The Beirut Catastrophe

Image_Oto Vale


The people of Lebanon face the terrible combination of economic ruin, pandemic and now a devastating explosion

There are moments in a nation's history that are frozen forever. Perhaps they are not the worst catastrophes that have befallen your people. Not the most political. Yet they capture the never-ending tragedy of a society.

Pompeii comes to mind, when the imperial confidence and corruption of Rome were suddenly brought down by an act of God, so calamitous that thenceforth we may behold the ruin of the citizens, even of their bodies. An image is needed, something that can focus our attention for a brief second on the madness that lies behind a human calamity. Lebanon has just offered us this moment.

It's not the numbers that matter in this context. Beirut's suffering this week is nowhere near the casual bloodbath of the country's civil war, nor the almost daily savagery of death in Syria.

Even if the total casualties are counted – from 10 to 60 to 78 hours shortly after the tragedy – they would hardly reach a record on the war Richter scale. Apparently, it was not a consequence of the war, not even in the direct sense that one of the craziest leaders in the world has suggested.

It's the iconography that will be remembered, and what we all know it represents. In a land that is barely coping with a pandemic, that exists in the shadow of conflict, that faces famine and awaits extinction. The twin clouds over Beirut, one of which gave rise to the other obscene monstrous birth, will never be erased.

The collected images of the fire, the outbreak and the apocalypse that the video crews captured in Beirut join the medieval paintings that try to capture, through imagination, not technology, the terrors of the plague, war, famine and death .

We all know the context, of course, the important “setting” without which no suffering is complete: a bankrupt country, dominated for generations by the hands of venal old families, crushed by its neighbors, in which the rich enslave the poor and their society it is maintained by the same sectarianism that is destroying it.

Could there be a more symbolic reflection of their sins than the poisonous explosives stored so promiscuously in the center of their greatest metropolis, whose prime minister later says that those "responsible" - not he, nor the government, rest assured - "will pay the price"? And they still haven't learned, have they?

And of course, we all know how this “story” will play out in the coming hours and days. The incipient Lebanese revolution of young people and educated citizens must certainly acquire new strength to overthrow Lebanon's rulers, call them to account, build a new, modern, and confessional state, from the ruins of the "republic" created by the French, into which they were mercilessly condemned to be born.

Well, tragedy on any scale is a poor substitute for political change. Emanuel Macron's immediate promise after Tuesday's fires - that France will "always" stand by the crippled nation it created with imperial arrogance a hundred years ago - was one of the tragedy's most poignant ironies, and not just because a few days earlier, the French foreign minister had washed his hands of the Lebanese economy.

In the 90's, when we were planning to create another one for the Middle East after the anschluss from Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, the US military (three in my case, in northern Iraq) started talking to us about “compassion fatigue”. human.

It was too much: all these regional wars, year after year, and the time would come when we would have to stop closing the doors of generosity. Perhaps the time has come when refugees from the region began to march by the hundreds of thousands to Europe, preferring our society to the version offered by Isis.

But let's get back to Lebanon, where Western compassion can be pretty low to the ground. Historical perspective can always be invoked to hide us from the shock wave of explosions, the rising mushroom cloud, and the destroyed city. Pompeii, they said, cost only two thousand lives. And the terrible place of Beirut in antiquity? In 551, an earthquake shook Berytus, home to the Roman imperial fleet in the eastern Mediterranean, and destroyed the entire city. According to the statistics of that time, 30 thousand souls died.

The Roman columns can still be seen where they fell, now prostrate just 800 meters from Tuesday's explosion. We may even take note of the dark madness of Lebanon's ancestors. When the storm receded, they walked to the bottom of the sea to loot ships that had sunk long before... only to be swallowed up in the ensuing tsunami.

But can any modern nation – and I use the word 'modern' prudently in the case of Lebanon – be restored amid such a fetid combination of woes? Though, hitherto spared mass deaths from Covid-19, the country is plagued with the most deplorable means of relief.

Lebanese banks have stolen people's savings, their government proves unworthy of the name, let alone its constituents. Kalil Gibran, the most caustic of his poets, urged us to "have mercy on the nation whose statesman is a fox, whose philosopher is a juggler, and whose art is the art of patching and imitation."

Who can Lebanese imitate now? Who will choose the next foxes? Armies have a jaded reputation for sweating out shoes tailored for Arab potentates; Lebanon has tried this once before in its history, with mixed results.

This Tuesday, we are called upon to regard this monstrous explosion as a national tragedy - therefore worthy of "a day of mourning", whatever its meaning - although I have not failed to warn, among those whom I have called Lebanon after what happened, some pointed out that the site of the explosion and the greatest damage appeared to be in the Christian sector of Beirut. Men and women of all faiths died on Tuesday, but it will be a particular horror for one of the country's largest minorities.

In the past, after numerous wars, the world – Americans, French, NATO, European Union and even Iran – agreed to help and recover Lebanon again. The Americans and French were put out by suicide bombings. But how can foreigners restore a nation that seems hopeless?

There is an opaqueness to the place, a lack of political accountability that is endemic enough to become fashionable. Never in the history of Lebanon has a political assassination been solved – of presidents, former or former prime ministers, parliamentarians or members of political parties.

So here is one of the most educated nations in the region, with the most talented and courageous of people - and one of the most generous and kind - blessed by snow, mountains, Roman ruins, excellent food, a great intellect and an age-old history. And yet, unable to manage their own currency, provide electricity, heal their sick, or protect their people.

How on Earth is it possible for someone to store 2.700 tons of ammonium nitrate for so many years in a fragile building, after being removed from a Moldovan ship en route to Mozambique in 2014, without safety measures taken by those who decided to leave this vile material in the center of your own capital?

And yet, what we're left with is the towering inferno with its white, cancerous shockwave, and then the second mushroom cloud (not to mention others).

This is Kalil Gibran's replacement, the final inscription of all wars. It contains the emptiness of terror that afflicts all who live in the Middle East. And for a moment, in the most terrifying way, the whole world saw it.

*Robert Fisk is a journalist correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent in the Middle East.

Translation: Ricardo Kobayaski

Article originally published in The Independent, on August 4, 2020.

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