Editor’s note: This is one of two articles we are posting today to mark the one-year anniversary of the catastrophic explosion that crippled Beirut on August 4, 2020. The other is titled “Art Students Portray Horror and Hope in Works Recalling the Beirut Port Blast.”
On August 4, 2020, at 6:08 p.m., time stood still in Beirut as the city’s port erupted in an explosion that killed hundreds of people and injured thousands more. Though it has been a year since the blast happened, to many of Beirut’s residents, it feels like yesterday.
Memories of this day remain crystal clear, thanks in part to digital technology. The devastating blast was preceded by a smaller explosion and fire in a warehouse, and people already had their mobile-phone cameras trained on the port when the second, colossal explosion occurred. Thus, they were able to document the blast as it happened, as well as its aftermath. (See a related article, “Beirut Blast Cripples an Educational and Cultural Capital.”)
Technology was also a connection to the outside world and a source of information in the moments after the blast happened.
Initially, many people in Beirut thought they were being bombed from the air, and memories of the war came back to haunt them. Some thought a generator had exploded in their building.
“Actually, people who were abroad or outside of Beirut knew what was happening before we did,” said Dalia Tohme, a former resident. “We didn’t know what was going on. I had just assumed there was a bomb or explosion of some kind.”
Turning to Social Media
The reason people abroad had more details was because people sitting on their balconies filmed the explosion as it happened and uploaded their videos to social media, which international news networks immediately began to broadcast.
“The memory is so sharp and detailed. I remember my body being pulled north then south as I was already standing with a camera in my hands anticipating a smoke stack from the bang I heard 35 seconds earlier.”Ahmad ‘Madjam’ Ajam
A Lebanese DJ and broadcaster
Ahmad ‘Madjam’ Ajam, a Lebanese DJ and broadcaster, was on his balcony after the first explosion and immediately knew something wasn’t right, so he got his cameras ready. “The memory is so sharp and detailed. I remember my body being pulled north then south as I was already standing with a camera in my hands anticipating a smoke stack from the bang I heard 35 seconds earlier,” he said.
Ajam has a large following across the Middle East, so it was inevitable that friends and family would be concerned for him. Minutes after the blast, when his Internet was working, he took to Instagram Live to update his fans on his welfare and give clear footage of the damage and dust in his home.
The power of technology in that moment brought news to those outside of Lebanon and so there was a mass of people calling and sending messages to loved ones in Beirut. This contrasts strongly with the technology available during the civil war in Lebanon, when people barely had phone lines or electricity.
“I couldn’t imagine being in a world where we only depended on television and a landline, like our parents had during the civil war,” said Ajam as more people took to their phones to find out what happened.
Aiding Recovery Efforts
That technology also impacted how people reacted to the aftermath. “The fact that there were two successive explosions meant that this explosion was the most visually documented in history,” said Nabil Barbir, NGO relations coordinator for the charitable group Live Love Beirut.
After the Blast: Memories and Relief Efforts
“Everyone in Beirut had their cellphones pointed at the port. As such, the second detonation was filmed by a very large number of people,” Barbir said. “Moreover, thanks to instant messaging applications and communication technology, footage of this event spread across the world in mere minutes. As a result, the humanitarian response from all over the world was immense.”
Crowd-funding pages were set up, and through messaging services like Whatsapp people were mobilized to provide help, food and shelter. Barbir explained that technology allowed for “civil society to coordinate efforts in order to avoid duplications and work as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
Live Love Beirut is now organizing a digital archive called Collective Memory, inviting people everywhere to share photos, videos or voice messages showing their memories of the moment they learned about the blast. A team from Live Love Beirut uploads these to a map where every file is geo-tagged to the location where the person was.
“The map will be accessible through our website and through our upcoming digital application,” Barbir said. “This will give the opportunity to anyone who wishes to (re)-experience the moment of the blast and the moments that ensued, from the point of view of the people themselves.”
The use of technology and mobile phones in crises has become a lifeline. “Mobile phones were a massive accelerator for the recovery operation of the blast,” said Tohme. “Not just phone calls to co-ordinate amongst us, but the use of social media channels such as Facebook and Instagram to raise awareness of when and where local initiatives were happening and how you could get involved.”
“Mobile phones were a massive accelerator for the recovery operation of the blast.”Dalia Tohme
A former resident of Beirut
Tohme first had to find her mobile phone after losing it during the blast. She said watching the community pull together and help one another was part of the healing process.
Her phone was also used to document the damage caused to herself, her home and her husband’s office, which was destroyed.
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These digital memories, when put together, paint a picture of that day for generations to come. They won’t be lost or destroyed like physical objects, and they will hopefully educate people around the world the devastation the city has gone through and for it not to be repeated.