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)
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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)
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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)
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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)
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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.

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Twitter: @Tarek_AliAhmad


Egypt’s supply minister says new price for bread ‘will take time’

Egypt’s supply minister says new price for bread ‘will take time’
Updated 13 sec ago

Egypt’s supply minister says new price for bread ‘will take time’

Egypt’s supply minister says new price for bread ‘will take time’
  • Subsidized loaf has been sold since for 5 Egyptian piasters

CAIRO: Egypt’s supply minister Ali Moselhy said on Thursday deciding a new price for subsidized bread “will take time.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in August said it was time to increase the price of the country’s subsidized bread, revisiting the issue for the first time since 1977 when then president Anwar Sadat reversed a price rise in the face of riots.

The subsidized loaf has been sold since then for 5 Egyptian piasters ($0.0032).

“The prices of commodities have been increasing since January, across vegetable oils markets, sugar and lately wheat,” Moselhy told a news conference in Cairo.

“The wheat price set by suppliers will take into account inflation,” he said, adding that the country’s strategic reserves of wheat were sufficient for five months and those of sugar until mid-February.


Death toll of Sudan anti-coup protesters rises to 7

Death toll of Sudan anti-coup protesters rises to 7
Updated 28 October 2021

Death toll of Sudan anti-coup protesters rises to 7

Death toll of Sudan anti-coup protesters rises to 7
  • Gen Abdel-Fattah Buran meanwhile fires at least six ambassadors

KHARTOUM: Seven protesters have been killed in Sudan since a military coup four days ago, a health official said Thursday, adding that other bodies had since arrived without giving an exact number.

Four protesters were already reported killed on Monday, hours after the military coup was announced.

“On Monday, morgues in Khartoum and Omdurman received the bodies of seven civilians,” Hisham Fagiri, head of the health ministry’s forensic authority, said. Some corpses showed wounds caused by “sharp tools,” he added.

Meanwhile, Gen Abdel-Fattah Buran fired at least six ambassadors, including the envoys to the US, the European Union and France, after they condemned the military’s takeover of the country, a military official said Thursday.

The diplomats pledged their support for the now-deposed government of Prime Minister Abddalla Hamdok.

Also fired by the strongman late Wednesday were the Sudanese ambassadors to Qatar, China and the UN mission in Geneva, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.

The state-run Sudan TV also reported the dismissals.

The ambassadors were fired two days after Burhan dissolved the transitional government and detained the prime minister, many government officials and political leaders in a coup condemned by the US and the West. The military allowed Hamdok to return home Tuesday after international pressure for his release.

Burhan said the military forces were compelled to take over because of quarrels between political parties that he claimed could lead to civil war. However, the coup also comes just weeks before Burhan would have had to hand over the leadership of the Sovereign Council, the ultimate decision-maker in Sudan, to a civilian, in a step that would reduce the military’s hold on the country. The council has military and civilian members. Hamdok’s government ran Sudan’s daily affairs.

The coup threatens to halt Sudan’s fitful transition to democracy, which began after the 2019 ouster of long-time ruler Omar Al-Bashir and his Islamist government in a popular uprising.

The takeover came after weeks of mounting tensions between military and civilian leaders over the course and pace of that process.

Ali bin Yahia, Sudan’s envoy in Geneva, was defiant after his dismissal.

“I will spare no efforts to reverse the situation, explain facts and resist the blackout imposed by coup officials on what is happened my beloved country,” he said in video comments posted online.

Nureldin Satti, the Sudanese envoy to the US, said Tuesday he was working with Sudanese diplomats in Brussels, Paris, Geneva and New York to “resist the military coup in support of the heroic struggle of the Sudanese people” to achieve the aims of the uprising against Al-Bashir.

In another development, Burhan fired Adlan Ibrahim, head of the country’s Civil Aviation Authority, according to the official. Adlan’s dismissal came after the resumption of flights in and out of Khartoum’s international airport resumed Wednesday.


Lebanon’s Beirut blast probe judge suspends hearing for former PM Diab – legal source

Lebanon’s Beirut blast probe judge suspends hearing for former PM Diab – legal source
Updated 28 October 2021

Lebanon’s Beirut blast probe judge suspends hearing for former PM Diab – legal source

Lebanon’s Beirut blast probe judge suspends hearing for former PM Diab – legal source
  • Prime Minister Hassan filed a suit over his prosecution on Wednesday

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Beirut blast probe judge Tarek Bitar suspended on Thursday the interrogation of for former Prime Minister Hassan Diab after Diab filed a suit, a legal source said.
The suit was filed by Diab over his prosecution by Bitar on Wednesday. Diab, who has been charged over the Aug. 4, 2020 blast that killed over 215 people, had already missed at least two interrogation sessions.
Bitar was officially notified of the legal suit arguing that he did not have the authority to interrogate the former prime minister which automatically forces him to suspend the session, the legal source said.
“The suspension of questioning relates only to Diab in this case,” the source told Reuters.
Judge Bitar has sought to question top politicians, including former ministers and members of parliament, since July but nearly all have spurned him with some raising legal complaints against him questioning his impartiality.
Bitar has in the past issued arrest warrants for ministers who failed to show up for interrogation, and Diab’s lawsuit was likely an 11th-hour attempt to prevent a similar scenario after his interrogation scheduled for Thursday.


Moroccans protest mass vaccination rules; some skirmishes

Moroccans protest mass vaccination rules; some skirmishes
Updated 27 October 2021

Moroccans protest mass vaccination rules; some skirmishes

Moroccans protest mass vaccination rules; some skirmishes
  • Decision came into effect Oct. 21 and stipulates that Moroccans must provide proof of vaccination to enter workplaces
  • The pass is also required to access indoor services such as restaurants, banks and travel

RABAT, Morocco: Demonstrators took to the streets in cities around Morocco on Wednesday, some clashing with police as they denounced the country’s decision to require coronavirus vaccination passes to be allowed to work and enter public venues.
The decision came into effect Oct. 21 and stipulates that Moroccans must provide proof of vaccination in order to enter their workplaces. In a statement, the government has said employers have “direct legal responsibility” to enforce the decision.
The pass is also required to access indoor services such as restaurants and banks as well as domestic and international travel.
The North African kingdom of 36 million people has Africa’s highest vaccination rate, with more than 50 percent of the population fully inoculated. Earlier this month, the government also started administering booster shots.
But the abrupt and unusually widespread vaccine requirements have also prompted opposition, and led to big crowds at vaccination centers as people rushed to get shots.
In the capital, Rabat, protesters gathered outside the parliament building and chanted slogans against the rule, arguing that it goes against fundamental human rights and civil liberties. Police formed a line to prevent the angry demonstrators from getting inside the legislature.
A few protesters clashed with police as they were pushed away down Mohammed V Avenue that leads to the parliament building.
Among protesters was Nabila Mounib, a member of parliament and the secretary general of the opposition Unified Socialist Party. She joined the protest after being barred from entering the parliament building for showing up without a vaccination pass.
Similar scenes unfolded in other Moroccan cities, with dozens of protesters taking to the streets in the country’s most populous city, Casablanca, as well as tourist hotspots of Marrakech and Agadir. They shouted “United against the pass!” as police pushed and swung batons at some of the demonstrators in an attempt to disperse them.


Lebanese PM distances self from minister’s Houthi Yemen ‘self-defense’ claim

Lebanese PM distances self from minister’s Houthi Yemen ‘self-defense’ claim
Updated 28 October 2021

Lebanese PM distances self from minister’s Houthi Yemen ‘self-defense’ claim

Lebanese PM distances self from minister’s Houthi Yemen ‘self-defense’ claim
  • The Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council said in a statement he rejected Kordahi’s comments
  • Najib Mikati said George Kordahi’s comments on TV did not reflect government’s, president’s position on Yemen

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Wednesday distanced himself from comments made by the country’s Information Minister George Kordahi suggesting that the Iran-backed Houthis were “defending themselves” in Yemen.

Kordahi had been responding to a question from the host of “Barlamanasha3b,” an Al Jazeera-affiliated youth TV show, asking about his position on the conflict in the war-torn country.

During the interview recorded on Aug. 5, one month before being appointed information minister, Kordahi said: “The Houthis in Yemen are a resistance movement, defending themselves and not attacking anyone.” He added that the group was acting in self-defense against the “Saudi-UAE attack on Yemen.”

Mikati said: “Kordahi’s statement reflects his personal opinion which we do not accept. These comments do not express the government nor the president’s (Michel Aoun) position on the Yemeni issue. Lebanon is committed to its ties with Arab countries.”

When Kordahi’s remarks later surfaced in a video posted online, they sparked a frenzy on social media and an official protest to the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs from Yemen’s Ambassador to Lebanon Abdullah Al-Deais.

Kordahi replied by saying he had not intended “in any way, to offend the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the Emirates,” and expressed his “love and loyalty to the leaders and people of the two countries.”

He added: “What I said about the war in Yemen being an absurd war that needs to stop, I said it with conviction, not in defense of Yemen, but also out of love for Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

Lebanon's Information Minister George Kordahi speaks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon on Sept.  13, 2021. (REUTERS File Photo)

But Al-Deais said Kordahi had only “added insult to injury, as he did not apologize, but rather confirmed what he had said.”

The Yemeni envoy added: “Kordahi’s remarks go against Lebanon’s clear position toward Yemen and its condemnation of the Houthi coup and its support for all relevant Arab and UN resolutions.”

Following a meeting with Aoun on Wednesday, Mikati added: “It is true that we distance ourselves from conflicts, but we do not distance ourselves from any Arab position in solidarity with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

This position is a constant position, and we look forward to the best relations.

“Kordahi’s comments will not affect the general course, especially since the constants of the Lebanese position on relations with Arab countries were stated in its ministerial declaration. The interview with Kordahi took place before he was appointed minister and was broadcast yesterday,” Mikati said.

Separately, Lebanon’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointed out that Kordahi’s comments reflected his “personal stand” and “do not reflect the government’s position.”

In a statement, it said: “The ministry has repeatedly condemned the terrorist attacks on Saudi Arabia and maintains its position in defending the security and safety of its Gulf brothers, for whom it holds love, respect, and appreciation, and refrains from interfering in their internal and external policies.”

The Gulf Cooperation Council noted that Kordahi’s remarks showed his limited knowledge and lack of understanding of the situation in Yemen.

GCC Secretary-General Dr. Nayef bin Falah Al-Hajraf condemned, “the Lebanese minister of information’s defense of the Houthi coup group, while ignoring the intransigence of the Houthi movement against all international efforts to end the Yemeni crisis, and at a time when the Saudi Houthi group is targeting missiles and marches, targeting the defenseless Yemeni people, and preventing relief aid from reaching the stricken areas.”

Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Walid Al-Bukhari on Wednesday met with Al-Deais.

In a statement issued by the Saudi embassy, Al-Bukhari reaffirmed “the Kingdom’s position on supporting legitimacy in Yemen, reaching a political solution, in accordance with the terms of reference represented by the Gulf Initiative and its executive mechanism, the outcomes of the Comprehensive National Dialogue Conference and the resolution 2216, in order to preserve Yemen’s unity, integrity, respect its sovereignty and independence, and reject any interference in its internal affairs.

“The Iranian-backed Houthis continue hostilities and terrorist operations by firing ballistic missiles and booby-trapped drones to target civilians and civilian objects in Saudi Arabia, violating international and humanitarian law by using civilian populations in Yemeni civilian areas as human shields, and launching booby-trapped boats and remotely marching, posing a serious threat to regional and international security,” he said.

The Saudi envoy highlighted, “the legitimate right of the Saudi-led coalition to restore legitimacy in Yemen, to take and implement the necessary measures to deal with these hostilities and terrorist attacks, and to prevent the smuggling of weapons into these militias that poses a threat to the freedom of maritime navigation and global trade in the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea.”

Al-Bukhari praised “the efficiency” of Saudi air defenses in intercepting and responding to more than 400 ballistic missiles, 791 drones, and at least 205 naval mines.