Touted as one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history, the Beirut blast that took place on August 4, 2020 left at least 135 people dead, 5000 injured and 250,000 driven to homelessness. Roar spoke to three King’s students about their experience in Lebanon before and after the incident.
The explosion in the Port of Beirut was caused by 2750 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate that had been stored without proper safety measures in place. At around 6pm EEST on August 4, a fire broke out in the Port and was shortly followed by a loud explosion. Yasmine Ghandour, a second year Digital Culture student, noticed the fire and started filming it. She turned her back just as the blast hit, and her first thought was that she was going to die. Similarly, Emma El-Asmar, an incoming Medical Physiology student, was making a TikTok with her friends when she heard the first mini-explosion. She first thought that it was an earthquake.
The shockwave of the explosion caused the most damage. Yasmine’s house was completely destroyed. Describing the impact of the blast, she said: “The ceiling collapsed on us, all the windows and their frames came off with a lot of force, tables broke and doors flew off. We even found some of our furniture on the ground floor.” Yasmine sustained injuries and had to get stitches in four places. “My maid also got stitches on her leg and our neighbour passed away”, she continued.
Emma, on the other hand, was slightly luckier: “The windows exploded in my living room, but that’s it.” She and her friends moved away from the windows mere seconds before they shattered. To Roar, she said: “There wasn’t any damage except for a few scratches on my foot – I was barefoot when it happened. The only thing was that it was a little hard to breathe because there was a lot of smoke and a lot of chemicals in the air.”
She went on to describe other houses in Beirut, particularly those closer to the explosion. “I couldn’t recognise my friend’s house anymore. We were searching for a place where we could have survived if we had been in the house – but we couldn’t find a single place that wasn’t damaged,” she told Roar.
Dorine Aksar, a second-year Pharmacy student who was volunteering in Beirut after the explosion, said that volunteers were “closing the broken windows and doors with plastic sheets and taking measurements to help replace the broken parts”. Some areas were also closed off because of falling buildings.
Difficulty in finding medical aid
In the aftermath of the explosion, it was incredibly difficult for victims to find medical aid. The cell phone service went out in the city and it became increasingly hard to call for help. According to Yasmine, “even emergency hotlines were on ‘user busy’ once we were able to get service.
“All the hospitals were full. I was rejected by 2 hospitals and there wasn’t even place to stand in the emergency room. Some victims of the explosion died because hospitals couldn’t accommodate them or just couldn’t treat them on time.”
There were also some Red Cross responders on the streets who were stopping cars to check for injuries. They helped Yasmine as well, putting a temporary bandage around her wounds to stop them from getting infected.
Overall, hospitals and public infrastructure in the capital were severely damaged. “Hospitals don’t even exist anymore because they were really damaged. I heard some stories that they didn’t have enough sutures for the people because they didn’t prepare for this kind of thing,” said Emma.
She further recounted a story from a nurse she knew, who told her that “there were people coming in and we didn’t have enough sutures. We were trying our best and when we finished stitching them up, we said ‘Please can you go home, we don’t have enough space in the ER’, and they told us ‘But I don’t know where to go because I don’t have a home anymore.'”
Beirut: Before and After
When asked to contrast between Beirut before and after the explosion, both Emma’s and Yasmine’s answers were emotional. Yasmine spoke about how although the city had undergone changes because of the revolution and Covid-19, “people were still trying to live ‘normally'”. “Now,” she said, “Beirut is just one big heartbreak. Many people are sweeping the streets and helping out, but the city took a huge hit which is very hard to recover from. It’s in survival mode.”
Emma focused more on how she felt living in the city after the explosion. She emphasised: “Beirut is really different and it’s sad because I used to hang out in the places that are now damaged and broken. When I walk the streets, they’re the same streets but I cannot recognise them.”
Emma also mentioned that although she cleaned a lot of houses she wasn’t familiar with, she was overcome with emotion when she visited her friend’s home. She told Roar that “there’s a piece of this table, there’s a piece of this chair, a piece of a vase I used to know that was in the room, but now it’s in the salon or in the living room. It’s really heart-breaking to see the house – I knew what it looked like then and how it looks like now, after the explosion.”
In contrast, Dorine had a more optimistic view, likening Beirut to a Phoenix – a mythical bird that rises from its ashes: “Seeing Beirut, the capital of Lebanon in such a disaster is indescribable. It is not just Beirut that got affected but the whole neighbouring area. Beirut used to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, until a lot of wars happened and destroyed it. But I’m sure that it will rise again as it always does.”
There is a stark difference between Beirut and other cities in Lebanon that did not feel the impact of the blast. Yasmine, who went to the mountains in Lebanon after the explosion, was surprised by the disregard people had for the newcomers from Beirut. She said: “Those already here continue socialising, partying, and living without consideration for those who came after the explosion. People here act as if nothing has happened.
“With that said, you don’t feel the grief and sadness you do when you are in Beirut, so it’s a temporary reality. Once people go back to Beirut it’s going to hit them again.”
In Beirut, however, the citizens are angrier than ever. Dorine spoke about a series of protests that had been taking place since October 17, 2019. “Lebanese people call it the ‘Revolution of October 17th’ or in Arabic, ‘thawrat sabataash teshrine‘ (ثورة ١٧ تشرين),” she explained.
Similarly, Emma stated: “There’s a sentiment that we all have, and it is anger. We are really angry at our government.” She placed particular emphasis on the people who have been rendered homeless as a result of the explosion, saying that “there are people that have lost everything. Their homes and jobs. We’re trying our best to give them food, give them water, give them emotional support but this help is temporary, you know? When everything will go back to normal, for them it won’t because they won’t have a house anymore, they won’t have money anymore.”
Emma also spoke about brotherhood and the positivity shown by the people of Beirut in the face of adversity. Talking about the volunteers, she said: “All of us just left our house and went to other houses to clean, collecting and giving food and water to the people.”
Yasmine likened the sentiment of the citizens to heartbreak. “So many people are trying to be optimistic and positive, but everyone needs their time to grieve and recover,” she elaborated. It’s also important to give due recognition to the immense psychological impact of the explosion. Emma explained this to Roar, saying that “every time something is moving or I hear a big sound, I’m just really scared. We’re all really still scared. We think that every sound, every movement is something that can kill us, you know?”.
When asked what they were most worried about at present in Beirut, Emma responded with: “I’m just worried about the people that don’t have houses anymore. There will be a lot of homelessness. I think that the worst damage is not the material damage. Even though it is a little bit difficult, I think that it is just that people who now have nothing — I’m worried about them.”
Dorine explained how although the situation is steadily improving, “from a disaster point of view, the city is totally destroyed and needs several years to get up again. A lot of people are homeless now and houses are not inhabitable. Help is still needed and Covid-19 cases are increasing.”
For Yasmine, the biggest worry is the possibility of another catastrophe in a city that is already fragile: “I’m worried about another explosion. I’m just scared the city can’t recover from this.”
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