The second anniversary of the Beirut Port blast highlighted the prolonged trauma of the city’s people. Over 200 people lost their lives, and thousands were injured or left homeless in the wake of the blast. It was a disaster that continues to scar Lebanon.
Beyond the suffering of the population, there were other victims. They were either lost, killed, or trapped under heaps of fallen rubble. Across western Beirut, thousands of pets are unaccounted for.
Call for help
Within two hours, NGO Animals Lebanon had mobilized its resources to the blast zone, working to find and rescue missing animals and reunite them with their owners.
“During the post-explosion period, [we were] one of the first NGOs on the ground,” Animals Lebanon Vice President Maggie Shaarawi told Al Arabiya English. “We were never prepared for such a big disaster. There were lost pets everywhere,” she said.
“All our efforts were improvised,” she explained. “We mapped the whole area and divided people into teams. People who owned motorcycles [were] taking teams inside the blast area because no cars could go there. [Others] stayed at the tents, ensuring there was water, food, emergency kits.”
Founded in 2009, Animals Lebanon has worked to reshape Lebanon’s relationship with animals by campaigning for national animal protection and welfare legislation. It also provides shelters and TNR (Trap, Neuter, and Return) programs for stray cats and dogs.
Over 350 people joined the NGO’s search and rescue efforts following the devastating explosion, working in dangerous conditions and sweltering summer temperatures. It was part of a massive, coordinated effort to respond to hundreds of requests for help from distraught owners.
“In the beginning, when I wanted to do the call for help, I got a lot of people telling me [we were] going get a backlash from the public [for focusing on] animals,” said Shaarawi. “In fact, it was totally the opposite; we got a lot of support from the public,” she added.
“The people who came to our office and saw that their [pet] is here; [they might have lost] their home and their job, so finding that [missing animal] was just everything to them,” she explained. “Sadly, we [also] had pets that died [that] were adopted through us, [or] their owners died. It was very sad.”
For survivors like Serge Maacaron, the events of August 4 remain painfully sharp. He was at home - which overlooked the Port of Beirut – with his four pet cats when he heard the primary explosion. Warehouse 12, the storage building containing the 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate, blew up, laying waste to the capital moments later.
“On that apocalyptic day, I wasn’t aware there was a fire at the port,” Maacaron recalled “There was the first [explosion]. I ran out to check for airplanes that were [attacking] us. I was looking at the sky, and I got blown to the other side of the house.”
Maacaron was severely hurt in the blast, sustaining serious injuries including multiple lacerations, bone fractures, and severe damage to one of his eyes. Unable to stand and slipping in and out of consciousness, he was pulled from the wreckage by a neighbor and taken for emergency surgery.
Out of immediate danger, his thoughts turned to his cats, still in the building as far as he knew. He asked friends to check on them at his home while he underwent further treatment, unable to go himself.
“I couldn’t do anything because I was [going] from operation to operation, and then [I needed] time to heal,” Maacaron explained. “With [everything] I was passing through, only the cats were making me cry because I was so worried about them.”
In the hospital, he realized that his cats might jump from the house. “They found only two of them at home; two of them had run away.”
Rescuers from Animals Lebanon decided to place litter and food around the area for the cats and in Maacaron’s apartment, believing that the missing pets might return to the familiar ground if frightened.
When they noticed the food was missing and the litter was used, they set up a cage to trap the animals and return them to their owner.
“If it weren’t for [Animals Lebanon], I am sure I wouldn’t have been reunited with them,” said Maacaron. “[They were] like angles that came directly from the sky. They did the impossible. Nanussa was caught 15 days [after] the blast, and Anouchka was caught around one month after.”
Striving to continue
Stories like Maacaron’s drew international attention to Animals Lebanon and its mission, bringing vital donations. The NGO had been on the verge of shutting down operations due to difficulties resulting from Lebanon’s ongoing national crisis.
“About 90 percent of our revenues came from Lebanese people and businesses,” said Jason Mier, Executive Director of Animals Lebanon. “When the economic crisis hit, most of that disappeared overnight.”
“We’re operating now where 80 percent of our funding comes internationally,” he continued. “We’re trying to figure out how to be effective with all these hurdles that you have to keep jumping through. In terms of our operations, we are still doing the same thing.”
Lebanon’s troubles are far from over. The investigation into August 4 has long been wholly stalled by political meddling, denying justice to the victims.
The crisis also continues to exacerbate animal welfare issues in Lebanon. Many Lebanese cannot afford the costs associated with keeping a pet, resulting in more and more animals being abandoned by their former owners. Of the 139 animals taken into Animals Lebanon’s care in the aftermath of the August 4 blast two years ago, 68 are still awaiting adoption.
“We’re just trying to figure out how to be effective with all these hurdles that you have to keep jumping through,” said Mier. “Things always get better, and they always get worse. Hopefully, we’ll come to another good point.”
“A lot of people applauded what we did,” Shaarawi concluded. “Our goal is not just to save animals, but to change the perspective of our society toward animal welfare. Our struggle now is to ensure that we can continue.”