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


Lebanon seizes dangerous fertilizer in country’s east

Lebanon seizes dangerous fertilizer in country’s east
Updated 47 min 21 sec ago

Lebanon seizes dangerous fertilizer in country’s east

Lebanon seizes dangerous fertilizer in country’s east
  • 20 tons of ammonium nitrate seized after raid on fertilizer warehouse in eastern Bekaa Valley
  • Shipment of the chemical carelessly stocked at Beirut Port caused a massive blast, killing 214 people, last year

BEIRUT: Lebanese authorities have seized 20 tons of ammonium nitrate — the same chemical behind a deadly explosion last year at Beirut’s port — in the eastern Bekaa Valley, state media reported on Saturday.
Ammonium nitrate is an odourless crystalline substance commonly used as a fertilizer that has been the cause of numerous industrial explosions over the decades.
At least 214 people were killed and some 6,500 others wounded on August 4, 2020 when a shipment of the chemical carelessly stocked at the Beirut port for years ignited and caused a massive blast.
On Saturday, the National News Agency (NNA) said security forces raided a fertilizer warehouse in the eastern Bekaa Valley, considered a hub for smuggling operations between Lebanon and Syria.
Authorities seized 20 tons of the dangerous chemical stored inside a truck parked at the warehouse, the NNA said, adding the material was transported to a “safe place.”
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi, who visited the Bekaa Valley on Saturday, called on security forces to conduct a sweep of the area.
“We must do our best to move these materials to a safer place away from exposure to heat and sun” to avoid a “catastrophe,” the NNA quoted him as saying.
The company that owns the ammonium nitrate said that the fertilizer was intended for agricultural use.
“One of our employees informed the relevant authorities that we have ammonium nitrate, so they raided the warehouses on Friday,” one of the company heads told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The name of the firm that owns the fertilizer has not been made public pending investigations.
“We have been working in the feed and fertilizer industry for 40 years,” the company official added.
When combined with fuel oils, ammonium nitrate creates a potent explosive widely used in the construction industry, but also by insurgent groups for improvised explosives.
Lebanese authorities are still investigating the circumstances in which hundreds of tons of the chemical ended up in the Beirut port for years, before the monster explosion that levelled swathes of the city.


Church in former Daesh Iraqi stronghold gets new bell

Church in former Daesh Iraqi stronghold gets new bell
Updated 18 September 2021

Church in former Daesh Iraqi stronghold gets new bell

Church in former Daesh Iraqi stronghold gets new bell
  • The bell weighing 285kg was cast in Lebanon with donations from a French NGO

MOSUL: A bell was inaugurated at a church in Mosul on Saturday to the cheers of Iraqi Christians, seven years after the Daesh group overran the northern city.
Dozens of faithful stood by as Father Pios Affas rang the newly installed bell for the first time at the Syriac Christian church of Mar Tuma, an AFP correspondent reported.
It drew applause and ululations from the crowd, who took photos on mobile phones, before prayers were held.
“After seven years of silence, the bell of Mar Tuma rang for the first time on the right bank of Mosul,” Affas told them.
Daesh swept into Mosul and proclaimed it their “capital” in 2014, in an onslaught that forced hundreds of thousands of Christians in the northern Nineveh province to flee, some to Iraq’s nearby Kurdistan region.
The Iraqi army drove out the jihadists three years later after months of gruelling street fighting.
The return of the Mosul church bell “heralds days of hope, and opens the way, God willing, for the return of Christians to their city,” said Affas.
“This is a great day of joy, and I hope the joy will grow even more when not only all the churches and mosques in Mosul are rebuilt, but also the whole city, with its houses and historical sites,” he told AFP.
The bell weighing 285 kilogrammes (nearly 630 pounds) was cast in Lebanon with donations from Fraternity in Iraq, a French NGO that helps religious minorities, and transported from Beirut to Mosul by plane and truck.
The church of Mar Tuma, which dates back to the 19th century, was used by the jihadists as a prison or a court.
Restoration work is ongoing and its marble floor has been dismantled to be completely redone.
Nidaa Abdel Ahad, one of the faithful attending the inauguration, said she had returned to her home town from Irbil so that she could see the church being “brought back to life.”
“My joy is indescribable,” said the teacher in her forties. “It’s as if the heart of Christianity is beating again.”
Faraj-Benoit Camurat, founder and head of Fraternity in Iraq, said that “all the representations of the cross, all the Christian representations, were destroyed,” including marble altars.
“We hope this bell will be the symbol of a kind of rebirth in Mosul,” he told AFP by telephone.
Iraq’s Christian community, which numbered more than 1.5 million in 2003 before the US-led invasion, has shrunk to about 400,000, with many of them fleeing the recurrent violence that has ravaged the country.
Camurat said around 50 Christian families had resettled in Mosul, while others travel there to work for the day.
“The Christians could have left forever and abandoned Mosul,” but instead they being very active in the city, he said.


Tunisians protest over president's seizure of powers

Tunisians protest over president's seizure of powers
Updated 18 September 2021

Tunisians protest over president's seizure of powers

Tunisians protest over president's seizure of powers
  • The protesters gathered in the centre of the capital chanting "shut down the coup" and "we want a return to legitimacy"
  • The protest was the first since Saied declared on July 25 he was sacking the PM, assuming executive authority

TUNIS: Several hundred demonstrators gathered in Tunis on Saturday to protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied's seizure of governing powers in July, which triggered a constitutional crisis and prompted accusations of a coup.
The protesters gathered in the centre of the capital chanting "shut down the coup" and "we want a return to legitimacy", while a few dozen Saied supporters held a counter demonstration chanting "the people want to dissolve parliament".
The protest, accompanied by a heavy police presence, was the first since Saied declared on July 25 he was sacking the prime minister, suspending parliament and assuming executive authority.
Saturday's protests may provide an indication of how the security services, many of whose leadership are newly appointed by Saied, will handle public opposition to him.
Police appeared to be treating both sets of protesters equally, standing between the two camps outside the ornate belle epoque theatre on Habib Bourguiba avenue.
Saied's moves were broadly popular in a country chafing from years of economic stagnation and political paralysis, but they have raised fears for the new rights and the democratic system won in the 2011 revolution that sparked the "Arab spring".
Though the biggest party in parliament, the moderate Islamist Ennahda, initially decried his move as a coup, it quickly backed down and the period since Saied's intervention has been calm.
However eight weeks on, Saied is still to appoint a prime minister or declare his longer-term intentions.
A Saied adviser told Reuters this month the president was considering suspending the 2014 constitution and putting a new version to a referendum, a possibility that unleashed the broadest and most vocal opposition to him since July 25.
Meanwhile, with their immunity lifted, some parliamentarians have been arrested, while numerous Tunisians have been stopped from leaving the country.
Saied has rejected accusations of a coup and his supporters have presented his moves as an opportunity to reset the gains of Tunisia's revolution and purge a corrupt elite.
"They are only here to ... protect corrupt people and Islamists," said Mohamed Slim, standing with his son in the counter protest. (Reporting by Tarek Amara; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by David Holmes)


‘Egypt is one of the countries most affected by climate change,’ water minister says

‘Egypt is one of the countries most affected by climate change,’ water minister says
Updated 18 September 2021

‘Egypt is one of the countries most affected by climate change,’ water minister says

‘Egypt is one of the countries most affected by climate change,’ water minister says
  • Mohamed Abdel-Aty said that climate change negatively impacts water resources, with resulting threats to sustainable development and the human right to water
  • The minister said that more than 1,500 structures had been implemented to guard against the dangers of torrential rain – protecting individuals and facilities

Mohamed Abdel-Aty, Egypt’s minister of water resources and irrigation, has said that his country is one of those most affected by climate change.

This is due to rising sea levels and the impact of climate change on the sources of the Nile River, and extreme weather phenomena such as heatwaves, cold waves and torrential rains impacting water resources, agriculture and the food, energy and health sectors, as well as coastal regions and northern lakes.

This is in addition to the risks affecting 12-15 percent of the most fertile lands of the delta as a result of the expected rise in sea level, and the intrusion of saline water, which affects the quality of groundwater.

Abdel-Aty said that climate change negatively impacts water resources, with resulting threats to sustainable development and the human right to water.

He was speaking during a meeting with Ayat Soliman, regional director of the Sustainable Development Department for the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank Group, and her accompanying delegation. The meeting was to review a climate and development report on Egypt, which is being prepared by experts from the World Bank in cooperation with the Ministry of International Cooperation.

The minister said that more than 1,500 structures had been implemented to guard against the dangers of torrential rain and to protect individuals, facilities and key facilities from its destructive effects, in addition to harvesting rainwater for the use of Bedouin communities in the surrounding areas.

During the meeting, Abdel-Aty reviewed the efforts of the ministry in adapting to climate change through the implementation of several projects to guard against torrential rains, to protect Egyptian beaches, and expand the reuse of agricultural drainage water as one of the non-traditional water resources to meet increasing demand.

Egypt is implementing a number of major projects aimed at protecting its coast (covering about 3,000 km), securing individuals, facilities, public and private properties, roads and investments in coastal areas, working to stop the decline of the beach line and recovering beaches that have been lost due to erosion, and protecting agricultural lands and villages.

The country is also working on contributing to the development of fisheries in the northern lakes. The “Promoting Adaptation to Climate Changes in the North Coast and the Nile Delta” project has been launched with the aim of establishing protection systems, over a distance of 69 km, in five locations on the coast of the Nile River Delta, and the establishment of early warning stations at different depths within the Mediterranean to obtain data related to storm waves and sudden natural phenomena.


Algeria gives disgraced ex-leader Bouteflika 3-days mourning

Algeria gives disgraced ex-leader Bouteflika 3-days mourning
Updated 18 September 2021

Algeria gives disgraced ex-leader Bouteflika 3-days mourning

Algeria gives disgraced ex-leader Bouteflika 3-days mourning
  • Bouteflika, who had been ailing since a stroke in 2013, died Friday at 84
  • Bouteflika's 20-year-long rule, riddled with corruption, ended in disgrace as he was pushed from power amid huge street protests

ALGIERS: Algeria’s leader declared a three-day period of mourning starting Saturday for former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, whose 20-year-long rule, riddled with corruption, ended in disgrace as he was pushed from power amid huge street protests when he decided to seek a new term.
Bouteflika, who had been ailing since a stroke in 2013, died Friday at 84. His public appearances had been rare in the final years of his presidency, and he had not been seen since President Abdelmadjid Tebboune took office in late 2019.
Flags are to fly at half-staff during the mourning period, the president’s office said. The honors reflect Bouteflika’s role in Algeria’s brutal seven-year war for independence from France that ended in 1962. Those who fought are considered martyrs today.
The former president’s lawyer, Salim Salim Hadjouti, said Bouteflika was being laid to rest in an official ceremony at El Alia cemetery, in the section where martyrs of the revolution for independence are buried, a special honor.
Since Bouteflika’s death, public television has not shown images of him, a clear sign that authorities prefer not to go overboard with a farewell as the North African nation has turned past the Bouteflika era. Early on in his mandate, Tebboune announced his policy of a “new Algeria.”
Tebboune has led a fight against the corruption, including in the Bouteflika clan as it emerged that a close circle of officials around the president were enriching themselves and allegedly making decisions in the place of the ailing president. Bouteflika’s brother and special counsellor Said was acquitted in January by a military appeals court of allegedly plotting against the army and the state, but faces corruption charges.