Glass shards glittered in the container of brown beans on top of Firas Alaw’s coffee machine, nestled in a battered van by Beirut’s shattered port.
The force of Tuesday night’s massive blast in the Lebanese capital had smashed the windows of the vintage van he uses to serve hot drinks to workers at one of the Mediterranean’s most important commercial hubs. But the 36-year-old was counting his blessings.
The explosion — which prime minister Hassan Diab on Tuesday night linked to a “dangerous warehouse” storing highly explosive ammonium nitrate for at least six years — has destroyed the port and Beirut’s economic free zone, and ripped through blocks of the city for miles around. Marwan Abboud, Beirut’s governor, estimated the financial damage to the city at $3bn-$5bn, local media reported, striking another blow to a state already suffering its worst economic crisis for decades.
“In the blink of an eye, the whole world changed,” said Mr Alaw, who has worked at the port for nearly two decades and runs the coffee van on the side. He was at the port during the explosion, and says he is lucky to be alive — at least 100 people were killed in the blast and 4,000 injured, according to Lebanese health authorities. If the explosion had happened during the afternoon rather than around 8pm at night, “there would have been 10,000 dead,” he said.
Spread below Mr Alaw was a familiar scene that had been warped beyond recognition.
The national grain silo, which normally dominates the Beirut skyline, had been torn open, spilling out the yellow wheat vital for keeping Lebanon’s poorest fed with bread. Twelve hours after the explosion, dirty smoke still billowed from two fires. Hangars full of merchandise were shredded and truckloads of soldiers gazed up at low-flying helicopters.
People in Beirut were thrown by the force of the blast, heard across the country. A column of pink smoke immediately rose into the air, sirens started to scream through the city, and as news of deaths came in, the first wails of mourning could be heard in the streets.
The day after the explosion, the city is shell-shocked, with thousands waking up in hospital beds or on friends’ sofas, business owners sweeping debris from their shops, homeowners shifting glass and rubble from their houses.
Many people are still unaccounted for. An Instagram page is gathering appeals for lost people. “He was at the port,” reads one post about a man born in 1958. “If you know anything about him please call.” In the courtyard of a hospital with blown out windows, a crowd of people — masked to protect themselves from the spread of coronavirus and for fear of toxic chemicals from the explosions — have gathered to wait for news of loved ones.
Analysts say blame will soon be directed at the political class that has ruled Lebanon since the end of its 15-year civil war in 1990, and against whom mass protests over corruption broke out in October last year.
“We simply have a complete dysfunction,” said Charbel Nahas, a veteran opposition politician. “You can be criminal by incompetence.”
“Since it happened all we have been doing is trying to transform the despair into anger,” he added, “to end this criminal masquerade.”
Life was already hard in Beirut before the explosion. Lebanon’s economy has collapsed, dragged down by years of corruption and mismanagement. A currency crisis has seen the Lebanese pound lose 80 per cent of its value on the black market, fuelling runaway inflation that has eroded living standards. The government, which has been trying to secure IMF support for a bailout, estimates that by the end of the year, 60 per cent of the population will have sunk below the poverty line.
Lebanon’s economic woes had already hit the port, a vital trade artery for the import-dependent state. Imports were down by 50 per cent in 2020 compared with the same time last year, according to Lebanese customs data. Yet the trading thoroughfare, which is an important stop on the Mediterranean, has symbolic importance even beyond its commercial value, said Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.
“The whole city of Beirut was built economically and urbanistically around this port,” said Mr Nader. “If you add this cataclysm to the Covid[-19] and financial crises . . . I don’t think a decade is enough [to get over it].”
The Karantina neighbourhood, which overlaps with the sprawling port area, is home to the army of low-paid workers that shift its goods. In the early morning light, Shadi Hamoud Kattan, 20, watched as a handful of Lebanese Civil Defense responders left the crushed house where he said four of his neighbours had died.
The Syrian port-worker’s face was smeared in dried blood, his hand and wrist bandaged. “It’s like the war in Syria,” he said, dazed. “Only this is worse.”
Hospitals were overwhelmed in central Beirut, with medics treating the wounded in car parks and even veterinary clinics. Mr Kattan had headed to a hospital outside the blast zone, where doctors told him his hand was broken.
Chunks of masonry have fallen from his rundown home and the ceiling crashed down around his head. The nearby streets were strewn with bricks and official papers, which had escaped from the offices of importers. The power of the explosion had even twisted trees, and the air smelled like eucalyptus.
It was not only Syrians who compared the explosion to political violence. For many Beirutis, the explosion brought back memories of life during the civil war, then years of political assassinations by huge car bombs that rocked the city. “Damn them,” said one resident of the chic Ashrafieh district minutes after the blast broke windows through her building. “Can’t they let us be? We have had enough of this.”