BEIRUT has seen conflict and destruction before. But even that history did not prepare the world for the sheer scale of the blasts – one-fifth the size of Hiroshima – that rocked the Lebanese capital on Tuesday, leaving hundreds dead or missing and 300,000 homeless. It is a humanitarian disaster on a mammoth scale coming amid a global crisis.
Serious questions have to be answered by the Lebanese government. By official accounts, the blasts involved 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored unsafely in a warehouse. If credible, this is an indictment.
For nations looking on, it is also a reminder of the importance of safety regulations when it comes to port and storage facilities as well as hazardous materials. Negligence, mismanagement, incompetence, recklessness, human error – whatever the charge, it is now transformed into the pathway to unimaginable carnage.
On Wednesday, the Lebanese government put port officials under house arrest pending a probe as to how the stash came to be placed less than 100 metres away from residential and built-up areas. But for a country already incensed by a financial crisis, it was too little too late.
With the recovery effort ongoing and the capital still smouldering, demonstrators began to gather, scuffling with the convoy of a former government official. Further reports of repeated warnings being ignored in relation to the stash helped transform dismay to anger.
There will almost certainly be geopolitical implications.
Up to Tuesday, Beirut was Lebanon’s seat of governance and played a huge role in the country’s economy, with banks and businesses based there.
Previously, the city, one of the oldest in the world, was razed by the Lebanese civil war. An intellectual capital, cultural haven and economic powerhouse became a no man’s land, caught between convulsions of internal and external forces and the complex dynamics around Lebanon, its neighbours and international actors.
Such dynamics have also had implications for us, economic and social.
The city’s reconstruction after its troubling periods perhaps embodied the bottomless optimism invoked by its very name, which means “the wells.” As the search for bodies continued on Wednesday, the city is now a deep well of grief.
With Lebanon depending on imports for its vital goods and its chief port now destroyed, the already delicate balance between Muslim and Christian sects of its society will be strained evermore. Protests last November, over a sanitation crisis, already laid bare class tensions.
The capital city’s seven square miles, known for its blend of opposing cultures, has long been a symbol of the contradictions of a global world.
It is that world which must now imagine its reconstruction.