Graffiti, rinse, repeat: how graffiti on a wall became a symbol for Lebanon’s frustration

When someone painted over prominent graffiti blaming the Lebanese government for the deadly explosions at the port of Beirut in August 2020, let’s just say it made a lot of people angry. 

This is a screengrab of a video posted on Twitter on April 8 that shows Lebanese activists spray painting the message "My government did that,” on a low wall along the Beirut port. © Twitter
This is a screengrab of a video posted on Twitter on April 8 that shows Lebanese activists spray painting the message "My government did that,” on a low wall along the Beirut port. © Twitter © Twitter

This graffiti, which says "my government did this", appeared on a low wall next to a highway running alongside the port shortly after the explosion on August 4, 2020 that killed 200 people and injured another 6,500. Photos showing the spray painted words in the foreground and the devastation of the explosion in the background were widely shared in the media and on social media. 

Translation: "My government, incompetent, corrupt, negligent, criminal l [...] refuses to take responsibility. It did this."

However, on April 8, a photo showing the wall painted over with white paint appeared on Twitter, prompting angry reactions from some social media users. A number of people accused the government of failing to take responsibility for this explosion. 

The same day, a young activist, Khaldoun Jaber, went to the same place and spray painted the famous phrase again on top of the freshly painted wall. "My government did this,” he wrote, adding: “You can’t erase your crimes.”

Translation: "You can’t erase your crimes.”

When interviewed by Sky News, he said: 

This paint job really made me angry. It’s as if the government wanted to force us to shut up about this crime [...]. The crime on August 4 was committed against a country, a city and more than 1,000 families. It’s not a minor infraction that we’ll just forget. We want the judicial system to do their work with independence, to identify and punish all of those responsible for this crime. Until then, we won’t be quiet.

Since then, other activists have followed his lead and spray painted the famous phrase on other points along the wall, as shown in this video: 

"I am one of the people who can’t accept that,” explains the man in a red tee-shirt. “If they erase it a thousand times, we’ll come back and rewrite that phrase.”

Who covered up the graffiti?

Shortly thereafter, the president of an organisation that teaches courses in nonviolent communication, Lara Karam, told a television station that she was responsible for painting over the graffiti. She said that she covered the graffiti after getting an authorization from Beirut’s city government to cover the wall with a mural designed by the families of victims of the explosion. 

Lebanon is currently in the midst of the worst economic crisis in its history, marked by hyperinflation and rising poverty. Frequent protests against the corruption of the political elite bring thousands of angry Lebanese citizens to the street. One of their demands is that an impartial investigation be carried out into the port explosions. 

Two explosions occurred at the port on August 4, 2020. The second explosion, which took place in a hangar containing 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, caused widespread damage across the city and among the ships docked at the port.  

Starting the day after the double explosion, there were widespread calls for an international investigation into the circumstances of the disaster. But Lebanese president Michel Aoun refused this option, championed by French president Emmanuel Macron. 

On February 18, the judge in charge of the domestic investigation, Fadi Sawan, was removed after a complaint by two former ministers who he had accused of criminal negligence. This decision was met with anger by the families of the victims. Two months earlier, in December 2020, Sawan had charged Hassan Diab, the caretaker prime minister at the time of the blasts, and three former ministers with criminal negligence related to the blast. 

A new judge has since been appointed to lead the investigation.