On August 4, 2020, Beirut was hit by a gigantic double explosion which wiped out the port and caused carnage over a six-mile radius. In under five seconds dozens were killed, thousands were injured and 300,000 were left homeless. The final death toll weeks later was nearly 200.
Flyp, a climbing gym in Beirut, stood only 0.8 miles from the epicenter, and like its neighborhood was heavily damaged in the blast: the metal roof panels of the warehouse that housed the gym were peeled off the main steel structure and many of the load-bearing beams were bent by the blow’s impact. The south-facing part of the climbing wall detached from the structure and later collapsed onto the remaining wall—which cracked but stayed upright.
Diala Sammakieh, owner of Flyp, saw her business and her home, both within a mile from the explosion, turn to rubble in a few seconds. Sammakieh, her husband and their three children survived the disastrous event, but like most people in Beirut it was a close call. The morning after the blast she was interviewed by the international news channel Al Jazeera outside the building she lived in: “Our homes are completely ravaged, unlivable, the whole building is unlivable, total destruction. [After the explosion] we were removing corpses from under the rubble until eleven thirty at night.”
Four neighbors in her apartment-building were killed in the blast.
“This is a nightmare, these things you only see in movies,” Sammakieh said. “Who does this to their own people?”
How did this happen?
Over 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate—a highly explosive substance—made it to the Beirut port in 2013, and were stored there until they exploded in August. While the specifics remain cloudy, one thing is clear: there was gross negligence involved. The Lebanese authorities, head of customs, president and prime minister all knew about the ammonium nitrate and the dangers it posed, and yet did nothing to dispose of the substance safely, until, six years later, it detonated and destroyed Beirut.
Rather than an isolated incident, the blast was only another manifestation of the Lebanese political class’s incompetence, neglect and complete disregard of its people’s safety and survival. Lebanon had been crumbling well before the blast, with the country—governed by warlords since the end of the civil war—experiencing a financial, economic, and political crisis. Add to that the COVID-19 pandemic, and finally, the blast, and the country is hanging on by a thread. The Lebanese currency has lost 80% of its value in the past year, thousands have lost their jobs, over 50% of Lebanese now live under the poverty line, proper social safety nets are still lacking, and inflation has gone through the roof.
What now for Flyp and climbing in Beirut?
Flyp was a second home to a large part of Lebanon’s eclectic and vibrant climbing community, a place where people found stability in the midst of all the political and economical unrest. For the past year people living in Beirut have been through a lot; climbing has been a refuge, an escape, and most of all a way for many to stay sane.
George Emil is one of the pioneers of the Lebanese climbing scene and one of the main developers of sport climbing in the north of Lebanon. He was also an instructor and the lead route setter at Flyp before the explosion.
“The climbers at Flyp shared a great sense of uncertainty about the future of their climbing and training,” Emil said of what the situation was like even before the blast. “So day after day, my friends and I gave it our all. We worked hard, climbed harder and trained like there was no tomorrow.”
The gym was closed on August 4—and had been since July 30—as part of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Had the circumstances been different, many climbers and their friends would have perished.
“I go to Flyp on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30 to 10. So I was angry that our second home was in ruins, but I felt a bit lucky because Flyp was closed during the explosion at a time when I would have been training,” said Yves Sfeir, 26, an architect, regular climber at Flyp and volunteer firefighter with the Lebanese Civil Defence. Sfeir was present on the ground with his division DC 300 soon after the blast. Equipped with shovels and flashlights in pitch darkness, his squad worked throughout the first night until 10 a.m. the next morning, searching for those trapped under the rubble. They conducted the first search and rescue patrol on the site of the blast.
“I didn’t realize what had really happened until a week after the explosion—we were only focused on helping people. For people who felt the blast physically I think it’s even more traumatizing,” Sfeir said.
Sfeir opened up about how dealing with the aftermath impacted his mental health: “I’m familiar with the scenes of dead bodies and horrific crimes and all of these things but not on this massive scale… I haven’t seen such a thing in all of my life so it affected me for sure. I had a lot of mood swings, I had anger inside of me.”
Sfeir participated in large protests downtown several days after the explosion and—like many others—was shot by the International Security Forces (ISF). A teargas canister, fired from just 10 meters away, hit him.
“It fueled my anger even more, nobody [none of the politicians] cares about what happened,” Sfeir said.
Still at loss for words a month later, people living in Beirut are dealing with trauma; they are filled with anger and sadness as they grieve for their city. The state provided hardly any help after the blast. People have begun repairing their homes and businesses with the help of volunteers who flooded the city from all over the country. These civilian efforts are supervised and coordinated by different non-governmental organizations working tirelessly on the ground to make sure all basic needs are met. Thanks to the generosity of the international community and the Lebanese diaspora, these organizations have been able to facilitate relief operations.
In the aftermath of the blast, everyone focused on helping those who lost their homes and their loved ones. Many joined the volunteering efforts: they donated blood, helped clear the rubble, and distributed donations to those most in need.
After these initial humanitarian efforts, the local climbing community turned its attention to the monumental task of rebuilding the gym.
Though barely breaking even, Sammakieh kept had Flyp up and running both for her employees and for the climbing community before the blast, but was now up against the wall. Faced with hyperinflation and a devaluing currency, it became clear that it would be impossible to rebuild the climbing gym without external financial aid.
Flyp launched a multi-front appeal to the Lebanese and international climbing communities: to help Beirut climbers keep climbing.
The response was amazing.
Climbers from Go-up, a climbing gym in the south of Lebanon, drove all the way to Beirut and helped with the efforts to salvage equipment from the wreckage. U-rock, another climbing gym in the Matn District (North of Beirut), sought to raise funds for Flyp by organizing outdoor events. Further, a crowdfunding GoFundMe campaign was launched on August 15 by a small group of climbers who trained and worked at Flyp. Local climbers quickly reached out to friends abroad, gyms, equipment brands and foreign climbing associations.
Professional climber Sam Elias played an active role from the start in the crowdfunding campaign, making sure Beirut climbers were heard, posting about the disaster extensively, and generating donations through designing and selling t-shirts. Soon enough word got to other professional climbers, who in turn started posting about it. For example, Conrad Anker commented on one of Elias’ posts, ‘‘If climbing and the community that makes it special means something to you, please consider a donation for the Beirut climbing gym.”
The support has been invaluable, but Flyp and the climbers of Lebanon still need help and more funds to rebuild.
Diala Sammakieh is determined to reopen Flyp as soon as possible and send a clear message of defiance to the ruling class that has been hindering everyday Lebanese peoples’ efforts to build and prosper in their own country.
“They can’t shake us, we are not going anywhere,” she said.
Feature image: Climbers working together to salvage holds from collapsed parts of the wall at Flyp after the blast in Beirut. Photo: Laura Karam.
Additional reporting from Georgia Dagher, policy researcher.