News

Beirut Residents Describe the Trauma of the Explosion

“I found my house completely destroyed. The windows and doors were all broken.”
06 August 2020, 2:56pm
Chris's white car crushed under debris. On the background: rubble.
Chris' car. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia.

Yesterday, I woke up hearing my mother crying while watching the news. She has been crying since Tuesday, when an explosion of apocalyptic proportions hit the Lebanese capital of Beirut and destroyed half of the city, leaving a trail of death and injury. Yesterday morning, she was crying over the destroyed wheat silos in the port. They were storing food for the entire country, at a time when people had already been going hungry for months, broken by Lebanon’s ongoing economic collapse. Now the silos are gone. On Wednesday, the Lebanese Minister of Economy, Raoul Nehme, claimed Lebanon has enough wheat in its inventory, but we no longer believe anyone.

In Beirut, everything is miserable now. The dead, the wounded, the overflowing hospitals, the destroyed homes – even the wheat at the port. Everything we were afraid of happened in seconds. I experienced the July war in 2006, when Hezbollah killed Israeli soldiers and Israel bombed Lebanon and invaded the south of the country. I lived through the revolution, when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese people demanded a fairer, less corrupt government and were met with violent repression and tear gas. This experience is incomparable. The scenes of the fire and the mushroom cloud enveloping entire blocks, the images of people with glass shards and blood all over their bodies – it’s all heartbreaking.

After the explosion, I felt a lot of pain in my head and neck. We went to the hospital but it was full. I knew there were people who needed a spot more than I did, so I went home and tried hard to digest what had happened. On Wednesday, they announced the blast was caused by dangerous chemicals stored at the harbour without the proper safety measures. My sadness turned into rage. What were they doing in a port full of workers and goods? What were they doing so close to the city? Who do we blame?

I am not alone in thinking we have hit rock bottom. The losses are too great, there is no possible compensation. Many of my friends have lost their homes, their cars, their workspaces. Some of them have suffered serious injuries. My friend Juliana, 28, lives in the Ashrafieh neighbourhood, close to the explosion. It’s one of the city’s oldest areas, with its winding streets and beautiful building facades. It will never be the same. “I found my house completely destroyed,” she said. “The windows and doors were all broken.”

In July 2020, Lebanon officially hit hyperinflation, with a monthly inflation rate of 52.6 percent. That means that the prices of regular goods are extremely unaffordable because the local currency is losing value to the dollar at breakneck speed. It’s the first country in the Middle East and North Africa to hit this grim milestone. “We simply don’t have the dollars to replace everything,” Juliana said. Renovations would cost a minimum of 650 dollars, which at the current exchange rate means 5.2 million Lebanese pounds, or roughly the price of six months’ rent.

Maya, 30, from the Al Hamra neighbourhood in the west of the city, was at home with her mother when she heard the blast. Her windows shattered injuring her and her mum. “We couldn't find anyone to help us,” she said. They tried calling the Red Cross but no one could come. A few hours later, her husband tried driving them to three hospitals, through traffic jams. But the hospitals were packed and wouldn’t let them in. “We went back to our destroyed home,” Maya said. “We were still bleeding with glass covering our bodies.” She heard hospitals outside Beirut were taking the injured, so they drove a half-hour south to the city of Sidon, where they were treated after a long wait. “This was the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had, and a trauma I’ll never be able to forget,” she said.

Kevin, 31, lives in the Geitawi area, also near the port. He was at home when the explosion happened. Everything around him was destroyed, and he was lucky to only be hit by a bit of glass on his legs. “When I think about the losses, and the money I’ll need to repair what is destroyed, I feel like crying, but I am unable to cry," he said.

Chris, 33, is from the Mar Mikhael neighbourhood, famous for its nightlife and right next to the site of the explosion. On Tuesday, he was at his girlfriend's house in the same area, helping her move. “We were smoking on the balcony when we heard the distant sounds of explosions,” he said. “We went into the house afraid, we didn’t understand what was going on.” At first, they thought the war with Israel had started again, as tensions between the two countries are ongoing and there are often clashes at the border – the most recently on the 27th of July.

“We thought we needed to escape the bombings. The noise grew louder and louder, until the big explosion flattened us to the ground,” Chris said. The house was completely destroyed. They managed to get out of there with great difficulty amidst the rubble and screams from their neighbours. The scene outside was apocalyptic. “There were people wounded in the street, blood everywhere, collapsed buildings, destroyed cars,” Chris said. “I lost my car, but I’m grateful to be alive."

Two weeks ago, 31-year-old Saeb arrived from Dubai, where he works, to spend the holiday of Eid al-Adha with his family and friends. When the explosion happened, his friends were waiting for him outside the holiday house they’d rented while he was still getting ready inside. “Suddenly, everything around me was destroyed”, Saeb said. “I don't know how I managed to get out of there. I was very worried about my friends and my relatives. Thank God, nothing happened to them.” After getting over the shock, they started helping the injured. “It was a feeling of overwhelming fear like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” Saeb said.

The explosion destroyed much more than the city’s buildings. It destroyed the harbour, Lebanon’s main way to import and export with the world, raising questions about how the already scarce food resources, essential goods and building materials will enter the country. It shattered the little faith we had in our government to lead us out of this crisis. Beirut has already been through so much – war and destruction, poverty and revolutions, divisions and solidarity. It’s just hard to find the energy to do this all over again.