Why the trauma does not end for Beirut blast survivors

A partial view of the damaged grain silos at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut, almost a year after the August 4 massive explosion that killed more than 217 people and injured scores of others. (AFP/File Photo)
1 / 3
A partial view of the damaged grain silos at the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut, almost a year after the August 4 massive explosion that killed more than 217 people and injured scores of others. (AFP/File Photo)
Lebanese demonstrators shout slogans as they lift portraits of relatives who were killed during a massive blast at Beirut's seaport a year earlier, during a protest in the capital on July 9, 2021. (AFP)
2 / 3
Lebanese demonstrators shout slogans as they lift portraits of relatives who were killed during a massive blast at Beirut's seaport a year earlier, during a protest in the capital on July 9, 2021. (AFP)
a woman sits amidst the rubble in her damaged house in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 6, 2020, two days after a massive chemical explosion at the port in Beirut. (AFP/File Photo)
3 / 3
a woman sits amidst the rubble in her damaged house in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 6, 2020, two days after a massive chemical explosion at the port in Beirut. (AFP/File Photo)
Short Url
Updated 05 August 2021

Why the trauma does not end for Beirut blast survivors

Why the trauma does not end for Beirut blast survivors
  • Twelve months on from the blast, Lebanese officials are accused of deliberately obstructing justice
  • Civil society forced to step in to address widespread mental trauma caused by Aug. 4, 2020, explosion

BEIRUT: A year after narrowly avoiding death, Hadi’s heart still races when he hears sudden loud noises. The 27-year-old was lucky to survive when, on Aug. 4, 2020, a huge cache of ammonium nitrate ignited inside a warehouse at the Port of Beirut, close to his home in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood.

At least 217 people were killed, more than 6,500 injured, and at least 300,000 left homeless by the resultant blast, which devastated Lebanon’s main port. It was equivalent to the force of 1.1 kilotons of TNT and caused damage to buildings up to 20 kilometers away.

Despite promising the victims and their families that justice would be swift, Lebanese authorities are yet to hold anyone accountable.

“It was fight or flight after the explosion,” Hadi, who declined to give his full name, told Arab News in advance of the first anniversary of the blast.

“I packed whatever I could find. In my mind this was the first bomb out of hundreds more to come — and if this was the first one, God knows what was coming.”

After scrambling out of his apartment block with whatever he could carry, Hadi found that the surrounding streets he knew so well were damaged beyond recognition.

“The sights I saw that day after leaving the building were absolutely petrifying,” he said. “People lying on rugs, gushing blood. Some without arms, some without legs, scarred all over, as people were trying to help them. Cars in the middle of the road, destroyed, gasoline leaking on the streets. No one understood what was going on.”

INNUMBERS

* 300,000 - People left homeless.

* 70,000 - Jobs lost after the explosion.

* 163 - Schools destroyed.

* 6 - Hospitals destroyed.

* 0 - Number of people sentenced over blast.

Source: UN

Thousands of Beirut residents have similarly bitter memories of a day that proved to be the bloodiest and arguably most painful since the end of the civil war. The explosion, which was so powerful it was felt in Cyprus, more than 200km away, was one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts in history.

The world was horrified by images and video footage on social media and news broadcasts that showed the scale of the damage caused by the shock wave that rocked the city, the destruction in the streets, and the dirty-pink mushroom cloud hanging over the city.

Among the youngest victims were two-year-old Isaac Oehlers and three-year-old Alexandra Naggear. But equally tragic is the number of lives the explosion continues to claim indirectly.

“We continue to hear about people losing their lives to suicide every day, and we continue to be overwhelmed with requests for psychological support, with an ongoing waiting list of 70 to 100 patients in our clinics every month,” Mia Atoui, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Embrace, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mental health, told Arab News.




A wounded man receives help outside a hospital following the explosion. (AFP/File Photo)

A year after the blast, Embrace’s public helpline, called National Lifeline, is receiving more than 1,100 calls each month. Staff at its free clinic conduct more than 500 mental health consultations a month.

“It has indeed been a turbulent year,” Atoui said. “There is a collective sense of depression and anxiety among every person you meet and talk to. People are down, worried, hopeless, helpless, despaired and unable to enjoy any of life’s pleasures.”

The aftermath of the Beirut explosion is just one of a multitude of overlapping crises blighting a country wracked by an ongoing economic crisis, mass unemployment, a fresh wave of coronavirus infections, and shortages of fuel and electricity — all of which is made worse by seemingly endless political paralysis.

Lebanon has been experiencing a socio-economic implosion since 2019. In the autumn of that year, nationwide protests erupted over rampant corruption among the political class that has ruled the country since the end of the civil war under a sectarian banner.




On August 4, 2021 Lebanon will mark the first anniversary of the devastating port blast that thundered through the city, levelling entire neighbourhoods, killing more than 200 people and wounding 6,500 others. (AFP/File Photo)

Public anger grew when an economic meltdown caused the nation’s currency to lose 90 percent of its value and the banks held depositors’ money hostage. Thousands of young people have fled abroad. Those who remain struggle to get by, often turning for help to a flourishing black market.

But the trauma caused by the port explosion and its aftermath has been compounded by the failure of the government to move forward with its investigation into the disaster.

“The lack of accountability is triggering on all fronts,” Atoui said. “It not only leaves our wounds open, it reinforces the idea that our lives don’t matter, that the lives of our loved ones we have lost don’t matter and are of no value. It means that we cannot feel safe or secure again.

“It threatens our existence, both present and future, and there is nothing more painful, more distressing and more overwhelming to our quality of life than the sense of injustice and living in an unjust world where your rights are robbed.”




UGC footage filmed from an office building shows a fireball exploding while smoke is billowing during the chemical explosion at the port. (AFP/Mouafac Harb/Handout/File Photo)

The Lebanon Relief Network, a digital platform launched after the blast to help individuals affected by it to connect with trauma experts and therapists, considers the failure to deliver justice and accountability a recipe for long-term mental illness.

“The lack of accountability reduces trust in communities and has a significant negative effect on mental health. This is clearly exacerbated in times of crisis,” the network said in a statement to Arab News.

The FBI reportedly estimated that about 552 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded inside the Beirut port warehouse on August 4, much less than the 2,754 tons that arrived on a Russian-leased cargo ship in 2013. The Reuters news agency said the FBI report did not give any explanation for the discrepancy, or where the rest of the shipment might have gone.

Amnesty International, the international rights-advocacy group, has accused Lebanese authorities of “shamelessly obstructing victims’ quest for truth and justice” in the months since the blast, actively shielding officials from scrutiny and hampering the course of the investigation.




An aerial view shows the massive damage at Beirut port's grain silos and the area around it, one day after the explosion. (AFP/File Photo)

In February, Lebanese authorities dismissed the first judge appointed to lead the investigation after he summoned political figures for questioning. So far they have rejected requests by his replacement to lift the immunity granted to officials, and to question senior members of the security forces.

Leaked official documents indicate that Lebanese customs officials, military and security chiefs, and members of the judiciary warned successive governments about the danger posed by the stockpile of explosive chemicals at the port on at least 10 occasions during the six years it was stored at the port, yet no action was taken.

MPs and officials are clinging to their right to immunity, effectively shielding suspects whose actions are blamed for causing the explosion, and denying thousands of victims the justice they demand.

FASTFACTS

* Victims of the blast have seen little accountability, despite promises that justice would be swift.

* The blast killed more than 200 people, injured 6,500 and made at least 300,000 homeless.

“Lebanese authorities promised a swift investigation; instead they have brazenly blocked and stalled justice at every turn, despite a tireless campaign for justice and criminal accountability by survivors and families of victims,” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

“The Lebanese government tragically failed to protect the lives of its people, just as it has failed for so long to protect basic socioeconomic rights. In blocking the judge’s attempts to summon political officials, the authorities have struck yet another blow to the people of Lebanon. Given the scale of this tragedy, it is astounding to see how far the Lebanese authorities are prepared to go to shield themselves from scrutiny.”

According to a report this year by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Regional Program Political Dialogue and Regional Integration South Mediterranean, Lebanon ranks lowest in the MENA region in terms of public trust in the national government, parliament, prime minister, head of state and local government — all of which are rated below 28 percent.

In the absence of trusted government institutions, civil-society groups have been forced to step in to address the widespread mental trauma caused by the explosion, and to feed and provide new homes for people who lost everything.




Wounded people, just a few of the estimated 6,500 who were injured in the explosion, are pictured outside a hospital following the blast. (AFP/File Photo)

“People are asking for different kinds of support, but many right now have asked for support to deal with the trauma of the blast — many are seeking support for the first time, one year after the traumatic event,” Atoui said.

“This reinforces the fact that the long-term effects of the blast will persist for many years and that the healing process is a long journey. Many people will need ongoing support.”

Hadi, the Beirut resident, said he returned to the Mar Mikhael neighborhood only once after the blast, to salvage what remained of his possessions. He now lives in a part of the city far away from the port and anything that could trigger him.

-----------------

Twitter: @Tarek_AliAhmad


UN updates named death toll for Syria war

A Syrian Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria January 6, 2018. (Reuters/File Photo)
A Syrian Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria January 6, 2018. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 7 sec ago

UN updates named death toll for Syria war

A Syrian Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria January 6, 2018. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • OHCHR included only fatalities identifiable by a full name, with a place of death and an established date, from March 2011 to March 2021

GENEVA: The war in Syria has killed 350,209 fully identified individuals, according to a new count published Friday by the United Nations, which warned the real total of deaths would be far higher.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) included only fatalities identifiable by a full name, with a place of death and an established date, from March 2011 to March 2021.

“We assess this figure of 350,209 as statistically sound, based as it is on rigorous work,” High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council.

“It is not — and should not be seen as — a complete number of conflict-related killings in Syria during this period.

“It indicates a minimum verifiable number, and is certainly an under-count of the actual number of killings.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the benchmark for counting victims of the conflict, published a report on June 1 raising the death toll to 494,438 since the start of the violent crackdown on anti-regime protests in 2011.

The Observatory revised up by 105,000 its previous death toll from March 2021, following months of investigation based on documents and sources on the ground.

UN rights chief Bachelet said more than one in 13 victims on the OHCHR count was a woman — 27,727 — while almost one in every 13 was a child — 27,126.

She said the greatest number of documented fatalities was in the Aleppo governorate, with 51,731 named individuals killed.

Other locations with heavy death tolls were Rural Damascus (47,483), Homs (40,986), Idlib (33,271), Hama (31,993) and Tartus (31,369).

Bachelet said OHCHR had received records with partial information which could not go into the analysis but nonetheless indicated a wider number of killings that were not yet fully documented.

“Tragically, there are also many other victims who left behind no witnesses or documentation,” she said.

OHCHR has begun processing information on those alleged to have caused a number of deaths, together with the civilian and non-civilian status of victims, and the cause of death by types of weaponry.

“Documenting the identity of and circumstances in which people have died is key to the effective realisation of a range of fundamental human rights — to know the truth, to seek accountability, and to pursue effective remedies,” said Bachelet.

The former Chilean president said the Syrian people's daily lives "remain scarred by unimaginable suffering... and there is still no end to the violence they endure.”

Bachelet said the count would ensure those killed were not forgotten.

“Behind each recorded death was a human being, born free and equal, in dignity and rights,” she said.


Lebanon president tells UN big challenges await government, help needed

Lebanon president tells UN big challenges await government, help needed
Updated 1 min 42 sec ago

Lebanon president tells UN big challenges await government, help needed

Lebanon president tells UN big challenges await government, help needed

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun told the United Nations General Assembly on Friday that big challenges awaited his country’s new government and asked the international community for funding to revive its crisis-stricken economy.
“We are relying on the international community to fund vital projects, whether in the public or private sector, in order to revive the economic cycle and create new job opportunities,” Aoun told the gathering via a recorded video message.
Lebanon is in the throes of a financial crisis that the World Bank has called one of the deepest depressions of modern history.
After a year of political deadlock which has compounded the economic meltdown, a new government was formed this month headed by Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
“With the formation of the new government...Lebanon has entered a new phase that we seek to turn into a promising step on the road to resurgence,” Aoun said.
Mikati has promised to resume talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to pursue the reforms seen as a necessary pre-requisite for foreign aid to flow in.
Lebanon’s talks with the IMF broke down last summer after a financial recovery plan proposed by the previous government was resisted by many of the country’s top politicians and bankers.
“Lebanon, that is stubbornly trying to pave its way toward recovery, is relying on international support to achieve its goals,” Aoun said.


Macron urges new Lebanese PM to undertake ‘urgent’ reforms

Macron urges new Lebanese PM to undertake ‘urgent’ reforms
Updated 50 min 4 sec ago

Macron urges new Lebanese PM to undertake ‘urgent’ reforms

Macron urges new Lebanese PM to undertake ‘urgent’ reforms
  • Reforms should include improving public finances, reducing corruption, improving public finances: Macron
  • Mikati vowed to respect the country’s political timetable and hold general elections next year

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday urged the new Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati to undertake “urgent” reforms to help his crisis-wracked country, as the two men met for the first time in Paris.
After repeating previous criticism of Lebanon’s political class, Macron told Mikati it was “urgent to implement measures and essential reforms” and that Lebanon “could count on” former colonial power France for support.
The reforms should include tackling power and other infrastructure problems, improving public finances, reducing corruption, and stabilising the banking system, he said.
Mikati said he had come to the French capital to reassure Macron that he and his new government, approved by the Lebanese parliament on Monday, were committed to reforming.
“I expressed my determination to implement ... the necessary reforms as soon as possible in order to restore confidence, to give hope and reduce the suffering of the Lebanese population,” he said.
He also vowed to respect the country’s political timetable and hold general elections next year.
The billionaire’s nomination has brought an end to 13 months of political deadlock since an August 2020 blast that killed at least 214 people and devastated swathes of the capital Beirut.
An economic meltdown since then has depleted central bank reserves, devalued the currency by more than 90 percent and plunged three out of four citizens below the poverty line, while those who can are emigrating by the thousands.
France has led the international response to the tragedy, organizing three international conferences devoted to Lebanon and delivering aid in exchange for promises of political reform and accountability.
Macron traveled to Lebanon two days after the blast, and returned for a second trip.
The 43-year-old French leader has repeatedly expressed exasperation over the failure of Lebanon’s leaders to end the political crisis and tackle the economic emergency.
“It’s a secret for nobody that the negotations took too long while the living conditions of Lebanese people were getting worse,” Macron said on Friday.
Speaking next to Mikati on the steps of the Elysee Palace, he said that the Lebanese population had “a right to know the truth” about the August 2020 blast in Beirut.
One of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history, the explosion was caused by a vast stock of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that had sat for years in a port warehouse, a stone’s throw from residential districts.


Iran says nuclear talks to resume ‘very soon,’ gives no date

Iran says nuclear talks to resume ‘very soon,’ gives no date
Updated 35 min 18 sec ago

Iran says nuclear talks to resume ‘very soon,’ gives no date

Iran says nuclear talks to resume ‘very soon,’ gives no date
  • Senior US official this week made clear Washington's frustration with Tehran over the absence of any "positive indication" it is prepared to return to the talks
  • European diplomats have served as chief intermediaries between Washington and Tehran

NEW YORK: Iran will return to negotiations on resuming compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal "very soon," Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian told reporters on Friday.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran will return to the table of negotiations. We are reviewing the Vienna negotiations files currently and, very soon, Iran’s negotiations with the 'four plus one' countries will recommence," Amirabdollahian said.
He was referring to talks that began in April between Iran and the five other nations still in the 2015 deal - Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. European diplomats have served as chief intermediaries between Washington and Tehran, which has refused to negotiate directly with US officials.
Under the deal Iran curbed its uranium enrichment program, a possible pathway to nuclear arms, in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. Then-US President Donald Trump quit the deal in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions, crippling Iran's economy and prompting Iran to take steps to violate its nuclear limits.


Libyan leader to hold international conference on country’s security, stability

Libyan leader to hold international conference on country’s security, stability
Updated 24 September 2021

Libyan leader to hold international conference on country’s security, stability

Libyan leader to hold international conference on country’s security, stability
  • Mohammed Al-Menfi revealed that security, military, and economic issues would top the agenda of the meeting that would also shore up support for the upcoming national elections

WASHINGTON: The chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya on Thursday said he would be staging an international conference next month to gain backing for efforts to bring stability and security to the country.

Mohammed Al-Menfi revealed that security, military, and economic issues would top the agenda of the meeting that would also shore up support for the upcoming national elections.

Al-Menfi, who is attending the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in New York, added that the conference would host Libyan groups eager for reconciliation along with regional and international parties to push for the stability and security that has eluded Libya since the 2011 fall of Muammar Qaddafi who ruled the country for 40 years.

The Libyan leader said despite working on reconciliation efforts among Libyan groups, challenges still lay ahead on the road to achieving democracy.

He noted that Libya had made “significant strides” in implementing solutions that were mandated through agreements between the different Libyan groups and UN resolutions.

However, despite the progress, Al-Menfi pointed out that the country was still “faced with serious challenges and fast-paced developments” that could stall the ongoing political process.

On the ground, Libya remains confronted by many daunting challenges toward achieving political unity among its entrenched warring parties. Conflict still persists between the Tripoli-based Presidential Council and Gen. Khalifa Haftar who controls the eastern half of the country as well as the Libyan armed forces.

A transitional government was formed earlier this year to move the country forward toward elections on Dec. 24.

“Libya has the choice to either succeed toward becoming a democracy through free and transparent elections or go back to square one of infighting and military conflict,” Al-Menfi said.

He called on the international community to assist Libya in removing foreign militaries and mercenaries from the country as a way to build a “conducive environment for safe and transparent elections.”

Al-Menfi also demanded that European countries share their responsibilities in addressing the issue of illegal African migrants who pass through Libya on the way north to Europe, adding that his country had carried the burden alone and deserved support from the international community.

On the issues of human rights abuses that plagued Libya during its decade-long civil war, and the presence of terrorist groups on Libyan soil, he said his government was committed to safeguarding the human rights of the Libyan people and had worked toward bringing meaningful reconciliation through detainees and prisoners exchange, reparation, and addressing the fate of missing people.

Al-Menfi reiterated Libyan support for the Palestinian people and said his country was committed to the establishment of the Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.