Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The Earthquake Factory

We were watching the earthquake on screens. The scenes were heart-breaking. Villages were crushed as if they never existed. The buildings killed their occupants. Distress calls from under the rubble tried to beat time but were often beaten. Time was long and difficult for those who observed the rubble from the outside. It was deadly for those who were captured in its grip.

Deaths were soaring. Tens of thousands of families are wringing out their remaining tears. How hard it is for the children to be betrayed by their own home. How painful it is to see your sanctuary become your grave… your shelter become your dreadful enemy…

Buildings became scattered. Balconies and windows were no more. Houses formed a terrifying pile, crushing the flesh of those who thought were being protected.

The earthquake took centerstage during the conversation with the Iraqi politician. He was confident that the scenes would shake the conscience of the world, which would not be late in extending a helping hand. It’s not the time to express reservations or settle accounts. The horror of the catastrophe demands the utmost solidarity. He was right in his assessment, as countries near and far rushed to assume their humanitarian responsibilities.

He said that we were the people of a region that resides on a faultline, and that from time to time, nature committed such terrible crimes. As if this part of the world needed more cemeteries and more refugees! He noted that this monstrous earthquake was less terrifying than the earthquakes that struck the region due to seismic policies.

He asked me: Don’t you think that the number of victims, no matter how high, will be less than those killed by the earthquake that struck Lebanon, starting from 1975? I do not underestimate the horror of what is happening. Do you recall the earthquake caused by the Iraq-Iran war? It lasted eight years and produced a river of dead and injured and we are still paying those bills today.

The Iraqi politician started counting the upheavals: Did you forget that we are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq? It is an earthquake with persisting aftershocks, not only in Iraq, but also in the maps that pay the price for the imbalance caused by the invasion of this part of the world.

Between these two upheavals, we find the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which placed the region on the edge of a cliff. Moreover, we cannot forget the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982 and its occupation of an Arab capital.

The Iraqi politician said it was painful to see the Lebanese capital, which had resisted the Israeli military machine, to be later killed by its own sons or at least some of them.

This century has been full of earthquakes. The uprooting of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and less than a decade later, the overthrow of Moammar al-Gaddafi that turned into a violent tremor with ongoing aftershocks. The assassination of President Ali Abdullah Saleh put Yemen on the faultline. Luckily, Egypt succeeded in averting the great earthquake that threatened to destroy its identity and shed its blood.

The Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza endure successive bloody cycles, and they will continue to do so unless the Israeli public opinion accepts that the earthquake will not come from the Palestinian state, but rather from the continued failure to establish it.

Somalia, meanwhile, slipped into chaos and has not regained stability.

Is it possible to make a comparison between the victims of the Turkish-Syrian earthquake and those of the wide-open Ukrainian disaster?

The politician said that natural earthquakes were impossible to prevent, but their horrors can be mitigated. He pointed to the need to commit to seismic building codes, which are applied by other countries, such as Japan. He emphasized the importance of promptly addressing the problem of slums and towns, where some buildings are collapsing even without earthquakes.

He talked about confronting the monster of corruption that exploits the funds allocated to the construction sector and gambles with people’s lives without fearing accountability.

If nature cannot be prevented from committing its crimes, let us at least try to thwart the earthquakes that the people of the region unleash on other people’s maps or on their own land. The politician believed that the residents of the region do not have the right to continue to swallow the poison in a world that is witnessing successive technological revolutions and is preparing to surrender its future to artificial intelligence.

He said the first step begins with the ethnic, religious and sectarian groups taking a firm decision to coexist and give up the illusion of imposing a uniform or a dominant color on the maps of others… He stressed the need to refrain from violating international borders under any pretext or slogans that hide imperial appetites lurking under the rubble… He highlighted the need for a firm decision to catch up with the progress in education and health, fight poverty, provide job opportunities, improve people’s lives, and combat drought, desertification and environmental degradation.

The speaker realized that I saw in him a dreamer in a region addicted to earthquakes and the art of not learning lessons.

He underlined the impossibility of forging ahead towards the future while corruption continued to hold sway and with false elections that are influenced by fanaticism, money, militias, explosives and drones.

The future can only be reached through the state, through a government that combines integrity, efficiency and institutions that are worthy of the name.

The Middle East remaining an earthquake factory is a severe punishment for its people. Add to that the injustice of nature. The cruelty of the earth is seasonal, but the harshness of the earthquake factory is continuous.

It is essential to get rid of the culture of darkness, vengeance, victory, oppression and the assassination of rights and roles. We must recognize the other, their right to be different and to choose their own path.

Only the values of justice, progress and dignity can help in shutting down the bomb factory, which was founded by a thorny history in a treacherous region of the world. But who will open all these windows to a new Middle East? Who will dry all these tears?