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Illustration by Dhabia Al Mansoori

"I just felt anger": A first hand account of the explosion in Beirut

NYU Abu Dhabi student Sarah Saliba shares her experience of the explosion in the Port of Beirut, and her thoughts on what it means for Lebanon.

Aug 30, 2020

On Aug. 4 2020, a catastrophic explosion rocked the Port of Beirut. With the geological impact of a 3.3 magnitude earthquake, it created a 140 metre crater, sending shockwaves as far as nine kilometres away to Beirut International Airport. At least 200 people lost their lives and 5000 were injured. The warehouses near the port were nearly wiped out and the shockwaves shattered homes across Beirut, leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless due to unfit living conditions.
Sarah Saliba, Class of 2022, recounts her experience of the blast while visiting a friend in her neighborhood in Beirut, approximately two kilometers away from the blast site: “Everyone has a story where they almost got hit […] I was standing in the kitchen with a friend and the glass just popped out of the frame in the balcony and fell right where we were before we ran […] I thought we were getting bombed.”
The explosion, which occurred after 6:00 p.m. (GMT+3), was caused by the detonation of 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had been decaying in an unsafe storage environment at the port. The cargo was brought on an abandoned Moldovan ship, MV Rhosus, that sailed from Batumi, Georgia enroute Beira, Mozambique, having entered Beirut Port after facing “technical problems”. When the ship sank at the port in 2018, its cargo had already been transferred to a storage facility.
In a statement to the BBC, Nizar Saghieh from Legal Agenda, an NGO in Beirut, said: “The ministry stored it in the port and handed it over to customs. […] That was a big mistake. The law […] explicitly forbids the storage of such explosives in the port.” This explosion was nearly one-tenth the intensity of Hiroshima, making it unquestionably one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.
Saliba shared her reaction in the immediate aftermath: “The first thing that you do when this happens is you call everyone, because you think it’s right next to you.” What followed was a hectic day, filled with sweeping glass and helping neighbors cleanup, before securing her own wrecked apartment and finally heading to the mountains at 2 a.m., out of fear of potentially toxic gas in the air.
“There wasn’t a sitting down and thinking about it, you know, everyone was on the move, all the time […] You went out on the streets 30 minutes after the explosion and everyone is already out on the streets.” Processing the scenes of destruction surrounding her, she describes a strong sense of guilt over her relatively safe condition: “I was just keeping myself busy by helping.”
The explosion came to Lebanon in the wake of “an economic implosion […] accelerating at an alarming pace”, with soaring unemployment and more than one million people in poverty. It destroyed the country’s largest grain silo, endangering the food security of as many as seven million people. It weakened the country’s health care system, which was already overwhelmed with thousands of wounded people needing treatment in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, as it destroyed 17 containers housing hundreds of thousands of personal protective equipment.
Pushed to the brink of a humanitarian crisis, the people of Lebanon took to the streets to protest the corruption and cronyism of the ruling political class. As security forces clashed with protestors, reports of excessive force, including the use of excessive tear gas and rubber bullets, emerged.
“My friends went down [to the protests] […] and they got tear-gassed. Someone else got shot in the eye [by a rubber bullet],” shared Saliba. “I just felt anger […] how can any decent human being, living human being, leave something like that [in reference to the ammonium nitrate].”
Amidst mounting pressure, Lebanon’s government resigned on Aug. 10.
For many, the explosion sits in a painful and recent Lebanese history marked by violence and displacement. Saliba talked of her mother having lived through the civil war and how the continual failures of government have never allowed for a life at peace, reliving events of her past, while still clinging onto hope for a better future. The weight of this history and the trauma of the blast has now triggered warnings of a mental health crisis in Lebanon.
“My mom, she was at work and she was calling because she knows where we are, she knows we’re close to the thing and like imagine, [such] a traumatic experience, even if you’ve lived it twenty times before. At the moment of the explosion, everyone, I’m sure, was feeling the same […] but after that, I’m sure they learned to deal with it in a better way, or just like, got used to the aftermath,” reflected Saliba.
“This is a saying here, that ‘Lebanon has already come out of the ashes a million times and it will keep coming out of the ashes a million times’ […] We should be hopeful because you can’t just give up on your country, […] but we need an actual plan.”
Angad Johar is Senior News Editor. Email him at
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