How the Beirut blast plunged Lebanon into a crisis ‘worse than war’
Gaby Jammal, now 57, joined a militia in Beirut at the age of 12.
He came of age fighting in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, witnessed the mass explosion that killed ex-prime minister Rafic Hariri and saw his country invaded multiple times by foreign forces.
But the blast that shook Lebanon last month, killing almost 200 and injuring 6,000, was “the worst crisis since Lebanon was declared to be a state 100 years ago”, said Mr Jammal, who is now a journalist, filmmaker and peace advocate.
“What’s happening now is, believe me, worse than the war because of the explosion — something I have never seen during my whole life.”
He said the blast itself was more than just a tragic, fatal accident.
For Mr Jammal, who was also a political analyst and history lecturer, the explosion represents decades of political and social division, corruption and incompetence.
Nearly 3,000 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, “an atomic bomb just waiting to explode”, had been left to sit in a warehouse unchecked for six years in the port of Lebanon’s largest city before it ignited on August 4.
Beirut’s ammonium nitrate stockpile
Lebanon’s Prime Minister says about 2,750 tonnes of the highly explosive material was stored in a “dangerous warehouse”. Here’s what else we know.
While finger pointing has ensued and dozens of arrests of port officials and employees have been made, Mr Jammal said the real problem stemmed from the top down in a failed political system.
Now experts say the explosion has crippled an already failing state.
“The blast alone would have been devastating for any nation,” said Mat Hardy, a senior lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University.
“For a bankrupt state such as Lebanon, the damage, the homelessness and the further loss of economic activity were a death blow.”
Understanding the political climate that allowed a tragedy of this scale to occur requires taking a look back at Lebanon’s history of war and destruction, and the sectarian walls that divide its people.
‘A dilemma of identity’
This month marks 100 years since the formation of the state of Lebanon which later gained independence from France in 1943.
Political power was divided between 18 parties, representing the country’s 18 recognised religious and ethnic groups — 12 Christian sects, four Muslim and the Druze and Jewish communities.
Each have their own civil laws and court systems.
While in theory this political division seemed like a great way of protecting the rights of all people, in reality it has cultivated a culture of separation.
“People don’t see themselves as Lebanese. They see themselves as Maronite, Sunni, Shia, and so on.”
As the son of a Christian Maronite mother and a Muslim Palestinian father, Mr Jammal has spent his life straddling those divides.
Frustration over power divisions have led to multiple armed conflicts and political assassinations, followed by new and equally contested agreements, in an endless cycle of unrest where alliances are repeatedly forged and broken.
Mr Jammal said Lebanon’s politicians cultivated a sense of belonging to a party, rather than a country, for their own advantage.
“Each one gives the feeling to his own group that you don’t have the right [to vote for another group], and the other sect is your enemy,” he said.
Dr Hardy agreed, and said political support was based more on religious affiliation rather than policy or “the good of the nation”.
Political affiliations were also cultivated with foreign nations, further drawing the sense of belonging away from the state of Lebanon.
The Shia hold a special relationship with Iran, the Sunnah with Saudi Arabia and Christians with the Vatican and France.
A militia fighter at 12
In a country divided, a young Gaby Jammal and his three brothers struggled with their own “dilemma of identity”.
Their parents’ mixed marriage had not lasted and the young boys were raised by their father in a Sunni Palestinian region of Beirut.
Rejected by his mother’s people for not being a “real Christian”, in his father’s part of town the locals “would slap us on the face if we said we were Palestinian”.
Desperate for a sense of belonging, young Gaby joined a militia at the age of 12.
“At that time, there was no concept of child abuse, no human rights or NGOs, nothing, and we were in a culture of manhood — encouraged as boys to be stereotypical manly men,” he said.
His training included being shot at with live bullets as he ran through a field or climbed a tower 10-floors high.
“Because I was very good at the training, they gave me a Kalashnikov to sleep with. So instead of having a girlfriend I had a Kalashnikov and I was so happy,” he said with a laugh.
In 1975, the country’s longest bout of fighting ignited — Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War.
While alliances switched frequently and foreign troops played various roles, the main fight was between Christian and Muslim-led alliances which divided the city of Beirut in half along what was dubbed “the green line”.
But confusingly for the Jammal brothers, that “enemy” included their own family.
Kidnapped nine times
Despite fighting alongside the Muslims, their Christian names made Mr Jammal and his brothers targets.
He was kidnapped nine times during the war by militia groups from all sides, including his own, often to be used in prisoner exchanges.
On one such occasion, after Christian fighters kidnapped some of their men, Mr Jammal was taken by a Shia militia — a group that fought alongside his own.
“So they decided, just like that, we need to take some Christians and make exchange, so they kidnapped me and my friend,” he said.
He was again detained, but Mr Jammal was convincing, giving them his mother’s address as his own, which led not only to his release but a somewhat ironic announcement on public radio that “the Christian Gaby Jammal had been rescued from the enemy”.
But that “rescue” had left him on the wrong side of the green line and as he tried to cross back, he was shot at and then kidnapped again, this time by a Druze militia group — his third kidnapping in less than a week.
Eventually they discovered Mr Jammal was fighting on their side, but only after several days of torture and humiliation.
Another time, during a hostage exchange, he was told to walk toward his group and their prisoner was told to walk from the opposite side to make the exchange, but as they passed each other in the middle, shooting broke out between the two groups and the prisoners both hit the ground.
When the shooting died down, Mr Jammal got up to run but the man laying next to him didn’t move. He had been killed in the crossfire.
Other recollections are almost comical. During another kidnapping, which began with four days of torture, Mr Jammal said he finally began to “break the ice” with his kidnappers and told them why he had been near their territory.
He was on his way to watch The Blues Brothers, which had just been released in cinemas.
The party included Mr Jammal in the middle and two armed fighters on either side.
The young men “laughed like crazy” and the joking and the fun continued as they walked around town in the night singing and imitating classic lines from the film.
But at 4:00am, the fun stopped.
“They told me, we have to take you back,” Mr Jammal said.
At 7:00am, the group’s leader came and told them to beat him.
“And of course, simply, they beat me,” he said.
Disillusioned in the ‘jungle’ of Beirut
As the war dragged on Mr Jammal said: “West Beirut became like a jungle, everybody fighting everybody.”
He saw friends die in the chaos, leaders selling weapons and getting rich like “mafia” and the country being taken over by “warlords”.
While he now saw the flaws in his former belief that they were fighting for social justice, leaving wasn’t an option. In those days everyone needed to belong to a group for protection, he said.
His father and brothers had fled to Austria after they were also kidnapped many times, and the teenaged Mr Jammal stayed for a time with his mother, while still crossing each day to fight for the other side.
One day he returned to find his street on fire. He had just shelled his own home.
No one was hurt, but it was a “wake-up call” and Mr Jammal began to reject the concept of war.
When the war ended, he said there was no reconciliation, no efforts to integrate fighters back into society.
“The lords of war, let’s say they shared the cheese,” he said, adding that there was no clear deal and no hope for the “new Lebanon” they had been fighting for.
“All the bloodshed, all the people killed, 1 million displaced, hundreds of thousands of houses and infrastructure destroyed led to this — a situation that was worse than before.”
With ideas about peace and politics swirling in his mind, Mr Jammal turned to journalism and documentary film to explore solutions for his struggling nation.
Invasions and Hariri’s death
Invasions and attacks by Israel, occupation by Syria and internal armed conflicts continued to plague Lebanon, said Dr Hardy from Deakin University.
“Lebanon never really had a chance to get on its feet,” he said.
It was treated “as a cash cow” by Syria and later by Lebanon’s own ruling elite, while Hezbollah — a powerful and heavily-armed Shia militant group — filled a power vacuum in southern Lebanon when Israel withdrew in 2000.
A string of political leaders have also resigned under pressure while others were assassinated: the most significant being former prime minister Rafic Hariri, who was killed by a massive car bomb that ripped through downtown Beirut in 2005, further splitting an already fractured nation.
Filling empty political posts often took months, while the 18 parties struggled to agree on a replacement.
As Lebanon spiralled towards becoming a failed state, desperation created the first sign of unity among the Lebanese people when civil protests erupted across the country in October last year
Traditionally, protests were held by specific religious groups and frequently led by their corresponding parties, but in October, desperate civilians marched through Beirut as one, demanding change.
Lebanon’s largest explosion
“The country was spiralling into an economic crisis caused by unsustainable public debt, widespread corruption and lack of opportunity,” Dr Hardy said.
The value of the Lebanese pound dropped from 1,500 to the US dollar to almost 9,000, and inflation on basic products rose by up to 400 per cent, according to Mr Jammal.
And then came COVID-19, plunging Lebanon deeper into financial ruin.
Every session of government resulted in new taxes to try to curb the country’s financial problems, further angering citizens already struggling to feed their children.
Just when it seemed like it could not get worse, an explosion tore through the capital, the largest the country had ever witnessed despite its violent 100-year history.
“Half of Beirut is damaged totally or partially … I can assure you all the shops, the restaurants, coffee shops, pubs, whatever, all destroyed [in central Beirut].”
And with Lebanon’s failing economy, there was no money to rebuild.
The Lebanese people took to the streets again demanding reform and accountability.
The government succumbed to the pressure and resigned, leaving yet another power vacuum to fill.
Of all the conflict, destruction and death Mr Jammal has witnessed in his life, he said this was the worst crisis Lebanon had seen, and the future was more uncertain than ever.
In the wake of the blast, Dr Hardy said the future was not looking good as Lebanon keeps getting poorer.
“I don’t see any significant shift in Lebanese politics despite the cabinet resignations. The system is too entrenched,” he said.
“And we know in the Middle East that when impoverishment and disenfranchisement are rife, radicalisation can occur and possibly less peaceful means of invoking political change.”
But the new-found unity among Lebanese people, drawn together by their desperation for change, has sparked a seed of hope in others.
While the crisis has “crippled Lebanon’s economy”, Shahram Akbarzadeh — convenor of the Middle East Studies Forum at Deakin University — said the financial crisis has helped Lebanese people “transcend confessional lines and unite for political accountability.”
“It has opened up the prospects of breaking out of the confessional straight jacket in pursuit of a merit-based, responsible government,” Professor Akbarzadeh said.
For Mr Jammal, while the crisis seems entrenched, he has not given up on the people’s ability to unite.
Through the group Ex-fighters for Peace, Mr Jammal and a group of 50 former fighters have been promoting unity and reconciliation through organising events, films and lectures since 2014.
They are now working harder than ever to convince the next generation that conflict and division is not the answer.
He has lectured to more than 24,000 students, created 14 films and held numerous reconciliation events between former militia groups.
At the beginning of each of his lectures, Mr Jammal apologises for his participation in Lebanon’s many conflicts, and acknowledges the possibility that he may have killed a relative of someone in attendance.
“We start by criticising our own participation in the war and work on reconciliation and ending the cycle of hate, distrust and blame,” he said, adding that he enjoyed seeing fighters open up to their former enemies and bond in understanding each other.
“This really gives me hope that we can go forward.”