Beirut Blast One Month On: ‘This is a crime against humanity’

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Nadine Labaki is a Lebanese legend – the Oscar-nominated Capernaum director, actress and political activist. In a world exclusive she talks about what lies ahead for her troubled nation

Beirut blast
Getty Images

We’ve all watched the shocking footage of the August 4th Beirut blast. An explosion in the city’s port destroying over half of Beirut. It’s a tragedy resulting in at least 190 dead, 6,500 injured and leaving Beirut on its knees. Spurred on by this seismic event, anti-government protesters gather daily on its devastated streets and in its famous Martyr’s Square.

The blast, believed to be caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had been unsafely stored, has so far seen only twenty officials arrested. Allegations of mismanagement, regarding the substance’s storage, were an ongoing issue, more recently being voiced in October 2019 during sustained unrest over government corruption and economic hardship.

Nadine Labaki, one of Lebanon’s biggest stars and political activist talks to her friend and journalist Andrew Threlfall about the fallout. Labaki’s work covers a range of political issues such as war, poverty, and feminism. Her latest film, Capernaum won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and for her the accolade of first female Arab director to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Nadine, where were you when the Beirut blast happened?

‘Our house is in one of Beirut’s oldest districts called Achrafieh. My family was there for four months observing lockdown but we recently relocated some miles out of the city. In horror I saw everything live on TV. I can’t imagine what would have happened if we had been home. All of our windows and doors in Achrafieh were blown out. It will be sometime before it’s habitable.

‘I feel so fortunate my two children didn’t witness the explosion firsthand. There isn’t one family in Beirut who doesn’t have a story of total devastation. The father of my son’s teacher died and I know many many people who are badly injured.’

Beirut blast

Childhood in ruins: playing amid the aftermath of the explosion (Getty Images)

What were your initial thoughts on the Beirut blast?

‘I called many friends and every single one said, ‘It’s destroyed everything’. Only then did the magnitude of the explosion hit me. Up to half of the city is destroyed. Sitting in stunned silence, at first I thought it was a nuclear bomb.’

And so your mindset shifted?

‘The devastation in my beautiful city is exactly like a nuclear bomb explosion. In fact, it’s happened 75 years to the week since the atomic bombings on Japan. Everywhere there were people covered in blood and dust. Emerging from buildings with blank eyes in total silence. There were very few cries, almost complete silence. It was very, very disturbing. People walking, just walking, walking nowhere. Numb. I felt like I was watching the walking dead.’

The Lebanese always bounce back, but Nadine does it seem like the final hammer blow?

‘It feels like a crime against humanity. If the world stays silent about what happened, it is collaborating with this crime. A crime committed by those who allowed the storage of dangerous materials. The world needs to keep being reminded of one fact. This is a man-made disaster. It is not a natural disaster.

‘Direct negligence, corruption, stupidity and inefficiency made this happen. It’s a month after the Beirut blast and there’s still a sense we’ll wake up from this. That we dreamt it. For us in Beirut it feels surreal.’

Beirut blast

A message of solidarity for the people of Lebanon (Getty Images)

How will this affect young people, the ones protesting against the corrupt political elite?

‘We’re all traumatised one way or another. Many of us lived through wars and now this. I hate to say it but it almost feels like this was our destiny. The Lebanese are really tired. We want to live a normal life. My heart breaks for the young. Especially when I see them in the street cleaning up the rubble day after day with no help from the government.

‘The young should be enjoying life, making plans and travelling. Instead they are exposed to this total destruction. They’re picking up the remnants of broken houses and broken lives. This injustice has also created an incredible feeling. An urge to change the world and transform Lebanon’s reality. Also after all the supplies lost in the explosion, I truly believe sustainable home farming is one of the solutions.’

What would you say to any Lebanese who are thinking enough is enough?

‘Everyone needs a mission in life. Mine drives me to make films to help change the system for the better. Society isn’t working anymore, none of it is working anymore. Our systems are failing, not just in the Lebanon but across the world. The concept of representation, the concept of borders, everything is so absurd. People who are not within the system are excluded and marginalised.’

Beirut blast

Nadine Labaki (with refugee child actor Zain Alrafeea and her husband, producer Khalid Mouzanar) receives the Jury Prize award for Capernaum at Cannes Film Festival 2018 from Gary Oldman and Lea Seydoux

Capernaum highlights the plight of 1.5m Syrian refugees in Lebanon. A bit of good news is what happened to Zain Alrafeea, the boy you plucked off the streets to star in the film. 

‘I knew Zain was smart and charismatic the first time I met him. I thought this child’s future cannot be growing up on the streets. He was special and I’m happy he is living in Norway speaking fluent Norwegian and English. When I first knew Zain he couldn’t write Arabic, now he can text me in Arabic. Zain now has a future.’

How can we help Beirut? 

‘The only guarantee is to give money to the people on the ground working in the reconstruction. To the people who are feeding and sheltering the 300,000 new homeless.’

* How to help the Beirut blast victims
Send your donations to any of the following. These are charities and not Lebanon government-run organisations: The Lebanese Red Cross, Offrejoie and Impact Lebanon

The post Beirut Blast One Month On: 'This is a crime against humanity' appeared first on Marie Claire.

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