Beirut explosion

‘They kill us every day’: Survivors of Beirut port blast call for justice one year on

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Elsa Hajjar, 27, did not expect the wedding dress fitting moment to turn into a deadly catastrophe. In just a moment or two, she went from being in a fancy building to finding herself in the middle of an apocalypse.

“On August 4, 2020, at around 6 p.m., I was trying on my wedding dress at a designer’s showroom in downtown Beirut, just a few miles away from the explosion’s site. The designer’s assistant was helping me put the gown on when suddenly, everyone started to scream; there was a large fire that could be seen coming out of the Beirut port. We all ran towards the glassy windows to see what was happening. A fraction of seconds later, a colossal explosion struck the area, sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky as well as shock waves across the capital,” Hajjar told Al Arabiya English.

The blast killed more than 200 people, injured thousands, and destroyed vast swathes of Beirut. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded. A year later, no top officials have been questioned over the disaster, angering many Lebanese.

“What I witnessed was not like anything I had ever seen before, not even in a movie,” Hajjar said. “It was a combination of a tsunami and an earthquake. I woke up to the utter demolition of everything around me. I saw blood, debris, and injured people everywhere; I heard EMS sirens and loud cries coming from the street.”

Today, Hajjar’s scars can still be seen. The most wounded part, however, is her psyche.

“I became numb after the explosion. What happened deprived me of feelings and responsiveness,” Hajjar said. “I had an inability to feel pain, happiness, sadness. I couldn’t even cry, and I hated this.”

Hajjar’s traumatic experience also includes seeing nightmares as well as developing a phobia about glass and fear of loud sounds and noises.

Hajjar, who is a legal consultant, no longer believes in justice.

“If I’m unable to do justice to myself, how can I do it to others?” she asked, expressing regret for the fact that human life is “so cheap and worthless” in Lebanon.

Hajjar is now in the final stages of mental health recovery. She stressed the importance of seeing a therapist to help those who experienced the blast recover.

“Thanks to the therapeutic sessions that I have been attending for the past year, I now have the will to live and be motivated and productive. I also have fewer PTSD symptoms.”

Elsa Hajjar sings a song, Imagine, on the Beirut blast on August 18, 2020. Hajjar’s hobbies are to sing and work out. She was the first runner-up of Miss Lebanon 2014. (Credit: Elsa Hajjar)
Elsa Hajjar sings a song, Imagine, on the Beirut blast on August 18, 2020. Hajjar’s hobbies are to sing and work out. She was the first runner-up of Miss Lebanon 2014. (Credit: Elsa Hajjar)

The story of 30-year-old Antonio Merheb is no less painful. On the day of the explosion, Merheb, an electrical engineer, was at the Electricité du Liban building in Mar Mikhael, working on a consultancy project with colleagues.

“I still remember everything that happened on that day because I didn’t lose consciousness, although I was very close to the port,” Merheb said. “When the explosion occurred, I felt heat in me and started having flashbacks of my childhood.”

After the explosion, Merheb, by then severely wounded, stood up, and started yelling to see if any of his colleagues were still alive, but no one answered him. They were dead.

“I did all I could to walk towards nearby hospitals, which were either partially or totally destroyed. I could see killed doctors, nurses, and patients,” he said.

As he couldn’t find any hospital to treat him, he collapsed in the street and laid there bleeding heavily by the side of the road.

“While I was helplessly watching my blood spouting from the wounds, a car passed. I gathered all my strength, stood up, and entered it,” he noted. “A man in his early thirties was driving the car. He took me to Rizk Hospital. He saved my life.”

Antonio Merheb at Rizk Hospital on August 5, 2020. (Credit: Antonio Merheb)
Antonio Merheb at Rizk Hospital on August 5, 2020. (Credit: Antonio Merheb)

August 4 has taken a heavy toll on Merheb. He doesn’t feel comfortable staying in the same place for more than an hour. He also avoids sitting next to glassy doors and windows, especially when he’s in Beirut. The experience, he said, has permanently changed his outlook on life.

“I don’t fear anything anymore, not even death. I’ve experienced death, so why would I fear it?”

As the first anniversary of the Beirut port blast approaches, several major questions remain unanswered. A probe into the case was hindered last month as requests made by investigating Judge Tarek Bitar to lift immunity and enable questioning of senior officials were either rejected or stalled. A culture of impunity has long fostered in Lebanon. Decades of negligence, mismanagement, and corruption have brought the country to the verge of collapse, with no one held accountable.

A turning point

Losing hope in Lebanon pushed many Lebanese to leave the country in the wake of the August 4 blast. Most of those leaving want a better life and security for their children.

Dalal Mawad, a former senior correspondent for the Associated Press, decided to emigrate straight after the explosion.

“I was considering leaving Lebanon even before August 4, 2020. I didn’t want my daughter to grow up in an unsafe environment amid extreme uncertainty and violence,” Mawad explained. “But then the blast happened, and that was a turning point for my family and me. I became convinced that if I stayed here, I wouldn’t be able to protect my child.”

Mawad, who covered the disaster on the ground, said that blast killed something in her.

“It was hard to see so much destruction, pain, and horror in one single event and listen to a traumatizing experience shared by several people at the same time,” she said. “The port blast was the most painful and personal assignment I have ever worked on. It was very emotional and overwhelming. I was reporting on my city, on people I loved who were either killed or injured, and that was very tough.”

Dalal Mawad reporting from Beirut on the port explosion on September 22, 2020. (Credit: Dalal Mawad)
Dalal Mawad reporting from Beirut on the port explosion on September 22, 2020. (Credit: Dalal Mawad)

Similarly, Rayane Mousallem, 31, has moved overseas ever since the port explosion rocked the capital.

“We passed through a lot of dark days in Lebanon, but the blast was the coup de grace,” Mousallem noted. “How can a city explode, and nothing changes? How are those responsible for this explosion still in power as if nothing has happened? How can this crime go unpunished?” she exclaimed.

“They kill us every day, and none of them have ever been brought to account,” she continued. “The families of the victims and the Lebanese in general will never heal as long as justice is not rendered.”

The tiny Mediterranean country is rooted in a systematic corruption and poor governance by an entrenched political class that has ruled the country since the end of the civil war. The Lebanese have held mass protests since October 2019, calling for a drastic political change, but few of their demands have been met while the country's economic crisis continues to worsen.

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