I am a Lebanese citizen based in Abu Dhabi, UAE. The following is a snapshot of a sleepless 24 hours where I, along with fellow expats in the country, attempt to understand and process the senseless tragedy that erupted in the afternoon of Tuesday, August 4, 2020.
I have made every attempt to treat this ongoing disaster with sensitivity, but there may be depictions or images of disturbing content.
Disbelief and horror. That was the prevailing mood in my home as my parents and I watched as a fiery explosion within the Beirut Port erupt into twin mushroom clouds of white, one of which turned out to be a massive dome of sea water drawn upwards by the blast’s power.
We, along with approximately 80,000 fellow citizens in the country, frantically began switching between news channels and social media, scrambling to contact loved ones and friends in Beirut.
“I was in the kitchen…when my friend text me at first I didn’t think about it and then I had a group of friends in Lebanon were sending voice notes [on WhatsApp] asking for others to check and confirm that they’re safe and then I thought OK I need to switch on the TV,” said Y.N., a Lebanese expat based in Abu Dhabi, “since then, I haven’t left my phone. I’m constantly on Instagram and texting all my friends to make sure that they’re OK.”
Image credits: AFP, AP, Reuters, Bloomberg
The immediate aftermath has been likened to a horror film except that it was something worse – their new terrifying reality.
“I was frantically trying to reach my parents because my sister contacted me saying that there was an explosion and that she wasn’t able to get through to them,” said Moutiha Khalil, a marketing manager based in Dubai
On the ground, shocked and traumatised people attempted to make sense of what had just happened.
“When I finally got through to my mother…she said that she and her husband were driving so they were OK. They were in Mar Elias when they heard the boom and the glass shattering…it was like a zombie movie. There was broken glass everywhere and people [covered in white soot] and bleeding, walking the street,” Khalil added.
Image credits: CBS News, CNN, Getty, Al Arabiya English
According to Al Arabiya, several hospitals were damaged by the blasts, which also left a big part of Beirut without electricity, forcing doctors to treat patients in parking lots. Among them is the Saint George Hospital University Medical Center in Beirut’s Geitawi neighbourhood.
“I actually have friends who are doctors and their hospital, St. George, is completely shattered because of the explosion. One had trouble being admitted into a hospital…her hands are deeply wounded and so is her face but her case is considered mild, so she ended up having to travel to Jbeil [approximately 45 minutes away] to get medical treatment,” said Y.N.
She further explained that another friend had an injured leg that was being treated in a hospital in the Beqaa Valley while an acquaintance was initially presumed missing before being located in another hospital.
Sara, a fellow citizen who works as a copywriter at MBC Shahid in Dubai recalled a previously devastating event in Lebanon’s recent past: “It reminded me of the 2006 war…I thought it was happening all over again. I was there on holiday and had to escape via Syria in order to get back to the UAE. A bomb hit the bridge just after we had crossed it.”
She further echoed the despair felt by Lebanese everywhere by the senseless, avoidable destruction.
“The only thing we had going for us were Beirut and Downtown and now they’re gone. Everywhere is destroyed, all the places we remember visiting as children, like Mar Mikhael [located at the outskirts of Downtown] or Gemmayze [a once-charming neighbourhood],” she lamented.
A unifying feeling of shock is still threading its way among members of the Lebanese community, who along with feeling anguished at the situation and fear for the safety of their loved ones and friends, are also feeling helpless due to their distance from Beirut.
“I felt so many emotions [when I first heard about it]. After making sure that my family and friends are alright, I just felt numb…I sat down in shock and couldn’t move for a long time,” said Moutiha. “I was watching the news…I don’t know what’s worse – being far away and seeing it [unfold] or being there when it happened. My parents and sister are completely traumatised.”
She was at home when her sister contacted her asking that Maita attempt to contact their parents because an explosion had just occurred. She managed to reach her mother who confirmed that they were alright but that their homes were damaged by the blast.
Yamout agreed, adding: “You feel overwhelmed, you keep getting all these videos and hearing different news and you don’t know who to trust anymore. It’s also hard because we can’t send money back home right now. The only way to do is for someone to open a bank account that accepts US dollars so we can wire the money and they can withdraw it.”
She received confirmations from family and friends that they were alright, except for one whose mother was severely injured and that they were trying to seek medical assistance for her.
“What’s worse is that people are frantically sharing and searching through photos of family and friends to see if they can find any information…how did we reach this point?” she said, voice filled with despair and anger.
That feeling was shared with other expats in the wider UAE community who also have friends in Beirut.
“When I first heard about it on social media, I was confused…then a friend called me. Once I turned on the news, I realised just how devastating it was. All of my friends have told me that they’re fine but that some had relatives with minor injuries. One friend’s car was completely destroyed,” Sally Obeid, a Syrian national based in Dubai, said.
The digital communications director also noted with relief that a close friend’s travel plans to the Lebanese capital were cancelled thus sparing her from being another victim of the blast.
Over 300,000 Lebanese have been displaced by the explosion, Beirut’s governor Marwan Abboud has confirmed. Almost immediately, accounts and posts on social media sprang up to help those affected by the disaster.
One account on Instagram, locatevictimsbeirut, has shared 103 posts and counting featuring images of missing people, including rescue workers, to its over 108K followers as well as sharing updates on the status of those found. Private individuals are also sharing information to raise awareness and help.
Another organisation, Impact Lebanon, a non-profit organisation that brings the community together to pursue initiatives that deliver impact for Lebanon, has collected over £4M in donations for its disaster relief fund.
Rebuild Beirut, an organisation that is connecting those affected with donors are volunteers have successfully helped 123 houses and volunteers according to their latest instagram post but acknowledge that there’s still much to be done.
Countries around the world have also pledged millions of dollars in aid along with emergency supplies to help healthcare workers, rescue workers, and all those affected by the blast, which was felt as far away as Cyprus. In addition to levelling parts of the city, it also capsized a docked passenger ship and registered as a 3.3 magnitude earthquake on seismographs.
Carine Jawhary, who works as a commercial head in Dubai, revealed how her father had a near miss experience.
“He was sitting in the TV room [when the blast struck]. It caused the windows in the [living room] to shatter and the ceiling in the corridor to collapse. I was terrified when he told me because he lives alone…my mother had a balcony with large windows that blew out,” she said, noting that along with destroying the property, the blast also traumatised her mother’s poor cat.
“I was [hysterical] when I first got the news and spoke with my father…it took some time for me to calm down and speak to my mother,” Carine said.
Judy Karim, a Lebanese expat based in Dubai who is also Carine’s friend, recounted where she heard the news: “I was putting my daughter to sleep when Carine called so I didn’t answer. When she messaged to say that her home was destroyed, I immediately called her back…I hadn’t seen the news yet so was confused about what she was saying…[when I understood how serious it was], I immediately contacted my parents.”
When she was finally able to get through, she was relieved to find that they were safe, although the blast damaged the doors in their apartment. Her 80-year-old grandmother is also fine, having moved away from the window when she first heard the blast thus avoiding getting hit by flying glass. Unfortunately, a friend celebrating her wedding day was injured when glass fell on her. Other friends were also injured and some people she knew had passed away. “It’s one thing after another, the poverty, COVID, now this. I keep thinking how can people fix their houses, their businesses when they can barely feed themselves? How can they take care of themselves and each other? Who’s going to fix the houses?” Judy said.
Reports are coming to light of the negligence that resulted in the explosion, whose damage could cost up to $15B, according to Forbes.
Lebanese prime minister Hassan Diab has stated that the explosion was caused by a fire in a warehouse while documents newly reviewed by CNN reveal that a shipment of 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate arrived in Beirut on a Russian-owned vessel in 2013. The ship, named the MV Rhosus, was destined for Mozambique — but stopped in Beirut due to financial difficulties that also created unrest with the ship’s Russian and Ukrainian crew. Once it arrived, the ship never left Beirut’s port, according Lebanon’s Director of Customs, Badri Daher, despite repeated warnings by him and others that the cargo was the equivalent of “a floating bomb.”
President Aoun declared a three-day mourning period, and said the government would release 100 billion lira ($66m) of emergency funds.
A mood of fury has replaced people’s initial numbness and sorrow, with calls for proper investigations and holding everyone in the Lebanese government accountable for the disaster. Fears are also mounting of a food shortage as footage showed grain spilling from the silos, which have a capacity of 120,000 tonnes. Bloomberg has reported that the government said the storage facility was mostly empty but that stocks which were there are unusable. Most other food at the port, which handles 60% of Lebanon’s imports, was also ruined, according to Bob Jabra, a partner at local commodity trader Ibrahim Jabra & Sons who spoke to Bloomberg. The company lost 10 containers of rice, or 250 tonnes, Jabra said.
The city – and by extension the rest of the country – is grappling with the aftermath of the massive disaster as everyone scrambles to figure out their immediate needs and how best to help.
“A part of me thinks that we can help each other, whether within the country or outside [as Lebanese] I see us as a community doing something but as a country I don’t see it and that’s bothering me because I can’t see a potential solution,” Judy said.
Omar Abu Omar, a Palestinan based in Dubai, who works as a communications specialist noted: “It’s good to see so many people from different backgrounds and nationalities coming together to support [the people of Beirut] whether by spreading the word about the initiatives taking place within Lebanon or abroad.”
He has been actively using his social media to help spread news, raise awareness of missing people as well as charitable initiatives to help those affected by the explosion.
“Even though I’m not Lebanese, I have many Lebanese friends and my father lived there for several years… I’ve been doing my best to help out by spreading news and awareness online,” Abu Omar said, recalling that he was in a meeting when the news broke. “Initially, I saw messages on WhatsApp like ‘Pray For Lebanon’ and ‘I hope everyone’s safe’…I thought that they were about someone who passed away or new surge in COVID-19 cases. When I found out about it, I was completely shocked. I’m still in shock…this is something that’s going to take at least a few years to be fixed.”
While news continues to emerge in the coming hours, days, weeks, and months, we can’t say what will be the outcome nor how will Beirut – once a lively and vibrant city now in ashes – will recover.
However, even as the Lebanese people feel as though they’ve reached the breaking point, I want to leave things on a more uplifting note, however small, so please take a moment to watch this hopeful, dignified performance.
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
Lebanese Red Cross Donations
Impact Lebanon Disaster Relief Fund