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The same neglect and bad decisions that led me to leave Beirut are to blame for Tuesday’s explosion | COMMENTARY

Before joining The Baltimore Sun, reporter Christina Tkacik got her master's degree in media studies at the American University of Beirut. Here she is pictured visiting the Rose House, a 19th century mansion overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Photo by Rand Ali
Before joining The Baltimore Sun, reporter Christina Tkacik got her master's degree in media studies at the American University of Beirut. Here she is pictured visiting the Rose House, a 19th century mansion overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Photo by Rand Ali (Rand Ali)

Last Tuesday, a massive explosion in Beirut’s port killed at least 135 people and injured thousands more. When bad things happen in Lebanon, observers often assume it’s terrorism; the country has long been plagued by bombings and attacks from extremist groups. But the cause here, it seems, was not outright malice, but something just as corrosive: ongoing neglect and bad decisions.

For the past six years, more than 2,700 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, confiscated from a foreign ship, was inexplicably being stored in a port warehouse; it is being looked at as the likely source of the blast.

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Perhaps I had seen it arrive from my apartment window.

I moved to Lebanon in 2013 to start a master’s program at the American University of Beirut. What better place, I thought, to jump-start a career in journalism than a city that was always in the news? At times I thought I could live there forever.

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The view from Christina Tkacik's apartment in 2014. News reports say a Moldovan flagged cargo ship, the MV Rhosus, arrived in November 2013 carrying 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. The ship was later impounded, its cargo stored at the port until the explosion. Photo by Christina Tkacik
The view from Christina Tkacik's apartment in 2014. News reports say a Moldovan flagged cargo ship, the MV Rhosus, arrived in November 2013 carrying 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. The ship was later impounded, its cargo stored at the port until the explosion. Photo by Christina Tkacik (Christina Tkacik/Christina Tkacik)

“Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden,” the Lebanese novelist Rabih Alameddine wrote. It has been called “Paris of the Middle East”; I often thought it was something better.

By the summer after I graduated in 2015, the cracks in Beirut’s fashionable façade were showing, however. After a major dump closed, trash piled up in roadways, its stink inescapable in restaurants. There were massive protests but little change. In November of that year, suicide bombers killed dozens in the city’s southern suburbs; ISIS claimed responsibility.

Suddenly, I had had enough. I packed up what I could in two suitcases and left the country.

Last week, thousands of miles away in Baltimore, I consumed the city’s latest trauma through news and social media accounts.

I imagined what it would be like to watch the explosion — its horrible mushroom cloud — from my apartment overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

I envisioned the huge glass windows blowing out onto my bedspread, the shards embedding into the knit of the blanket. Where would I sleep?

Journalists showed videos of the ruined neighborhood Gemmayzeh, where I had taken Arabic lessons at the Saifi Institute and made friends from around the world. (Ali Dirani, whose family owns the place, tells me on Facebook they are safe.)

Homes and buildings have been destroyed for miles. Sursock Palace, a grand Ottoman style mansion that survived Lebanon’s Civil War was ravaged, its owners sent to the hospital, according to a social media post.

The impact ripped through nearby St. George Hospital, killing four nurses and more than a dozen patients, according to the New York Times; years ago, I had visited a close friend there after the birth of her son.

On Instagram, people have shared pictures of the missing, including those first responders who had tried to put out the fire that preceded the blast. Electricity, always spotty, is still out in much of the city, making it difficult to search for survivors, according to the Times.

Lebanese people are resilient. They rebuilt after a 15-year-long civil war that split Beirut in two and ended with murderous warlords being appointed members of Parliament. They’ve survived the daily terror of car bombs, and both the Palestinian and Syrian refugee crises.

But the cracks I saw in 2015 have only worsened. The value of the Lebanese pound, pegged to the U.S. dollar, has plummeted since last fall, wiping out people’s life savings. In dire financial straits, my alma mater, AUB, long a source of pride for the country and the region, has sacked hundreds of employees, including at their medical center.

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Headlines have long said Lebanon is “on the brink.” With last week’s explosion, it fell off the cliff.

Among the victims were the main port and grain silo in this country, which relies on imports and is already facing bread shortages.

As my friend, the journalist Habib Battah said in an interview: “I don’t know how many more things this country can humanly go through.”

While I had the option to leave Lebanon when I felt unsafe, many others have no choice but to carry on.

They can’t do it alone. The world must show the Lebanese people that we have not abandoned them, even though their government has. We must give generously to organizations like the Lebanese Red Cross and others saving lives and providing shelter to homeless families.

We must demand justice for those who lost their lives, and for those whose lives are left in pieces.

Christina Tkacik (ctkacik@baltsun.com) is the dining reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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