On August 4th, 2020, Lebanon was impacted by an explosion at Beirut Port. While news of the event has fallen off the radar of international news outlets, Lebanese citizens still need support.
Women’s Republic’s Julia Boriero and Vaanisai had the pleasure of speaking with Myra Souaid, a Lebanese-Canadian who was in Lebanon at the time of the explosion. We sought to learn more about the impacts of the explosion, how they intersect with the socio-political situation in Lebanon, and what we can continue to do to help.
*Due to technical difficulties, the posting of this video was delayed. We apologize to Myra and the individuals involved in the making of this video, as well to the readers of Women’s Republic for the delay*
We want to give Myra a HUGE thank you for speaking with us. Her opinions and thoughts were insightful, and we appreciate her candor and ability to express herself in a way that engages youth. We were particularly moved by her stance on continuing to talk about issues and events even after mainstream media has moved on from them. In alignment with that stance, and with the hope that individuals will continue to or re-educate themselves about the Beirut explosion, we bring you this “casual conversation” with Myra.
Thank you to Imran Latheef @imlatheef for assisting us with creating the English subtitled version of the video, and thank you to Reem Mostafa @re_em_mostafa for creating the Arabic version of the transcript. The full transcripts are provided below along with organizations that you can support, should you be able and inclined.
Please note the following:
1. Opinions presented do not reflect the opinions of the Lebanese population at large, Women’s Republic, affiliated contributors, or any mentioned organizations.
2. This interview was conducted on September 2nd. As such, information may have changed since.
The following are a number of local grassroots movements, individuals and organizations that are still working to repair infrastructure and aid individuals affected by the Beirut explosion. If you’re able, please do donate or spread the word:
Unite Lebanon Youth Project
A local GoFundMe
A local GoGetFunding
A local Just Help
Vaani: Hello Myra, Hello everyone. My name is Vaani.
Julia: I’m Julia
Vaani: We are both contributing writers for Women’s Republic. Today, with us, we have Myra who is currently in Lebanon. We’re going to discuss the recent explosion and a bunch of other things, as well.
Julia: Myra, would you like to introduce yourself?
Myra: Hi, my name is Myra. I was born in Canada but I was raised in Lebanon. I moved back to Canada about 4 years ago, but I’m currently visiting family in Lebanon.
Julia: So you attend school in Canada but you visit Lebanon every summer. You’re… 23 is it?
Myra: 21hehe. Haha 22 at the end of this month.
Julia: You’re a little baby hehe. Right now, where are you located in Lebanon?
Myra: I’m in the Metn/ Matn area – about 10 to 15 minutes away from the capital, maximum.
Julia: Let me get my notes hehe. (We all get our notes lol)
Julia: So for people that aren’t aware, Lebanon experienced an explosion on Augsut 4thin their capital, Beirut at the port. It began with a fire on top of a warehouse, and later led to a mushroom cloud explosion. Later in the day, it was discovered the warehouse was housing ammonium nitrate. Where were you and what werewere you doing at the time of the explosion?
Myra: I was on my way to a friend’s birthday, which was thankfully up in the mountains. We were actually debating going to a pub that was literally at the port. We had stopped at a gas station, and heard the explosion. We initially thought a tire had gone out because it felt like it was right under us. Then we turned around and saw the smoke, and then obviously we had the 10-15 minutes of panic of “wth is happening, no one knows, what should we do?” I called my mom because I knew she was home and I wanted to see what was on TV, because of course, during a crisis, you put on the news. At this time everything was speculation, so we didn’t really know what to do. We continued on toward the mountains trying to get away. Phone calls kept coming in to all of us, but it was so intense that they kept getting cut off.
Vaani: We were away when we heard about the explosion. One of our co-workers is part-Lebanese and told us about it after seeing it on social media, and the rest of us heard about it on Instagram. And you, of course living in Canada have connections to the West so you’ve seen the media coverage of it in Western news and Lebanese news. How do you think social media and news outlets have covered the situation?
Julia: What is your perspective of the coverage on both sides: Western and Lebanese?
Myra: I think it was well-covered to an extent. At the beginning, it was overwhelming from celebrities to people all over the world. But after a few days, anywhere outside of Lebanon it just died down. In Lebanon, we had almost 24 hour coverage of the incident for almost 2-3 weeks. We were plastered to the TV for weeks, days on end – which I understand, because it happened here so the coverage will be more intense for us. I feel like it was well-covered in Western news, but then it just stopped.
Julia: Today is September 2nd, so it’s been about a month, and I feel that people have forgotten about itL.
Myra: Ya it’s like the “hype of it has died down” for people who weren’t affected by it.
Julia: You can almost say that the issue isn’t like “hot” anymore. People are kind of over it now.
Vaani: And I think that’s really become a trend – I think a lot of us get our news from social media, so when something isn’t a trending topic anymore it’s really unfortunate that it really does become out of sight and out of mind.
Myra: Exactly, you see that happening with everything.
Julia: So in response to your comment about Western and Lebanese coverage then, I know that we saw the media coverage endedup raising conspiracy theories, at least here in the West. Was that the same or similar in Lebanon or were those theories really coming from the West?
Myra: I think it was everywhere. There were so many theories and to this day, we have no proper answer. And I think we know that we’re not going to get the truth because of corruption, because everyone wants to save their ass.
There are many theories. Some of them are like Israel bombing again, which is normal (all chuckle nervously).
Julia: Oh my god, we’re all kind of smilingright now, but it’s super not okay that life is like that.
Myra: Ya, like this is normal for me. I’ve had to flee the country before bc of Israel bombing, so I know it shouldn’t be normal, but to me it is.
Julia: Ya, and that’s where the nervous laughter come from.
Myra: Hahaya, no one wants to say it but… anyway basically, all the theories come back to the same idea which is corruption because the politicians here really don’t work for the Lebanese people, they only work for themselves and their personal interests. It’s been proven that they knew about the chemicals being at the port for almost 7 years, just sitting there.
Julia: That’s a long time to have an explosive of that quantity.
Myra: Even the fact that the fire started at 5pm and the explosion didn’t happen until 6pm-ish. They had enough time to say evacuate. That didn’t happen.
Julia: Yah, you’d think there would be like a warning or like a checklist of what the risk is and what steps could be taken to prevent disaster.
Vaani: I think also, they knew that these chemicals were being stored, and knew that ammonium nitrate is a key ingredient for making explosives, so they knew the possible repercussions and still having made no decisions raised a lot of questions about why nothing had been done in the span between the initial fire and the bigger explosion later on.
Myra: I feel like for people outside of Lebanon it was surprising, but it’s not for Lebanese people. Knowing how the politicians function, we know what to expect. For example, even though it’s been proven they had knowledge about this, they still don’t come out and say that they knew.
Julia: Did the government use the warehouse or its workers as a scapegoat or did they pin this on anyone or any group?
Myra: Well, they haven’t pinned it on anyone because it’s still being investigated. But, it really feels like there are no shits being given. So we still don’t know.
Julia: During our research, we realized the Lebanese government structure is very unique in the way it functions, very complicated. We found that the MP Diab
Myra: Ya it’s not him anymore.
Julia: Yah, he resigned. So what was his reason for resigning, if you’re saying that no one took responsibility for it? Did he take responsibility? What went down?
Myra: Oh no, he stepped down claiming “I probably didn’t do my job properly, I’m going to give the people what they want and resign”. But the thing is that people don’t just care about you, they care about everyone. He’s just a puppet technically.
Vaani: I think a lot of us know that politics is unstable in Lebanon and surrounding areas – but unfortunately, my educational background hasn’t taught me a lot about that politics and government structures in those areas, so for people like me, could you contextualize the socio-political situation in Lebanon and how it may tie into what happened and what’s happening now in terms of the explosion?
Myra: Unfortunately, we’re not educated on that either. They don’t want us to understand what’s happening either. All I can say is that the ruling class right now has been the same ruling class for almost a decade if not over a decade
Julia: Since the civil war right?
Myra: Ya – if you go back in history and look at what they did – in other countries, they would be considered warlords and criminals, but here they ended up being the people in power after all that.
Julia: So, our research showed that the PM Diabresigned, but the President is still in place. And right now his Cabinet is still being kept as caretakers.
Myra: Yah, so the Cabinet is supposed to go with him, but until the new PM comes in, they stay. But it sucks because all these people, despite having different faces, work for the same people, so it doesn’t feel like anything’s changed.
(Interrupted by sister who walks into room lmao)
Vaani: I think it would be interesting to know what you think needs to happen to see real and productive change in the future and do you think that vision is realistic?
Myra: I think the only good thing that could lead to real change is a clean slate, but that’s not realistic. These people are never going to leave. They will die and then their children will step in. Because everything is so nepotistic right now and stays in the family. It goes on and on and on. I think that would be the best option, but I don’t know if that could ever happen. People have been protesting, for the revolution, but they’ve become dangerous. They’re being shot at, tear gas… When I was there, we were a huge group of peaceful protesters just chanting, and tear gas was already being employed, completely unprovoked on the protestors’ part. There were bullets being used, people lost their eyes… it was really intense and is still happening.
Myra: It became intense, because [the politicians] are scared now.
Myra: The government on top of all that has been of no help. It was the people and the citizens who responded and went to hospitals to donate blood and clean the streets. People forming NGOs, and the politicians and even the policemen are doing nothing except getting their photo ops. So on Instagram, it looks like they did everything.
Vaani: What does it look like now? It’s been almost a month later, what would it look like for visitors who were to come now? Doesit look any different from minutes after the explosion?
Myra: It looks pretty much the same, except for the rubble that’s been cleaned up by the people. The government did nothing. They’ve mainly been focused on the port, because they really had to. But the surrounding buildings, they did literally nothing, and are being fixed by the citizens. Insert NGO name here.
Vaani: Of the people that have been displaced, where are they now? What are they resorting to? Do they have anything to resort to?
Myra: Around 300, 000 people lost their homes. The government didn’t do shit. It’s people forming NGOs, many people have offered their own homes, or empty homes they own but don’t occupy.
Julia: Do you feel like the unity and community of Lebanese people has been tested and that you’re showing resilience together?
Myra: Even when we sit down and ask our parents, we talk about how this has been happening for decades how we only have each other to lean on and we have nothing else, because the government really doesn’t do anything for us. They’re good at only talking and lying.
Julia: What do you think people should know? Anything you want to amplify?
Myra: I think people should know that the explosion in itself is just the tip of the iceberg. It is bad in itself, but what has been happening for years is also bad. Like, the unemployment rates – I think within a few months, the Lebanese pound lost over 80% of its value, 55% of the population is now considered poor. There’s a famine on top of the COVID-19 crisis, and is not being contained. Their idea of containment was also illogical – they implemented a curfew. They closed everything only for a few weeks and then everything re-opened again.
Vaani: Are there mask or sanitation policies to deal with everything?
Myra: Not by law. Some places have been implementing their own policies.
Julia: Wow so it really is just the tip of the iceberg.
Myra: At one point, they weren’t giving you your livelihood, and then they literally started killing you. The explosion really, when it comes down to it, is their doing. The ammonium nitrate was sitting there for years and they knew about it.
Julia: That was a big thing for me, when we were researching it, like how was that just forgotten about. And I think about how governments have the opportunity to humanize themselves. Like if you f*cked up, you can say it, and this is a prime example of a government not humanizing themselves or showing any empathy.
Myra: It took the President days to address the country, it took the PM hours to say we should be doing something, but the people had already started. We needed them to tell us what they were doing instead. If I’m not mistaken, the House Speaker literally appeared within a few days when the French President summoned them with a smile on his face on TV, like just act like you care, even if you don’t, just act.
Julia: When it happened I remember messaging you right away to check if you were safe, and even then there was the Wifi going in and out.
Myra: They’re almost doing it on purpose. I feel like it’s always been bad, but let’s say you’re near the protest, your phone suddenly doesn’t work.
Julia: Is it the army or police that are using tear gas and reacting to protestors, or both?
Myra: This is where I get confused because we have so many different types of police and militia that I don’t even know who can give me a ticket for speeding. We’re seeing all of them, but they’re not doing anything except attack the peaceful protestors. Because you also have the rioters that are sent by the government and politicians (their followers) to cause a ruckus and they’re somehow not touched.
Julia: How many political parties are in Lebanon?
Myra: Too many. I can think of 5 or 6 just off the top of my head but there are more.
Julia: Of those, do you think any of them have a clear vision for Lebanon or do you think they’re all corrupt in their own way?
Myra: They are all corrupt in their own way, because even those parties have been around and have stayed the same for so long.
Julia: So you’re back to picking the lesser of evils if it were to come to a re-vote.
Myra: Every one of them also has their own following too, and they are brain-washed as well, for lack of a better word.
Julia: Do you have any friends or acquaintances that would differ in opinion about this topic?
Myra: I did, not anymore. Because it’s very much now you’re in or you’re out. Some people have changed their minds at this point. Our generation (my generation) is more aware of what is happening, so you don’t see as much of a following compared to older generations who went through the civil war. The older generations are almost all linked to them in some way or voted for them at least.
Vaani: Do you think that growing up in Canada has impacted your perspective compared to people who have spent their entire lives in Lebanon?
Myra: I feel like it helpsin a sense that I get to pick and choose what I like from both. I have pros and cons and I adopt these and these. A lot of the people here are cultured and have travelled even if they are not citizens of another country. But you also have the narrow-minded people who tend to be blind followers.
Julia: You also said that you’re coming from a background in Lebanon and Canada, and as much as we’re addressing the corruption n the Lebanese government, we can’t say that Canada doesn’t have its faults too. There are faults in all sorts of governments and diplomacies. So it’s very eye-opening that you can say you take pros and cons from both sides.
Myra: Exactly, none of them are perfect. It’s just that you have some that are at one extreme and others that are at another.
Julia: So what do you think people can do to help?
Vaani: You’ve talked a lot about what Lebanese citizens are doing, and there was obviously a lot of info circulating on social media about what foreigners can do. What do you think foreigners can do still?
Myra: I think the most important thing is to not stop talking about it or brush it under the rug as past news. People should use their privilege, which has proven to be very difficult for people to do. I think they should educate themselves and the people around them. Use your platforms, however, small, and you’ll impact at least one or two people.
Julia: Definitely – it can spark a conversation between you and someone else
Myra: Or at least some interest for them to look into it a little more.
Julia: I remember when I first talked to you about it, you said don’t donate to government-based organizations. And you were very pro- Lebanese Red Cross. Do you think they are still viable to be donating to right now?
Myra: They were definitely more important at the beginning in terms of helping the injured, but there are so many more NGOs right now that are helping people in different ways that are higher priorities currently by helping misplaced people, feeding people. It’s safer to help thepeople who are on the ground, as opposed to those organizations that are affiliated with the government.
Julia: What do you think this moment in time means to the people of Lebanon?
Myra: Hope… and despair at the same time.
Julia: There was a quote from a Lebanese woman who is a Director for a Paris-based initiative stated that “This moment, this explosion, is a once in a lifetime battle for the soul of Lebanon.” Do you think that is a correct claim to make?
Myra: I personally don’t agree with it because the newly appointed PM was obviously voted in by the ruling class, the same people that have been here for years, shows that everything people have been chanting for, literally lands on deaf ears. So I don’t agree with that quote. You can even find interviews where the youth are saying things like “yes, we want to make it better, but make it better before we leave”. I think over 40% of the population has applied for immigration. I think Canada on its own has received over 380 000 applications.
Julia: And so many people go abroad to study as well.
Myra: And even not just the explosion, but the economic crisis – people cannot afford to live here anymore. Prices of things have hiked about 55%. So even if you don’t think about the fact that they are literally killing you, you still can’t survive.
Julia: We were researching about two journalists, I think in Lebanon, and found that one was saying that we need international pressure and the other was saying we need the international community to stop supporting parties in the government. What do you think about this?
Myra: I think as much as they’d like to think and say it’s a democratic country on a citizen’s level – the country is literally a pawn. The bigger countries just play with Lebanon. Even now, citizens are saying “who are they going to give the country to now? “Iran, the US?” “Oh wait, what about the US election?” And those kinds of things have a lot of repercussions for us and our livelihood as well.
Julia: It’s like a toy saying “who wants to play with me right now?”
Myra: It’s always been like that too.
Myra: Even now with the French President showing up more than once, make us think “hmm… wait a sec what is going to come out of this?”
Vaani: Okay, so people are discussing the possibility of increased French involvement?
Myra: I don’t think they would actually get involved, it’s more like they would influence the decision at the end.
Vaani: And that’s how all of this works anyways – and I think that comes back to what you were saying about how the only way you can ideally change something like this is by wiping everything clean and starting from a clean slate, but as a pessimist, who’s to say that even with a clean slate, the powerhouses of the world aren’t going to get involved again? Just because something changes in one country, doesn’t mean it will dismantle the systems that exist globally..
Myra: It’s a never-ending circle that has existed for as long as people can remember. It’s not even easy to think about a clean slate, because how real of a possibility is that?
Julia: And this really reminds me of the Arab Spring in Egypt, where after years, they got to a point where everything had to fall apart and only then start re-building. How far do things have to go in Lebanon?
Myra: Even if you think about it that way, if you look into it a little more, you’ll find that in Egypt still did not approve of what they had. They ended up going back to the same cycle at one point. So how long was it good for?
Myra: Haha, look at us trying to solve world problems. It really makes me want to be ignorant so I can live a blissful life.
Julia: Is there anything else you want to say. Those are all the questions we had for you.
Julia and Vaani: We really appreciate you talking with us. You’re very vocal about socio-political issues and we really value your opinion and for you talking about an issue that is so close to you, figuratively and literally. Thank you so much. Of course, we want to iterate that that these are just your opinions and stance and not the opinions of the larger Lebanese Republic. And hopefully all of this sparks conversation, because that’s all anyone of us can do and hopefully this really encourages people to learn more and educate themselves more about all the issues that are going on in the world.
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