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Beirut explosion

Beirut Blast: Lebanese expats still grappling with survivor’s guilt one year on

Published: Updated:

Lebanon has now marked one year since the port explosion, the country’s worst-ever peacetime disaster. The blast, which left 214 people dead, was equivalent to a 3.3 to 4.5 magnitude earthquake.

While the explosion wreaked havoc on Beirut and pushed the country further into economic crisis, it also left a permanent mark on the psyche of Lebanon’s residents and overseas nationals, leaving many in a state of shock and guilt.

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Survivor’s guilt, also known as survivor’s syndrome, is a mental condition that occurs when someone survives a traumatic, life-threatening experience while others did not, and is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Often, those suffering from the affliction can be left with feelings of extreme guilt, and questioning why they survived while others did not, causing ongoing emotional and mental stress.

The emotional damage caused by the blast has yet to heal, with many members of Lebanon’s large diaspora expressing feelings of guilt for not being in-country to help their relatives and the people of Beirut during the time of the explosion.

Survivor’s guilt

Al Arabiya English spoke with Dr. Shaju George, specialist psychiatrist at Dubai’s Medeor Hospital, to weigh in on the concept of ‘Survivor’s Guilt’ and how Lebanese expats might be grappling with it.

Survivor guilt, as the name suggests, is the guilt of people who survived a traumatic incident or survived when they lost their significant one. So generally, this is something we discuss in the context of grief, and it is one of the major reasons for developing complicated grief,” explains Dr. George.

Survivors feel that they could have avoided the calamity or catastrophe by their timely intervention – these thoughts are usually illogical or irrational.”

He added that people facing survivor guilt often feel that they “haven’t done what they could to avoid the catastrophe,” or “that their act resulted in the catastrophe,” explaining that generally the syndrome occurs when involving close family members and sometimes close friends.

“Generally, these kinds of situations we see in unanticipated deaths or catastrophes where either the survivor witnessed or couldn't be there due to some reasons,” George said.

“Lebanese people who weren't there during the blast can have survivor’s guilt, and they may think that they should have been there in the place of their affected family members.”

Volunteers clean rubble from the streets following Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area. (Reuters)
Volunteers clean rubble from the streets following Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area. (Reuters)

Many members of Lebanon’s diaspora across the world mobilized efforts and donated food, clothes and other basic necessities to help those who were hardest hit by the blast.

“On the day of the blast, I was having a casual day with friends and family – just as the victims, the injured, and the witnesses of the blast were – and during a conversation I was having with a friend while driving down Sheikh Zayed road, my friend interrupts and utters the words ‘they bombed Beirut’,” Dubai-based Lebanese expat Lynn Habbal said.

“The first thought I had was ‘here we go again, another war with our neighbors’ – come to think of it, it was such a normalized and indifferent response,” she said.

“Minutes later my social media was flooded with videos of the blast, and the screams of the injured. Phone lines were down, and I didn’t know whether my parents and my little sister [who are based in Lebanon] were safe, or not. Dead or alive. I didn’t know whether my close friends and their families were safe too. I, like so many others in the Lebanese diaspora, was not only left in the dark, but completely without control and in complete shock,” she added.

A general view of the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital, Beirut, on Aug. 4. (AFP)
A general view of the scene of an explosion at the port of Lebanon's capital, Beirut, on Aug. 4. (AFP)

The Beirut blast came as a huge shock to many who had already been desensitized by Lebanon’s ongoing crises and history of occasional conflicts.

Dubai-based Lebanese expat Raghd Zahr said that he was at the office at the time of the blast. He noticed his Arab and Lebanese colleagues panicking, calling each other to discuss what they had seen on social media.

“It really seemed serious,” says Raghd. “I finally asked: ‘What happened?’ and the stares they cast at me, were haunting.”

When they told him about the blast, he said that he had tried to dismiss it.

“I tried to brush it off with a ‘But doesn‘t that normally happen there?’ to which I was met with ‘I think someone dropped a bomb on us.’”

Raghd’s reaction quickly changed when he went online to see the scale of the blast, noting that it “terrified” him.

Members of the Lebanese army and the French military walk at the damaged site of the massive blast in Beirut's port area, in Beirut, Lebanon August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool
Members of the Lebanese army and the French military walk at the damaged site of the massive blast in Beirut's port area, in Beirut, Lebanon August 31, 2020. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool

“I remember hearing about a warehouse malfunction and how firefighters went to meet the scene just recently, only to realize, by seeing what I saw, that they were all probably dead and killed instantly by the explosion,” he said.

What started as a fire in the port warehouse, turned into one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history, leaving many in a state of utter shock.

“I didn‘t know what I felt at first, to be honest – disbelief maybe? Anger? Resentment? I felt many things at once, but the one emotion that eclipsed all of them was concern; I spent the next hours calling every Lebanese person that I knew,” he said.

Raghd took to social media, sharing every post he could to raise awareness of the blast, including urgent calls by the Lebanese Red Cross for blood donations for critical, life-saving transfusions.

He described as the overall expression of his colleagues that day as “saddening,” adding that the Beirut office was completely “thrashed and destroyed.”

When asked if he envisioned a future for himself in Lebanon, he said: “I am looking to immigrate [somewhere] soon, since I am fortunate enough to do so, but nothing saddens me more than those who are more capable than I, but lack the means to do so since they are trapped in Lebanon.”

“I feel our [the Lebanese diaspora’s] relationship with our country of origin will forever be painful; it is difficult to love Lebanon when everyone reminisces about its beautiful past and the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ and fails to see its miserable present and even bleaker future,” he concluded.

Rubble, spilled grains remain around towering silos gutted in the massive August explosion at the Beirut port that claimed the lives of more than 200 people, in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)
Rubble, spilled grains remain around towering silos gutted in the massive August explosion at the Beirut port that claimed the lives of more than 200 people, in Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)

Abu Dhabi-based influencer and coworking space manager Stephanie Haddad, who was born and raised in the UAE, said that at the time of the incident, she was watching TV at home when a headline appeared at the bottom of the screen: Loud sound heard in Beirut Port.

“Because we’re so used to these types of headlines and media coverage, I didn’t think much of it, but I still needed to call my brother who was in Lebanon at the time,” she said.

Her brother did not pick up, she said, so she began to panic and proceeded to call more and more people, but she couldn’t go through.

“Tried my brother again – nothing. I didn’t know where he was. Then the family voice notes started [on WhatsApp] and that’s when it got real … Everyone was hysterically crying, unaware of what happened but confident it was horrible, I felt helpless and confused and we mourned for days,” she said.

“Each time any news came up, it was about a new death, or a new person being found, and we relived it again and again.”

“I don’t feel like I deserve to have any feelings about this because I wasn’t there,” Stephanie said.

With information coming in slowly, Stephanie and her friends felt like they were “constantly addicted to the news,” and trying to share as much information as possible.

“It became an addiction to find out what was happening, and this is why many of us [diaspora] could not get the image of the explosion out of our heads, we couldn’t sleep,” she said.

Stephanie explained that she and her Lebanese friends in the UAE felt ashamed to go out and live their lives normally after the blast because their families in Lebanon did not have the same luxury.

“I felt guilty for sharing photos of my daily life on social media because it would have been insensitive,” she said.

Because Stephanie was not present in Beirut during the blast, she said she felt that couldn’t be sad or guilty as she had not physically experienced it herself.

“It was not until I spoke to my sisters who are also based here in Dubai about how I was feeling and recognized that they were also feeling ashamed, anxious, tired and they couldn’t eat or sleep, with no motivation to get work done at their jobs,” Habbal added.

The blast was one of Lebanon’s most tragic disasters which, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, has plunged the country into an economic depression that has been deemed by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst crises since the mid-nineteenth century.

Today marks one year since the blast, and no answers have yet to been found. So far, probes into the explosion have ignored Lebanon’s entrenched political elite, with no top officials standing before a judicial inquiry.

Recently, Najib Mikati took up the mantle as Prime Minister designee while Lebanon continues to try to navigate its way out of political crisis. Mikati has previously served as Lebanon’s Prime Minister and was in office when the shipping vessel carrying the ammonium nitrate that caused the blast arrived in 2013.

Read more:

‘The truth is missing’: Blast victims call for justice as trauma, wounds remain

Beirut blast: Lebanon’s crisis hotline witnesses surge in calls as anniversary nears

Lebanese diaspora frustrated with lack of progress on Beirut Blast probe one year on