27 August 2020

The Beirut Blast: an insider perspective

Our analyst on the ground in Beirut describes her experience during the deadly explosion on 4 August 2020 and its aftermath.

I have been based in Lebanon for two years as an analyst and researcher. Nothing had quite prepared me for the 4th of August blast in Beirut. My flat is some 500 metres (1,640 feet) from the port of Beirut, that now smoked-out skeleton making its rounds on international news. My kitchen balcony faces the port with a clear view to the silos and sea. I was in my kitchen, preparing dinner at 17:54 Beirut time when I noticed a plume of smoke and tiny explosions over the freeway, in the port warehouses. I took a video and sent it to one of my team mates, ''something happening at the port, worth monitoring'' the text said. By 18:00 it seemed to cool off and I went back to the stove, it was too hot to stand on the boiling balcony in the late afternoon sun. A podcast was playing on my laptop, propped open on the washing machine behind me, my phone next to it.

Then a roaring began; at approximately 18:07 the glass in the windows and doors seemed to exhale sharply and I managed to get out of the kitchen and curled up in a ball pressed against a wall as the second shock wave hit. By the third shockwave I had made it behind the bed in the next room which was just as well, as cupboards and a door landed exactly where I had been minutes before.

My apartment was thick with dust and glass shards and I had only my pajamas on, barefoot and dazed. I climbed over a door and window frame to try and retrieve my phone and laptop from the kitchen but it was buried under rubble. My podcast was still playing through the debris. The rice I had been cooking was smeared across the far wall, a shard of glass the size of my hand was protruding from the fridge door. I grabbed my passport and crawled and climbed out of the building.

I have been working in conflict monitoring for some time but to walk through my neighbourhood, clogged with people seemingly dressed in blood, calling for water in a daze, finding friends with glass protruding from their backs and legs was something no reporting could prepare me for. The streets were so deep in shattered glass it was as if we were picking our way through snow drifts, the screaming and the sirens so dense in the air it was almost impossible to gather thoughts.

Now, over two weeks on from the explosion, no official statement has been made available from the authorities nor has there been concerted effort from the state in the clean up process. Instead, throngs of people from all over the country have converged on the city. Clearing, shovelling, sweeping and helping to shore up doors, create temporary windows and security gates as the threat of lootings, robberies and break-ins looms ever larger.

The 4 August explosion hit Beirut at a time of immense instability, economically, politically and socially. Many thousands had lost jobs and the majority of those who were still employed had lost some 60 percent of their salary to currency devaluation. Now, some 300,000 people are also homeless, thousands of businesses destroyed and the main port of Beirut, responsible for the majority of imports on which the country is dependent for food security, fuel and other essentials, is severely compromised.

Anti-government protests have reached a new level of violence with the military regularly firing live rounds at protesters. An emergency law, passed on 17 August, gives extensive powers to the military, allowing them to enter private homes and arrest those they believe are a security threat to the state. For most Lebanese, this is understood as anyone who is part of the protest movement. However, personal experience and anecdotes from neighbours and friends confirm that the military are also employing scare tactics. Knocking on doors at 07:00 to demand ID and confirmation of legitimate presence in the country. Checkpoints and throngs of military personnel line streets in even the most suburban areas, stopping cars and pedestrians at random, demanding ID.

Between spiking crime rates as a desperate population becomes frantic and the introduction of sweeping military powers, the security situation in Beirut has significantly deteriorated since August 4th. Travellers should be on high alert in the city for the foreseeable future and seriously consider the need to travel.

Timeline of Riskline's response to the Beirut explosion (4 August 2020)

  • ~14:30 GMT Report of a fire in Beirut port warehouse
  • 14:54 GMT First mention of an explosion in Beirut on Twitter
  • 14:55 GMT First mention of the incident by Riskline’s AI monitoring platform
  • 15:03 GMT Riskline analyst identifies and begins investigating incident
  • 15:08:18 GMT Second, more powerful explosion in Beirut port
  • 15:09 GMT Multiple sources mention incident on Twitter
  • 15:11 GMT Riskline publishes its first Alert related to the incident
  • 15:15 GMT First mainstream media outlet, @BreakingNews, reports the incident
  • 15:26 GMT First international media outlet, AFP, reports the incident
  • 15:52 GMT First credible media report of possible casualties
  • 16:19 GMT Riskline publishes a follow up Alert Update and continues to track and report on the incident