Beirutshima: Pity the People
Everything is trivial next to the mother who described the face of her missing son, the young man who wore his upcoming wedding’s suit at the funeral of his fiancée, and the parents who are still looking for the remains of their children amidst the rubble. Everything is trivial…
So tweeted @ghidaneh while trying to process the impact of the apocalyptic explosions August 4 at the port of Beirut that killed and injured over 6,000 (and counting), left at least 300,000 homeless, and turned the one-time vibrant Lebanese capital on the Mediterranean into a zombie landscape.
A former student from my post-foreign correspondent, academic days attached the hashtags #Trauma #Beirut to an illustration that read: “- Are you OK? — No, I’m Lebanese” and an emoji of a red broken heart.
Much has been reported on the newly coined “Beirutshima,” two days before the 75th anniversary of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima during World War II, and, as “Lebanon’s Chernobyl,” given the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate parked in a hangar at the port triggering a terrifying multi-colored mushroom cloud seen and heard for miles, earthquake-like rumbling, and loud pre-blast whistle.
Hard news, analysis, editorializing and speculation about who’s behind it, who’ll be held accountable, and what will happen after a criminally negligent government — one in a succession — resigned following a week of surreal events, will be fodder for years to come.
But it’s the survivors who’ve been shattered, whose lives have been turned upside down, who’ll live with the physical and mental scars.
The floor under me shook and the glass of a glassed-in balcony rattled violently, almost coming off its hinges and frames.
I ran to see a huge plume of smoke from the port and reflexively started shooting pictures.
It reminded me of July 2006, when Israel unleashed all hell, fire and damnation on Lebanon for 33 days after Hezbollah kidnapped and killed Israeli soldiers from across the Lebanese border with the Jewish state.
Back then I also ran to the window and shot pictures of the port’s silos being bombed that I later used in a presentation on Capitol Hill to members of Congress to demonstrate the disproportionate response the Israelis had rained across Lebanon.
But the very loud bang from my mountain abode miles away reminded me of former prime minister Rafic Hariri’s assassination explosion in 2005.
I’d passed by the St. George Hotel where it happened an hour before that infamous blast on the way back to work from an interview at CNN’s bureau in downtown Beirut. But for the grace of God.
Once news of last week’s explosion spread, I immediately tried to call my daughter Amy, a graphic designer, who lives in Beirut. It took several attempts before I got through.
She’d been working at her computer, at a desk, next to a window.
“At first the desk started shaking, so I thought it was an earthquake then I heard the noise and thought a bomb was dropped in Sodeco, or where the General Security is (the one at Sodeco, not Adlieh), and that Israel had decided to erase us,” she said.
It was a natural reaction to a recent buildup of threats and counter-threats between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia that effectively controls the country.
At first Amy didn’t react. She just grabbed her desk. But her apartment mate Lana was already outside the apartment door in her pajamas holding her passport and keys.
The glass and wooden door to Lana’s bedroom had shattered and menacing shards hung onto parts of the frame. Fortunately the windows were open, otherwise Amy and Lana would have been shredded.
They began checking the news to see what had happened and although the building wasn’t in danger of falling, they still collected stuff and left for safer ground, packing two cats that were scared and hiding.
But not before Amy went to friend Ali Dalloul’s place closer to ground zero to check on him, move glass and tape the windows. It took ages to get there because of the frantic traffic.
The next day Amy and a whole group of friends went down to the hard-hit areas of Gemmayzé and Mar Mikhael to clean up the streets, arguing that if they didn’t, nobody else would. There was a conspicuous absence of Lebanese authorities or official rescue crews.
“I’ve watched a lot of apocalypse/post-apocalyptic depressing movies/series. They’re very well made and all, but nothing can prepare you for what it’s like to actually see something like that,” she said. “It’s real, it’s definitely real, but it’s so extreme that you wonder if it is.”
Fortunately, none of her close friends were severely injured or killed. But a lot of people she knows were affected.
The house of a close friend who doesn’t live in Lebanon was destroyed and it’s a wonder her mother and grandmother who do reside in it made it out alive.
The event has almost paralyzed Amy. She hasn’t been able to do much, but admits she can’t stop working at a time when every penny counts. We’d discussed how, although she said she was fine, there might inevitably be latent PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops in people who’ve experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event and it’s natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation.
“Honestly, I can’t think further than tomorrow,” she said. “I still don’t want to leave; maybe it’s from a place of privilege and maybe it’s because my house is intact and I wasn’t close enough to the blast to have the kind of trauma that so many people are suffering from now, or the fact that I didn’t lose someone close to me. I don’t know how differently I would feel if that were the case.”
She posted a tweet with an illustration she drew of Beirut exploding out of a glass bubble that read: “What keeps us sane in Lebanon is the support system, or ‘bubble’ we create for ourselves. What do you do when 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate shatter not only your bubble, but your fucking city? Why do we have to live in bubbles in the first place?”
She added the hashtags “erect the gallows” (for those responsible) and “Beirut.”
For Ali Dalloul, an editor and filmmaker living in the Fassouh neighborhood of Achrafieh, it was traumatic.
That morning he’d dropped off his laptop for repairs at a shop near the port and returned to his apartment/office to work on a desktop.
If he’d been editing on his laptop in the living room to meet a 6:00 p.m. deadline, he would have been hit by falling glass, frames and curtains. The blast occurred at 6:07.
The video was ready on deadline and he watched it one last time before sending it to a client when he began feeling progressive trembling, so he paused it and 1,000 thoughts crossed his mind.
“At first I thought it’s a plane, and I stayed in place, but it kept getting louder and this is when I thought it’s an air strike,” he said. “I remembered the 2006 war immediately and how we used to run to the corridor.”
So he ran, and the moment he stepped outside his office everything blew up. It was the loudest sound he’d ever heard in his life. He thought it was an explosion in his street, someone targeting a politician passing by.
“I raised my head and everything was red, I saw the damage everywhere and heard many kids screaming and people shouting,” he recalled.
Looking through his bedroom window, Ali saw the whole street damaged, people running covered with blood and suffocating. He felt paralyzed for a moment and didn’t know what to do until his mother called to check on him after she’d seen the news.
After the call, he couldn’t stay in the apartment because the toxins were everywhere and he couldn’t breathe properly, but when he tried to get out, the door was damaged and he was stuck inside.
Fortunately a neighbor who also knows Amy heard him shout, broke the door and freed him. His phone had gone dead, and there was no power to charge it so Amy called the neighbor to ask about him and say she and a friend were on their way.
“I suddenly remembered my sisters and my friends, I didn’t think about them before because I thought it was in my street,” Ali said. His sisters who live in another area further away were fine, and thanks to open windows because of the summer heat, averted a catastrophe.
He didn’t sleep at home that night and left the apartment with the broken door. The next day he returned to Beirut and cleaned the flat with the help of Amy, his sister and a friend.
“The day after I went to the streets to help people,” he said, feeling it was his duty to assist those in need. He worked for about an hour but then broke down in tears and left Mar Mikhael.
Ali went to the port and stood in front of the explosion site for several hours feeling paralyzed and helpless. “I went home after that, I was scared of everything, every light and sound.”
He shot countless pictures with his phone and was shocked by all the damage.
“My laptop is still where I left it and I didn’t even call to check, it was in a store facing the port,” he said. “It’s where all my work is.”
When the explosion happened, I was chatting with Bassam Zaazaa, a freelance journalist who’d spent years in Dubai and decided to come back and settle in Lebanon.
I sent him a tweet of the first plume of smoke and asked what it was, but he hadn’t heard anything, noting it looked like something at the port, later adding a local TV station claimed it was fireworks that exploded in a warehouse.
Bassam lives in Beirut’s Mar Elias neighborhood and was watching TV at the time.
“I heard a powerful, nearly 15-second-long, blast along with a massively deafening earthquake-like boom,” he said. People at first thought it was a single explosion but the first reportedly detonated the earth-shattering one soon thereafter.
The blast was preceded by frightening tremors, so when his building shook, Bassam mistook it for an earthquake, and rushed to the balcony. Lebanon is earthquake-prone and sits on at least one major fault line.
The building continued to shake until a deep loud boom, accompanied by brownish yellow dust particles and hot whirlwinds, hit him in the face.
“I realized it was a massive explosion, so I jumped back in and instantly stood underneath the attic’s roof so that in case of any collapse, damage would be minimal,” he recalled.
Once it stopped, Bassam rushed to the balcony to check on neighbors in nearby buildings who were yelling and screaming amid very loud noises of flying debris and broken glass.
“My initial reaction was shock, silence and prayer,” he said. “It was beyond description. At least until I went down to the street for field reporting.”
He lost a number of friends and the glass windows and doors at the homes of his brother and cousins were completely destroyed.
Ironically, as a freelance journalist, Bassam’s workload increased, but long before the blast he’d been looking for opportunities to leave Lebanon, notably since a financial meltdown and outbreak of the coronavirus had decimated the country’s economy.
Asked if he saw a future for himself in Lebanon, the answer was equivocal: it depends on upcoming events and political ramifications, but he leaned towards the negative.
After 18 years abroad, he returned to be his own boss and started a business, alongside freelancing, but it failed to take off. So prospects have been grim.
Meanwhile, a retired former journalist who lives in Achrafieh and declined to be identified said he’d been reading in bed when he was ejected from it after his Venitian blinds flew in the air and a strong whistling sound preceded the first bang leading him to believe a missile had crossed over his and his wife’s heads.
“Our windows did not break like the neighbors’ because they were open,” he said, but many statues and art items on shelves fell and broke.
For Lebanese survivors of the 1975–90 civil war and various armed conflicts, the first reaction is to shelter in corridors or bathrooms away from windows and flying objects, which the couple did.
They then turned on radios and flipped TV channels that reported nothing for 15 minutes, but news flooded Internet sites.
His initial reaction was that Israel had targeted a Hezbollah weapons depot at the port, long thought to be a transit point for illicit goods.
When reality sank in, he found out many friends had been affected and some had died. Lebanon is a beautiful place to live, but the weight of Iran’s interference in the country’s political and social life is very destructive, he lamented.
Taline Prescott-Decie, a sales manager for a publisher, was spared because she lives in Mansourieh, a hilltop town overlooking Beirut, but not her octogenarian mother’s house and neighborhood of Mar Mikhael where she’d grown up.
It was a miracle the mother survived because the house has cracks and will collapse at some point, so Taline, her husband and sister have been busy salvaging and emptying as much as possible.
“No words to express my rage,” she said. “I took the week off because I cannot focus on anything.”
She’d heard one blast and went out to see what happened. Then turned on the news and once she knew there had been an explosion at the port called her mother, to no avail.
The couple drove frantically to Beirut, trying all the while to reach the mother, but got no reply. They couldn’t get to the house because of traffic and had to park far away and walk on streets covered with glass.
“We saw people covered with blood, but we weren’t really looking at anything, we just wanted to get to the house,” Taline said. They finally arrived but had great difficulty going up the stairs that were littered with broken glass, pieces of wood and cardboard.
The mother was OK, albeit shell-shocked with a bit of blood on her face. She’d survived because prior to the blast had decided to go to the kitchen in the back of the house that, as a result, sustained less damage.
It took a long time to get her out because of her age and as she walks with a cane, so Taline, husband and a sister who’d rushed over from work swept the stairs to make an escape path.
Both mother and sister are staying at an aunt’s.
“But we are still living in shock,” Taline said. “You cannot forget these things once you see the house like that, the house that we grew up in, all the memories, every little corner has a memory just taken away from you, whether you like it or not, completely, completely destroyed.”
What’s jarring was the violence of it, she said, adding that she can’t sleep at night, can’t work, can’t focus and is overwrought with ideas of what would have happened if her mother hadn’t gone to the kitchen, if her sister had been at home at the time, and how their lives would have changed completely.
When Taline thinks about Lebanon, she doesn’t want to give up and doesn’t think she’ll leave at all, although she’s not positive.
“My answer to this is we are going to rebuild, we are going to stay,” she said.
She also sent a picture of a clock in her mother’s kitchen that stopped at exactly seven minutes past six, when the blast happened, she said of the eerie timepiece.