“My soul is shattered but not my determination:” A personal account of Beirut's blast
It is a few minutes past 6pm. (I use the present tense here because everything stopped then – we Lebanese are still stuck with sadness and anger in that tragic moment on 4th August, 2020.) I am well aware of the time because the electricity had gone off at six o’clock. Well, suffering from frequent, prolonged ‘blackouts’ has been the story of our lives for as long as we can recall, during our civil war and a fragile peace process marked with impunity and no transitional justice.
I’m at home when my couch starts shaking violently and shortly after I hear a thunder-like sound. I turn back to check what is happening. From my open windows, I watch layers of glass fall down from the skyscraper facing my building. Can you imagine the scene? I have never seen anything like it, not even in a James Bond or Mission Impossible film.
My senses tell me it is an earthquake; my mind, in chaos, thinks it is an explosion, because of the loud BOOM sound and the shaking that lasted longer than any of my previous experiences with earthquakes. I am still on the couch, unable to grasp the situation. For that reason, I don't feel like I should get up. “Perhaps it is over,” I tell myself. I reach for my phone to call someone, anyone. That’s when I receive a blow on the back of my head. One of my large windows is blown away violently, hitting me and rebounding to the wall. I look at it with shock and touch my head. I don't understand why things are flying all around. Neither my senses nor mind are functioning now. In a state of bewilderment, I am still and motionless on the couch. A second window is blown away. The glass shatters next to me, over my notebooks and the remote control.
A broken window in Beirut. Photo by Sawssan Abou-Zahr
Am I OK?
It is only then that I stand up, staring at my hands searching for injuries. I touch my neck and head. I am not bleeding. I don't have a scratch which means I am "OK". But am I?
I hear terrifying screams. I leave my house fearing that what is left of my windows might also collapse. I see a neighbour bleeding; his blood is all over the floor; a restaurant owner takes him to a nearby hospital. Another is nervously trying to call her daughter and son. We are hypnotised and head down the stairs – assuming the street is safer. What kind of logic is that? What if another explosion happens nearby? We are in collective shock and feel tremendous fear.
I’m walking on shattered glass in the street with my house slippers. I look around. A man has blood all over his pyjamas. Several ambulances are rushing and cars are speeding quickly by. A huge reddish-orange cloud of smoke fills the sky to the left. That is the direction of downtown Beirut where I had lunch before getting home around 5.30 pm.
I try to calm myself and think straight. We start getting news about a political assassination a few days ahead of the verdict of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. It makes sense to me for seconds, then I realise this is much bigger than former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri's assassination which also occurred not far from my house.
It is something unprecedented in Lebanon. So, what is this apocalyptic blast about? We receive phone notifications that it is fireworks exploding in Beirut's port. No one believes it. What fireworks could blow my neighbourhood away? What is actually happening at the port and the rest of the city?
My friend and neighbour asks me to join her in driving an injured man to the hospital. I open the door of her car before realising I have no face mask, no money, and no identity card. Everything is back at my house. I touch my head again and remember the windows. “I have a lot of cleaning up to do”, I tell her, so she goes by herself.
I am "lucky" that four days ago I finally decided to pay for five amps from a private generator. For years I resisted the idea of having electricity from any source other than the legal one. However, after spending most of the hot and humid July nights in total darkness, I finally surrendered to this idea of "purchasing" a basic right in what is an increasingly desperate sense of a failed state gripping my country. Now I know it is a murderous state, too.
A city devastated
It is now night-time and I finally have light in my house thanks to the generator. However, many can't afford it. I tremble at the thought of them having to spend this horrifying night in darkness, fear and shock in their destroyed homes.
I clumsily work for a long time to move the intact window. It is heavy. I keep touching my head. I am blessed its glass didn’t break over my skull. With my bare hands I remove glass from the second window which shattered everywhere on the couch and floor. I get superficial cuts in doing so. I look at my own drops of blood without feeling anything. I might have turned into a robot. I answer phone calls and post pictures on Facebook and Twitter. I learn that my cousin miraculously survived the blast too, and so did a friend who was at a café. A friend living in New York informs me two dear colleagues, a father and daughter, are injured. I realise that I should check on so many people. I dare not call anyone; I just look on their Facebook profiles. They have marked themselves safe from the blast. I do too although I don't feel safe.
I haven't turned on the television yet. I get the remote control from under the broken window. I see that most of Beirut is blown away and its people were killed by criminal negligence. Four major hospitals are badly affected and cannot accommodate people. Injured men and women are roaming around covered with blood. These are not scenes from a horror movie but a devastated city.
I have not cried despite the mess in my house and the heart-breaking footage on television. My Yemeni friend calls me; she lived in Beirut for years and fell in love with it. She says: "Beirut is our beautiful broken jewel." It is only then that I cry. Beirut belongs to her too. It also belongs to my Syrian friend who offers to host me in his house, and to the Palestinians who rush to help…
I have cried a lot since August 4th. I got worried about a friend whose lifelong neighbours died and she was not able to weep for days. I know that I am "OK" because I cry. Although my tears are cathartic, they are full of anger. I have uneasy dreams about the blast. They are heavy but they don't actually bother me. I don't want them to stop. I don't wish to forget. No one should. I keep taking pictures of the once lively places and beautiful traditional houses. I publish on my social media accounts photos of the victims, such as Alexandra, fifteen-year- old Elias whose coffin was carried by his school friends, the brave firefighters, Ali the longshoreman who worked for extra time for the equivalent of 60 cents per hour, and many others… I read every news item about them. I have written down their names. Around 200 names; 200 beautiful jewels; broken jewels, just like Beirut.
I have collected some stories about survivors who lost relatives, limbs or houses, and perhaps I will write them down properly one day. I don't want the world to move on. My soul is shattered but not my determination. I don't seek to get back to "normal", whatever that is. I am not torturing myself, I am angry and I despise everyone in the corrupt political establishment, every single one. I demand justice for the victims, the injured, the disappeared, and for people like me who survived by chance or thanks to miracles.
Enough is enough. It is time to topple the rotten system that has been holding Lebanon back since 1989. The sectarian warlords turned into politicians and granted themselves amnesty. It was an outrageous mistake unanimously sponsored by the international community.
Enough is enough
The impunity they all managed to impose must come to an end. There should have been accountability in 1989, and there should be accountability in 2020. This terrible blast is not a single isolated incident. It is a crime against humanity; it is only the tip of the iceberg. We have been murdered silently over the years with their impunity, corruption and oppression. This time it was so loud and blunt that it captured the world's attention.
We have a moral obligation towards our fallen compatriots. Every one of us physically survived for a reason. I believe it is to seek justice and resume the October revolution. Both are extremely difficult tasks. We are unarmed demonstrators attacked by the regime's tear gas and rubber bullets. I barely escaped tear gas three times and bullets once. Many brave young people didn't. They are my heroes along with the thousands of volunteers on ground. I am one of so many resilient Lebanese determined to continue this struggle to establish a democratic, inclusive, secular and corruption-free state. It is time for the rebirth of Lebanon on its centennial. In fact, it is the last chance before they manage to kill the rest of us one way or another.