The library doors I once walked through daily have been obliterated

The recent tragedy in Beirut may finally instigate change in a country inhibited by decades of political unrest

When I first watched the video of the terrible Beirut explosion, I could not believe what I was seeing. It seemed unfathomable. The deafening boom, the smoke cloud engulfing 30-storey apartment blocks and obliterating them in its wake, and the ominous, fiery mushroom which towered over the half-destroyed city. Watching a city — one which had provided me such an enriching semester, one filled with kindness, warmth and joy lose so much was absolutely heartbreaking. I have such fond memories of the sun-filled and joyous Erasmus experience I had at the American University of Beirut (AUB) which pales in comparison to the heartbreak of the Beirutians.

Now, the double doors at the library’s entrance, which I once walked through daily, are smashed into obliteration. I’ve seen images of upturned desks and shelves, shattered lab equipment, the stunning campus which had once been so immaculate, now strewn with glass shards, dust and blood. When I read of the increasing death toll and began to understand the extent of the damage, I cried for the people of Lebanon; for the neighbourhoods destroyed, for all the wonderful people who I had come to know, hoping that they were still alive and uninjured.

“Their anger and frustration is raw, intense, and has accumulated over decades, in which they have been consistently deceived and wronged by the state.”

Having spent a mere semester in the city, I can only imagine what Beirutians are experiencing. Their anger and frustration is raw, intense, and has accumulated over decades, much of what has caused continuous political unrest. Even during my four months in Beirut, I gained an extremely revealing glimpse into the corruption and inefficiency that led Lebanon into financial and societal disarray. Electricity only functions for a couple of hours (at best) per day. An outdated public transport system and entire streets filled with rubbish are a daily occurrence. Essentials such as bread and medicine are scarce. Highly-educated and skilled young people have no employment opportunities in Lebanon. Despite having graduated from the best university in the Middle East North Africa region, Beruitians are forced to leave their home country or face unemployment. These issues have been present in Lebanon over the past several decades and endure alongside a severe financial crisis in the country, and rising levels of poverty and unemployment. 

When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, it was another obstacle in the face of the Lebanese people. Yet, in the presence of such adversity, Lebanese people have always shown resilience, finding solutions to the problems caused by the government’s shortcomings. People set up their own electricity generators, bought vans and began operating their own bus services, putting in place their own infrastructures to keep the country functioning and alive.

The Beirut explosion has undone these efforts. It has cost more than 200 lives, left 300,000 people homeless and destroyed half of Beirut. It is both a tragedy of immeasurable proportions and an exemplification of negligent and corrupt officials who have tempered the catastrophe. The link between politicians and the explosion is not at all tenuous the government had known that ammonium nitrate was being stored unsafely in the port for six years, and did nothing about it. Such sentiments of raw sadness at the tragedy of the explosion and outraged aggrievement towards politicians steering Lebanon further and further into decline are evident in the streets of Beirut today.

“On the one hand, you have fervent anti-government protests, calling for not only the resignation of the government but accountability for those both directly and indirectly responsible for the tragedy.”

On the one hand, you have fervent anti-government protests, calling for the resignation of the government and accountability for those both directly and indirectly responsible for the tragedy. One protester was seen holding a poster with an image of Michel Aoun, the Lebanese President, and the message: “HE KNEW” plastered over the top of it; a justified shaming, indicative of the widespread vexation towards the country’s president. Yet, on the other hand, there is a massive display of solidarity, of accepting things as they are and choosing to help those who are injured or homeless. While there is political unrest, there is resilience. 

A significant proportion of volunteers aiding the recovery efforts in Beirut are university staff and students. On the morning after the explosion, AUB members were among the first to mobilise for aid, and they established their own university-run group known as the Beirut Recovery Project, which now has thousands of volunteers. Nicolas Abdelkarim, a PhD student at AUB, who has been volunteering in Beirut, said: “I personally chose to put work things aside and go volunteer for a few days because I felt helpless and guilty to be unscathed when half of Beirut is in ruins. I’m glad I did so because I saw so many young people doing the same and meaning well.”

The AUB has undergone serious infrastructural damage, and faces the added difficulty of navigating the Covid-19 pandemic. The University has confirmed it will be suspending on-campus activities for the coming semester. Trinity students on the Middle Eastern and European Languages and Cultures degree programme will no longer be travelling to Beirut for the foreseeable future.

“While it is difficult to see Beirut suffering to this extent, and easy to feel helpless, watching from afar, there are things we can do to aid Lebanon.”

While it is difficult to see Beirut suffering to this extent, and easy to feel helpless watching from afar, there are things we can do to aid Lebanon. We can send messages to everyone we know living in or with relatives living in Lebanon to check that they are okay, and to offer well wishes and love to them. Secondly, we can donate what we can to any of the charities aiding the recovery in Beirut. This can make an extremely tangible difference in ensuring that hospitals can continue to treat the injured, with the help of The Lebanese Red Cross and the International Medical Corps, and that the homeless population can be provided shelter and food, through the work of Islamic Relief, Impact Lebanon, UNICEF or the U.N. World Food Program. We can also spread awareness amongst our friends and family about the severity of the damage in Lebanon and encourage them to donate to the listed charities too.

Beyond that, we can only hope that Beirut is able to rebuild itself, that such a tragedy will force some systematic and long-lasting change which will make for a fairer and more prosperous Lebanon, and that the country will emerge from the rubble and debris stronger than it was before.