‘This Is Our Last Chance.’ A Photographer Captures the Energy for Change in Beirut After the Explosion

For the last three decades, the most reliable feature of Lebanon’s government has been its relentless decline.

Here was a country so brazenly corrupt the World Bank abandoned its usual diplomatic language in 2015, declaring the country “increasingly governed by bribery and nepotism practices, failing to deliver basic human services.” Among ordinary people, the lived reality of Lebanese politics produced a gall that rose like the stench of the garbage that has accumulated on the capital’s streets because officials cannot figure out where to put it. In October, the announcement of higher taxes triggered gigantic daily protests across the country. But they have not yet led to any substantial change.

Riad Hussein Al Hussein and his wife Fatima Al Abid in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood of Beirut on Aug. 7. He was buying vegetables there three days earlier when he heard a small explosion. He asked the seller whether he thought it was a shell or a bomb, and where it had landed. “Our discussion lasted approximately one minute and was interrupted by another sound of explosion, one way louder,” he recalls. “I shouted and said we needed to hurry inside the shop, and that is when I was hit by the glass.” He later went back to the building where he was injured to assist with cleaning up. “I wanted to help like I had been helped,” he said. “I wanted to pay it forward.”

Myriam Boulos for TIME

A volunteer named Ahmad, who works with a Palestinian organization helping victims, prays amid rubble in Beirut on Aug. 5.

Myriam Boulos

Kevin Obeid cuts Jad Estephan’s hair in the Mar Mikhael area of Beirut on Aug. 7, three days after the deadly port explosion. “Let us hope that this catastrophe doesn’t destroy us even further,” says Estephan, who lost his eye at the beginning of the revolution last year, “but rather gives us a much needed strength.” Obeid says he went to Mar Mikhael that day for two reasons: “First, to help the people that lost their houses. As my family and myself have not been directly affected by the explosion, I consider it natural to help those that were affected. It is the least I can do. The second reason was that I wanted to use my skills to help people around me. I wanted to use my skills to fix them.”

Myriam Boulos for TIME

The question now is whether the catastrophic explosion of Aug. 4, which wiped away more than 220 lives and the homes of 300,000 people in Beirut, will ultimately take down Lebanon’s unique political system. The country’s constitution — which guarantees government positions to 18 separate religious sects — was intended to balance the interests and needs of a diverse, cosmopolitan nation. In reality, it provides semi-permanent employment for self-dealing elites in political parties that look after themselves, rather than a greater good.

Which is how 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate languished in a port warehouse in the center of a city of 2.4 million people since 2013.

Branches rest on a sedan. The blast, estimated at one tenth the size of the atomic explosion at Hiroshima, sent a wave of destruction six miles across a city already reeling from shortages of food, water and electricity.

Myriam Boulos for TIME

“I felt like I went to hell for seven hours and then I came out of it,” recalls Andrea, a drag performer in Beirut who was injured in the port explosion. “I didn’t know what to think. Did I lose my house? Did I lose my life? Did I lose my beautiful city? It was a war zone.” Since then, Andrea, whose home sustained significant damage, has helped with a relief fund that offers shelter, food and first aid to members of the city’s LGBTQ community who were impacted by the disaster. “If we didn’t have our rights before,” he adds, referring to the fact that same-sex relations in Lebanon can be punishable by up to one year in prison, “now what we have left is very little.”

Myriam Boulos for TIME

“We have been living next to an atomic bomb for six years. We stroll around, we walk by it, but we know nothing about it,” says resident Jad Estephan, of what produced one of the largest man-made (non-nuclear) explosions in global history. “How can the people in charge be this conscienceless?”

For a week after the blast, photographer Myriam Boulos moved through the wreckage of her native city, documenting an aftermath nearly as extraordinary as the explosion: Soldiers and police stood idle while ordinary people bent to the task of clearing debris. (“They carry guns,” says Boulos. “They don’t help with anything.”) As she photographed, she also asked questions. “It’s important that we tell our own stories,” she says. “It’s so important to listen to people, because at the end of the day the country is people.”

Angelique Sabounjian and Cherif Kanaan on Aug. 10. Six days earlier, she was hit in the face with a piece of glass as the blast wave tore through the coffee shop where she was working in Beirut’s Gemmayze neighborhood. Sabounjian walked to the “completely demolished” St. George Hospital, where she would meet Kanaan. She was in “bad shape,” he recalls. “I decided to stick with her and introduced myself.” At one point, with her phone receiving so many calls, “she gave me the password so I could manage the calls from her family.” As Sabounjian tells it, “the experience I lived until Cherif found me was a nightmare.” He stayed by her side, and worked to find her an ambulance, until she received treatment at the Hôtel-Dieu de France hospital. “When I was confident that she was in good hands,” Kanaan remembers, “I wished Angelique a fast recovery and left the room.”

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Joseph Sfeir, 88, a journalist for six decades, was born in this house in the Mar Mikhael area of Beirut. He lived through Lebanon’s 15-year civil war there, too. When the massive explosion occurred, Sfeir recalls, his reflex was to save his grandchildren—the reasons he came back years ago from France. They were with him in the house that day, but were not injured. His wife, who was on the second floor when the blast shook the city, was wounded. Sfeir is pictured with his sister, Mona.

Myriam Boulos for TIME

Citizens complain about their government in every country, but few have better cause than the Lebanese. In a country that made its national symbol a tree, “the Lebanese people had to put out fires that were devastating our forests because our government was unable to do its job,” Nour Saliba noted, recalling a series of forest fires last October. It was the month daily demonstrations erupted in the capital. Protesters demanded an end to corruption and a new constitution.

The pandemic was still months away, but misrule had already sent the country’s economy into free fall, and almost half the 6.8 million residents (including 1.5 million Syrian refugees) lived in poverty. After two weeks of protests in October, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned. His replacement lasted mere months, stepping down on Aug. 10 after the protests, which had dwindled during the pandemic, resumed with a seething new anger. “The explosion, it cannot not define us, in a way,” says Boulos. “Of course it’s a turning point.”

Smoke billows from a tear gas canister during an antigovernment demonstration in Beirut on Aug. 8, four days after the blast.

Myriam Boulos for TIME

People gather on balconies during the demonstration. Protesters say negligence and corruption across Lebanon’s political system contributed to the disaster.

Myriam Boulos for TIME

A young protester near Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square during the Aug. 8 demonstration.

Myriam Boulos for TIME

Riad Hussein Al Hussein was buying vegetables in the city’s Mar Mikhael neighborhood when he was knocked to the ground by the blast wave. He noticed he was bleeding from his head. Someone came to help him. “He used a cotton compress and pressed on my wounds for what seemed like a long time. He said that I had to endure the pain. And I endured.” That lasted about 20 minutes. “I really thought I was dying. I held my savior’s hand while he was helping me and I asked him to say my goodbyes to my family.”

Nothing binds people to one another like a trauma endured together. The explosion devastated three neighborhoods — a poor district east of the port; an enclave of Armenian Christians; and a gentrifying zone of older residents and young, artsy people. But with a damage radius of six miles, the entire city came apart. And then, came together.

Cherif Kanaan told Boulos he was at home when he heard the explosion. “My mum, my brother and I ran towards each other very scared. A few seconds later the whole building started shaking like crazy and the massive blast hit us,” he says. “The look in their eyes will forever haunt me. We really thought we were gonna die.” He left the apartment and sprinted first to the home of his uncle, where everyone was okay. From there, he ran from hospital to hospital, looking for people to help.

Some protesters on Aug. 8 reportedly threw stones and debris at officers or jumped over barricades that had closed off access to parliament, while others entered government ministries. Officers responded with heavy volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets.

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A group of women inside a van avoid thick clouds of tear gas in Beirut on Aug. 8.

Myriam Boulos for TIME

A man who was wounded during a demonstration on Aug. 11. At protests since the blast, researchers with Human Rights Watch have observed birdshot pellets being fired “indiscriminately” at protesters by security forces. After attacks on members of the press at various demonstrations, the Committee to Protect Journalists urged Lebanese authorities to investigate and hold accountable those found to be responsible. On Aug. 13, in a move that concerned rights groups, the parliament approved a state of emergency in Beirut that grants sweeping powers to the military as popular criticism mounts.

Myriam Boulos for TIME

He found them everywhere. He held a compress to a wounded nurse outside a destroyed hospital, then cut his own hand lifting a metal pole out of the road. He helped an old man struggling with a bandage, and took off his shirt for a woman carrying two babies from a destroyed hospital. Another passerby gave his shirt for a third baby. Back at the ruined hospital, he spotted a woman with a terrible wound on her face. Her name was Angelique. “I couldn’t quite get her family name at first because of her numb lips,” he says.

Kanaan took her phone, reassuring relatives who were calling constantly. In the mayhem, an ambulance appeared. He bundled Angelique into a scene that would stay with him: On a stretcher was a young girl named Alexandra, struggling to breathe, “her grandpa at the back, a lady doctor next to him, insufflating Alexandra, her dad with a broken left cheekbone, Angelique next to him, myself, a wounded old lady in front of me, a wounded old man next to her behind the driver and a rescuer, I believe,” Kanaan says. Alexandra would not survive.

Hatem Imam and Maya Moumne of Studio Safar, a design and communications agency, photographed on Aug. 10. The explosion “effectively eradicated any semblance of normalcy, and with it any remnant of decency,” the pair said. “The obscenity of the negligence of a state that knowingly stores 2,750 tons of highly explosive materials in its capital’s port is only multiplied by this state’s sickening lack of recourse in the aftermath.”

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A cactus rests on broken glass. Cleanup efforts have been left to volunteers, with authorities all but invisible.

Myriam Boulos for TIME

It was six days after the blast that Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned, saying he wanted to stand with the people “and fight the battle for change alongside them.” The next day, one week to the minute after the explosion, citizens gathered in the wreckage of their capital At 6:08 p.m., what moved through the air was not a blast wave but the Muslim call to prayer, and the peal of church bells.

“Let us hope that this catastrophe doesn’t destroy us even further but rather gives us a much needed strength,” says Estephan. “Because this is our last chance. We must change today, or never.”

—With reporting by Myriam Boulos/Beirut and Madeline Roache/London

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