Ghada Alsharif — On witnessing the Beirut port devastation and its aftermath

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On August 4, around eight minutes after the clock struck six in the evening, Beirut witnessed one of the most horrific explosions in its history. The city was left devastated after 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate blew off in Hanger 12 of its port area. It remained lying there without any safety measures in place since 2014. More than 180 people died, thousands were injured and over 300,000 were left homeless as a result of the blasts. The explosions shook Beirut, but also left the world in shock, as the day, and the destruction caused by the blasts, will forever remain etched in one’s memories.

Four days after the catastrophic explosions, Lebanese citizens took to the streets to condemn their government’s negligence, same as they did amidst the country’s worsening economic crisis in October 2019. However, this time around, it was suppressed by the authorities after they imposed a state of emergency. The explosions, the protests, and the Lebanese government’s resignation were events that ensued one by one. Beirut is currently in the process of picking up its pieces after the devastation, while the country’s authorities have been failing to serve the interests of its people.

Following all these events that have yet again brought Lebanon in the spotlight, The Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ) reached out to Ghada Alsharif, a Saudi-Palestinian journalist based in Beirut. Ghada works for The Daily Star Lebanon — one of the most prominent news outlets in the country — in its Beirut office. We spoke to her over a Zoom call to understand the on-the-ground situation in the city, how she has been reporting the events in its aftermath and changes observed in the local, political dynamics, particularly as a result of the devastation that Lebanese people have endured in the past month. When we spoke with Ghada over a call, she was trying to chase a story about the cleanup in the city. “You think it’s going to slow down a bit, but then it never does,” she said when talking about the series of events that have unfolded in the country ever since the blasts.

On the day of the explosions, Ghada was working in her office as usual. She immediately dropped on the floor after the blasts jolted the entire city and wreaked havoc.

“The whole office shook, the glass exploded, parts of the ceiling fell, desks, papers and almost everything turned over. I never really lived through anything like this. It definitely shook me up,” Ghada said when speaking with CFWIJ.

She added that despite so much destruction around her, she remained safe. However, the mental toll left her shaken for days after the blasts. Ghada said that she instantly ducks and freezes after hearing any loud noise. The Daily Star Lebanon’s office was severely damaged and Ghada posted a video on Twitter showing the significant devastation in her office after the blasts. While neither Ghada nor her colleagues were physically injured, the paper’s doorman sustained a minor head injury.

“It does take its toll though. When we immediately went outside the building, we looked around trying to figure out what had happened. Around 10 minutes later, I realized that I need to write on this now,” she shared.

Ghada ran back into the building to get back to work and saw that her editor-in-chief did not leave the building at all. She immediately started typing, sitting in the damaged office, where the internet was surprisingly still working, despite the destruction. Ghada was engrossed in her work and detached from what had happened to report all the information. But much later, she realized that her house, located in Beirut’s Gemmayzeh locality, could have been damaged following the explosions, as it was one of the most impacted areas in the city, given its proximity to the port. The area, as told by Ghada, has several restaurants, bars and cafes. It is also residential. She ran to her place to get her valuables from the apartment, which indeed as she found out, was destroyed.

“When I was walking through Gemmayzeh, I saw people carrying those who were critically injured. They were emerging from under the houses and cars. I ran home and grabbed my stuff. The structure of the house itself was still standing, but the electricity had completely gone off. My front door was completely blown off and the windows were damaged. I walked into my kitchen and it looked like I was standing outside. To go into my room, I had to crawl under the doors that had blown off from the door frames. Then I grabbed my passport, money and everything I could think about, and rushed back to the office,” she said when explaining the scenes she witnessed while visiting her neighborhood and the apartment.

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Ghada shared that after the explosions, all the reporters in her office worked for 12–15 days straight, with very little time to process what had happened.

“Most journalists in Beirut had a similar experience. We just had to keep getting the information out, keep going until something is solved here,” she said and added, “Other than that, I’m okay. I am one of the luckiest people. I’m physically okay and staying with a friend. It could have been so much worse. Other than the work-related stress, I’m doing okay,” she repeatedly said, informing CFWIJ about her safety.

However, knowing that one can never be safe in a country where the government is so negligent, leaves one fearful about the vulnerability of their life. We asked Ghada if she ever feels the same and whether the fear would ever make her leave the city, where she has been residing and working for the past two years.

“I’m human, I do of course worry about my security after this explosion. It is 100% still a thought that lingers in my head of what else could go wrong, after seeing the negligence that happened and wondering what else is hiding beneath the surface that we don’t know about. But as a reporter, I see it as my job to continue reporting. I treat Beirut as my home, and while the security situation is a lingering fear, the idea of leaving because of that has not crossed my mind — no. I wouldn’t leave because I was scared. As a reporter, I have to put that to one side and keep going. My fears are probably the same as anyone’s who has lived through something like this,” she said.

The protest, which erupted a few days after the blasts, has become one of the most unforgettable in the country’s history. The world witnessed the most powerful and moving images from Beirut. People were angry, and rightly so.

“Thousands of people gathered at the Martyrs’ Square, which was the epicenter of the October 17 revolution where we saw things first kick off last year. People gathered there again five days after the blast. Uber drivers and shop owners, even the day before the days leading up to that Saturday, said ‘Just wait until Saturday’, ‘wait until you see what happens’, ‘you’ve never seen it before’. It was true. Saturday came and they called it the Judgment Day’ protests, which became the most popular name given to a protest among others,” Ghada said.

“I remember speaking to a woman who said that in October we wanted them (authorities) to leave, but now we want them (authorities) to hang. I still had not seen the level of anger, up until that day. People were trying to regain whatever semblance of power they had in that moment for the lives that had been lost. At least 180 people died, over 7,000 were injured by the explosion. It was embarrassing and humiliating for them because they did not even receive an apology from the authorities nor an explanation for why that happened,” she shared her experience of speaking with people on the ground.

Ghada compared the 2019 demonstrations with the recent ones, yet emphasizing that rage she witnessed among the protestors now, has intensified to a massive extent.

“During the 2019 protests, the majority of protestors would start leaving if tear gas and rubber bullets were thrown at them, while some would stay. This time no one moved. People would move a little, but the crowd stayed. Even though really upsetting and sad, it was incredible to see those scenes. There was an element of ‘enough’. People had lit a couple of ministries on fire that day, which we hadn’t seen before. They lit a massive construction truck on fire. There was a lot of anger and people were saying enough is enough,” she said.

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Two days after the protests, the Lebanese government stepped down. Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned, following a number of resignations from his cabinet of ministers. However, it has not calmed people down, as they do not find Diab’s administration completely responsible for everything that has happened in the country. Instead they blame the previous government for all the mess. This way Ghada explained to us the broader context of current social unrest.

After the explosions, it was difficult to spot any signs of governance in Lebanon. However, the country’s President Michel Aoun decided not to step down to avoid a ‘power vacuum’. We asked Ghada about her observations of the situation, given the local and political dynamics.

“When you talk about the power vacuum, you talk about individuals who have been in power for decades — and their grip on power is unbelievably strong. We saw a revolution happen on October 17. It was massive, nationwide, and he (the President) did not step down. These guys — whom the public sees as responsible for the blasts and for everything just the way the country is going — have been in place since the Lebanese Civil War. Lebanese people do not know where to even begin when trying to get them down. Citizens have protested, lit things on fire, got blown up and still the political system is in place. There is helplessness among the Lebanese, because they don’t know what the solution is,” Ghada said.

She further added that a lot of people — not all — would like is to see an overhaul of the entire sectarian, political system, which they perceive as the main issue, the core of the problems right now, which is negligence and corruption. Ghada said that it’s just that the systemic corruption and negligence has been epitomized in a way by the explosions.

According to a popular belief, Beirut — as symbolized by the phoenix — will rise again. The city has been through so many disasters, yet it somehow manages to get back on its feet. We asked Ghada what she thinks about the damage that the explosions have done to Beirut, how it will be assessed and if the city will rebuild again, as we have already seen the community coming together to help one another during the recent destruction.

“It’s a tough thing to assess. A lot of people who have found other places to stay and might be able to patch up their homes, don’t really want to go back because of trauma, as they saw the destruction to their buildings and it is not safe enough to live inside them following the explosions. Following the government’s lack of response to the explosions and devastation, people can see that they are on their own and have to clean up this mess without any assistance,” she said.

Ghada informed us that a lot of the immediate response came from volunteers in Beirut and even those coming from outside the city. She shared that they came to pick up a broom to sweep up the glass and debris. A lot of foreign aid arrived. NGOs and grassroots initiatives mobilized people to help clean, and also to distribute food and clothes.

“It was honestly one of the most incredible things I’ve seen because within a week, most of the glass that had covered every inch of the street in Gemmayzeh, was cleaned up. There were tents set up, hundreds of people were sweeping the streets, giving food and medical aid. When you see that kind of community mobilization, you’re encouraged by that but then you’re also discouraged because no one else from authorities was really helping or explaining what the next steps were. It just further added to this feeling of helplessness, as a result of the response, or the lack thereof, by the authorities. In terms of rebuilding it is really not clear how quickly it’s going to happen,” she further added.

Given the ongoing political turmoil and the repercussions of the Beirut port explosions, we Ghada asked what the future of Lebanon looks like.

“I’m very hesitant to answer that question because it can go one of many ways,” Ghada said.

She further added that reforms have to be implemented and change is needed.

“I don’t know whether structurally things need to change or whether certain reforms need to be implemented. Response needs to be given to the people as to why this happened. Those who are responsible for it should be held accountable and a proper investigation needs to be done. Unless these things happen, I really don’t think it is going to be good, but it’s just a matter of time. If the (political) structure stays the way it is, I don’t really know how much change or accountability will be implemented after that,” Ghada said, as we concluded the interview.

This interview was originally published in the Women In Journalism Magazine by The Coalition For Women In Journalism

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