds for what seemed like a long time. He said that I had to endure the pain. And I endured.” That lasted about 20 minutes. “I really thought I was dying. I held my savior’s hand while he was helping me and I asked him to say my goodbyes to my family.”
Nothing binds people to one another like a trauma endured together. The explosion devastated three neighborhoods — a poor district east of the port; an enclave of Armenian Christians; and a gentrifying zone of older residents and young, artsy people. But with a damage radius of six miles, the entire city came apart. And then, came together.
Cherif Kanaan told Boulos he was at home when he heard the explosion. “My mum, my brother and I ran towards each other very scared. A few seconds later the whole building started shaking like crazy and the massive blast hit us,” he says. “The look in their eyes will forever haunt me. We really thought we were gonna die.” He left the apartment and sprinted first to the home of his uncle, where everyone was okay. From there, he ran from hospital to hospital, looking for people to help.
He found them everywhere. He held a compress to a wounded nurse outside a destroyed hospital, then cut his own hand lifting a metal pole out of the road. He helped an old man struggling with a bandage, and took off his shirt for a woman carrying two babies from a destroyed hospital. Another passerby gave his shirt for a third baby. Back at the ruined hospital, he spotted a woman with a terrible wound on her face. Her name was Angelique. “I couldn’t quite get her family name at first because of her numb lips,” he says.
Kanaan took her phone, reassuring relatives who were calling constantly. In the mayhem, an ambulance appeared. He bundled Angelique into a scene that would stay with him: On a stretcher was a young girl named Alexandra, struggling to breathe, “her grandpa at the back, a lady doctor next to him, insufflating Alexandra, her dad with a broken left cheekbone, Angelique next to him, myself, a wounded old lady in front of me, a wounded old man next to her behind the driver and a rescuer, I believe,” Kanaan says. Alexandra would not survive.
It was six days after the blast that Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned, saying he wanted to stand with the people “and fight the battle for change alongside them.” The next day, one week to the minute after the explosion, citizens gathered in the wreckage of their capital At 6:08 p.m., what moved through the air was not a blast wave but the Muslim call to prayer, and the peal of church bells.
“Let us hope that this catastrophe doesn’t destroy us even further but rather gives us a much needed strength,” says Estephan. “Because this is our last chance. We must change today, or never.”
—With reporting by Myriam Boulos/Beirut and Madeline Roache/London