The deadly car bomb that ripped through downtown Beirut shook buildings and rattled windows, triggering fear among many people that “nowhere is safe” anymore in Lebanon.
The country, which fought a long civil war between 1975 and 1990, is no stranger to violence and has seen a rise in attacks linked to the fighting in neighbouring Syria, but Friday’s explosion in the heart of Beirut brought the unrest even closer to home.
Street cleaner Ali Aoun was carrying out his daily chores when the car exploded, killing six people, including prominent anti-Syria politician Mohammad Chatah.
“The pressure of the blast was so powerful. All the buildings shook around me,” he said as he swept up piles of broken glass outside a badly damaged office building.
“I can’t believe I am still alive.”
Chatah was an advisor to Saad Hariri, whose late father, the billionaire prime minister Rafik Hariri, led the rebuilding of the city centre after it was reduced to rubble in the civil war, which claimed an estimated 150,000 lives.
But the elder Hariri, a prime minister, was killed in a massive explosion targeting his convoy in 2005, just blocks away from Friday’s blast.
“This area is supposed to be safe, perhaps the safest in all the country,” said Ziad, a businessman who gave only his first name.
“It is clear that nowhere is safe anymore. If I had the chance to take my wife and children somewhere else, I would.”
The blast was so powerful that it wrecked the facades of at least 10 office buildings, damaging cars, trendy cafes and designer boutiques across a wide swathe of the city centre.
The streets were carpeted with glass and shrapnel and bloodstains could be seen on the pavement in the usually spotless district, home to banks, parliament, and the prime minister’s office in the hilltop Ottoman-era Grand Serail compound.
Fresh food was still laid out in a display at a shattered restaurant, just meters from the scene of the attack.
‘Anyone can be killed, anytime, anywhere’
Hatem, a security guard standing a few metres away from the destruction, said the attack is a sign of worse things to come for Beirut.
“This attack is a message to everyone in Lebanon that says: everyone can be killed, anytime, anywhere. The country is heading towards destruction,” he said.
“The worst thing is the feeling of insecurity. A car bomb can hit anyone, anywhere. And you can’t predict it or take any precautions.”
Joelle, a smartly-dressed, young office worker shuddered with fear.
“I am terrified. I was at work. Many of my colleagues have been injured, and they were inside their offices when the blast hit. What does this mean — we can’t even go to work?” she said.
“No one deserves to die this way.”
A Kuwaiti businessman who had just arrived to Lebanon said what happened was “tragic” and could harm Lebanon’s economy.
“You know this means no one is going to come and do business here in Lebanon any more,” he said, declining to be name.
His Lebanese escort Zulfiqar added: “People come and party here (downtown) every night, and they work here every day. It is shocking.”
Others paid tribute to Chatah, an economist, former finance minister and Lebanon’s ambassador to the United States.
Chatah was the ninth high-profile anti-Syria figure killed in Lebanon since Hariri’s assassination.