Memories of the Beirut explosion, August 4 2020

I am publishing this piece in an attempt to preserve one account of the events of August 4 2020 in Beirut, the Lebanese capital. That evening, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history destroyed swathes of the city. The blast wasn’t caused by a missile strike, but by thousands of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate left abandoned at the city’s seaport. Senior Lebanese officials were aware of the stockpile, but did little to dispose of it before it was too late.

The motivation to publish this account is driven in large part by a frantic urge not to forget what happened. If I have not done so already, I hope this piece will add to the writings of other witnesses who have done better than me in writing down their memories sooner.

Because, as it is not always easy to remember, it is very dangerous to forget.*

At the end of the article, I have linked to some Lebanese NGOs and charities helping victims of the explosion, which still need funding and support.

***

It is just after 6pm on August 4, and Beirut is hot. The city’s summer humidity is thumping against the walls of the apartment. The double-fronted brown wooden door is propped open, to allow what little breeze there is to enter the living room. Outside, the city hums quietly: the whirr of a generator, a call from a window, a crunch of car tyre on gravel. I’m wearing blue shorts and yellow open-toe sandals — my summer working-from-home garb. I’ve spent the day getting documents printed at a nearby stationery shop, and working on a report about Lebanese banks in Iraq. I have a call scheduled with a Syrian friend in Italy, but he’s not picking up. I am mulling over the idea of going for a run along the seafront promenade, once the sun sets and the weather cools down. Despite the heat, after months of pandemic-induced lockdown, I am enjoying exercising outside again, rather than following YouTube workout videos.

I am sitting on a cream upholstered dining chair, bent over my laptop on the living room table. I am peering at a transcript of an interview with an official who is complaining about the difficulties of banking in Iraq. My work-mode tunnel vision has kicked in, and I don’t realise that local Lebanese media is already reporting a large fire at Beirut’s port. The seafront is over a kilometre away, down the staircases and narrow streets, and across a motorway. Up until now the apartment I share with my flatmate Leila, and our two dogs, Freddie and Bunduq, has been a happy place. Behind its white walls and pretty old ochre-coloured window shutters, we have hosted lavish dinner parties, curled up with glasses of wine to watch Magic Mike, and held pandemic lockdown dance-offs. It has been a home. It is about to become a stricken one.

Suddenly, there is a colossal, roaring sound from outside, breaking the stillness of early evening. It is not unusual to hear strange sounds from above Beirut. Helicopters oversee military or ministerial visits, and Israeli drones often buzz over the rooftops. But this is louder than all those other sounds, I say to myself, as I rush to the front porch and scan the sky for low-flying aeroplanes. To me, the sound is horribly akin to that in the countless videos I have watched of Russian fighter jets over Syria. I shout for Leila, who is sitting on her bed in the next room. I hear her yell something back. And then the world crashes in.

A view over Beirut port, August 5 2020, after thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate explodes in warehouse 12 in the complex. The building on the horizon is the city’s grain silo. Credit: Lizzie Porter

The whole apartment rocks wildly, and the sound of smashing rings in my ears. Glass is flying through the air. I am pushed backwards into a wall along with our front door, which is now in at least five large splintered pieces. Crudely, I feel like I have been hit hard over the head with a large metal saucepan. I am sitting against the wall. I am still alive, I think. There is blood on my left arm — but all my limbs are still there. Phew. I lift a hand to my head, to check for bleeding. Brushing a hand over the left side of my head, behind my ear, it’s left covered in a red stain, like a very thin layer of paint. But it’s not gushing. I realise that I am suddenly extremely thirsty, and covered in sweat. All of this happens in the space of a couple of seconds. I then realise that I can’t see much, because the force of the blast — and at this stage it’s still not clear what exactly has happened — has blown my glasses off my face. I don’t want to search for them now, in the piles of broken windows, smashed wine bottles and splintered furniture that now litter our living room. I stagger towards the hole where my bedroom door had stood moments before, and grab my spare spectacles from a dresser drawer. Everything is covered in dust and smashed glass.

What if there is a second blast? We need to get out. Leila and I pick our way out of the house, crunching over the shards of our home. We live on the second floor of our building, now surrounded by the piercing sound of ringing alarm bells. The air is thick and grey with the dust and debris of our neighbours’ homes.

“Do we go up or down?” I ask Leila frantically, wondering whether we should head up the steps beside our home to a nearby clearing, or down, to shelter under the stairs. I feel intense shame that I don’t know exactly what to do, and that I’m dithering. I worry that, in the event of a second impact, sheltering low will cause us to be crushed, or sprayed with shrapnel. “But there is no glass left in any of the windows anyway,” Leila points out. We head down the steps. I am still thirsty and pouring with sweat.

August 5 2020 — Lebanese soldiers walk past buildings destroyed at the intersection of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael districts, in the explosion. Credit: Lizzie Porter

Our neighbours have gathered at the bottom of the steps too. The elderly are either shouting, or sitting in stunned silence. My phone buzzes: the Syrian friend in Italy is calling me. He apologises for not phoning earlier as planned. “I can’t speak now, have you seen the news?” I tell him in Arabic. “There has been a huge explosion in Beirut.” I hang up, not really knowing what else to say, but feeling bad for shutting him off so quickly.

Along with our neighbours, Leila and I are huddling at the bottom of the steps. I feel a bit sick. I am convinced that if I go back inside and put on my helmet and flak jacket — rarely worn, but sometimes necessary when covering protests and riots — then everything will be OK. But as I realise that splintered wood, twisted metal and shards of glass are littering not only our home, but every surrounding street and alleyway, putting on some proper shoes becomes the priority. I feel dazed, but make my way back up the steps into our apartment. I retrieve a pair of trainers and clean socks from a corner, which appears to have escaped the showers of broken glass.

I join Leila and our neighbours back at the bottom of the stairs. WhatsApp messages are flying around. My editors in the United States are walking me through the signs of concussion by text message, although the internet keeps cutting out. “What is happening?” our elderly neighbours shout. They know that Leila and I are both journalists, and want us to tell them why the world has just fallen in. I say that there has been some sort of blast or explosion. “But other than that, I don’t know, I don’t know,” I say, feeling ashamed.

Our upstairs neighbour produces a first aid kit from a black rucksack. The elderly lady (also called Leila) who lives at the foot of our stairs is bleeding from the head. The first neighbour wraps a stretchy bandage around her forehead. Leila’s doorway is normally attractively decorated with pot plants. Now she is sitting there on a chair, just looking dazed.

I put some cotton wool to my own head. There is still blood, but it’s still a faint, paint-like smear. Some glass has left a small slash in my left arm, which is throbbing. At some point, I need to go to hospital for stitches. But neither of my injuries is serious, and social media is being flooded with videos and images of Beirut’s hospitals, several of which have been put out of service by the explosion. The walking wounded are lining up for treatment in hospital car parks; blood is covering pavements; shrill screams fill the air. As the light fades, doctors are carrying out surgery by the light of mobile phone torches. My relatively tiny injuries can wait.

The fucking Israelis, I think to myself. How could they do this? They know there are civilians in central Beirut, I rage to myself. For the first time in years, I feel properly scared. The war jet -like sound that rang through Beirut in the moments before the blast made me — and many others — think that the explosion must have been an Israeli missile strike, targeting a site associated with the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group. But it becomes apparent that this isn’t at all the case, that there aren’t any planes in the sky, and it isn’t the Israelis. Instead, there have been two enormous explosions at warehouse 12 at Beirut’s seaport. The first blast as reported by local media was followed by a second colossal explosion. The plane-like roaring sound that I had heard was likely of the intense fire raging at the port, sucking in surrounding air, in the seconds before the final, terrible blast.

Leila is standing nearby on her phone, her feet covered in blood. Neither she nor medical professionals realise it for weeks, but the stabbing pains she is feeling in one foot are the result of two severed tendons. They will take months to heal. In the moment, we decide that we will both delay going to a hospital, to ease the pressure on overloaded services tonight. The screech of sirens from Lebanese Red Cross ambulances is piercing the air restlessly. Without a National Health Service, Lebanon relies on the volunteer crew for the vast majority of emergency medical response services. They will not stop working for days.

Television channels and radio stations from around the world are starting to get in touch with Leila, I, and other journalists in the city. Are you OK? What is happening in Beirut? Can you come on the air to talk about what has happened? Over the coming hours, I repeat what I can remember over and over again, in between speaking to friends and contacts. I look out over the rooftops. There are no panes of glass left in any of the surrounding windows, and all our neighbours’ homes now look like grey prison cells. Smoke is still rising from the port, mingling with the clouds as dusk enshrouds Beirut. The death toll keeps increasing: several hours after the blast, 70 people are confirmed killed.

Saifi Arabic Institute, where lots of non-native speakers learnt Arabic. August 5, 2020. Credit: Lizzie Porter

I think out loud (too loud for some reason — I think I am shouting) that it will soon get really dark. Where will we sleep tonight, if we sleep at all? We debate whether or not to jump in a friend’s car and head up into the mountains above Beirut. But the city is on edge and I am thinking through every possibility. With thousands of angry and frightened people inevitably trying to leave the city at the same time, what if an angry gun fight breaks out in gridlocked jam? And what about our house? We have no door, and we have no windows. What about thieves coming in to take advantage? A kind neighbour offers us his spare room for the night, but we cannot sleep yet.

By 1am, the sirens are still blaring and Beirut is still not sleeping. I have told my parents back in the UK that I am OK with a rapid WhatsApp voice message. I am not feeling too emotional to speak to them at the moment. I just don’t want to. There is too much to do. Friends and pets are still missing — the phones of several close friends aren’t working. Both Leila and I know that there is a very real chance that they are badly injured, or worse.

Details keep emerging. Some 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate has been left lying around for six years at Beirut’s port. It caught fire, triggering the massive explosion. The red mushroom cloud above Beirut is coloured by nitrogen dioxide, one of the decomposition products of ammonium nitrate, accompanied by a fountain of dust, grey ash and debris. It wasn’t Israeli jets or missiles responsible for this disaster. It was the more mundane reality of Lebanese state corruption, neglect, and utter disregard for ordinary civilians’ lives.

A friend tells us about a hospital outside Beirut that is not totally overwhelmed with treating injuries from the explosion. Another friend — the explosion highlighted how friendship and community networks in Beirut pulled together — has a car and can drive us there. Let’s go now, we think — it will be less crowded than in the morning. The car tyres crunch on the glass-strewn roads like a vehicle over ice.

The hospital is up a winding road in a hillside town 20 minutes north of Beirut. Figurines of saints and the Virgin Mary line a wall in the car park. Even here, well away from the wrecked port, a nurse says that medics have treated 300 patients from the Beirut explosion. She apologises for a slight delay in Leila and I receiving our stitches for our shrapnel wounds: “We just need to eat a sandwich first — we haven’t taken a break all evening,” she tells us. I feel delirious — maybe it’s fatigue? But the sensation of adrenalin rushing through my body is still acute. How is this happening? Every now and then, I drift into silence, convincing myself that an explosion hasn’t really just destroyed half of Beirut. Then I give myself the proverbial pinch.

Leila sits on a white sheet, on the edge of a hospital bed. I sit or stand beside her — I don’t remember which. Most of our friends have been contacted. A couple of them have not, including one friend who had recently moved into an apartment building overlooking the port. “I don’t know if he will have made it,” Leila says, pensively. (The friend involved survives, although is badly injured and spends a tense period in hospital). We get our stitches. The medics refuse to take payment for the services. They have run out of tetanus shots, as has the only 24-hour pharmacy that we can find left intact on the road back into Beirut. We drive back into the city, attempting to assess the misshapen and broken city through the car windows. Leila and I share the double bed in our neighbour’s spare room. Sleeping hurts — all sides of my body are bruised. I eventually drop off for a couple of hours, though images from the evening keep flitting back through my mind, like slides on a cinema reel. The moment I realised I was conscious. The dazed elderly neighbour. The white hospital bed. The grey debris of destroyed homes, piled in the tired streets.

For the next few days, time takes on a different shape. I don’t get up, shower and eat breakfast. I get up, scroll through news feeds, and walk down to the streets worst affected by the explosion. Our apartment is damaged but not destroyed. Other buildings elsewhere have not been so lucky. Although I have lived in Beirut for four years, I do not recognise some of the thoroughfares around the districts of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze. Cars have been crushed by falling rubble, and now look like giant empty crisp packets. Living rooms and shops, bereft of windows, are now open-fronted, exposed, naked. I try to avert my gaze as I walk past private homes, feeling nosy and ashamed that I can see in on lives cast open. Out along the motorway facing the port, homes and businesses are now nothing more than twisted metal and splintered wood. The slim building housing the headquarters of Touch, a mobile phone network, now resembles a tower of Jenga blocks. I visit the graveyard alongside the Mar Mikhael church, which reeks of the dead after coffins and tombs are ripped open in the blast. Saifi Arabic Institute, where I learnt how to speak, read, and write Arabic, faced the port, and one wall has been torn away. It has been crushed, and with it, some of my fondest memories of Beirut. The death toll keeps rising: 24 hours after the explosion, it stands at 113 people.

Tombs in the Mar Mikhael church graveyard are ripped open by the explosion, exposing dead bodies to the summer heat. August 7, 2020. Credit: Lizzie Porter

The sounds won’t stop. Glass, glass everywhere. Crunch, crack, smash. It litters streets and rubbish tips like hailstones that refuse to melt. Then there is the drilling and banging of people trying to repair their destroyed homes. Every morning, I wake to the crackle and spit of gunfire, which in Lebanon is commonplace at celebrations and mourning gatherings alike. It’s coming from the seemingly endless funerals.

A street in the Mar Mikhael district of Beirut, August 5 2020. Credit: Lizzie Porter

In the blast’s immediate aftermath, our dogs Freddie and Bunduq are nowhere to be seen. Freddie later reappears through the sepia-coloured air, but it will take days to retrieve Bunduq. A kind stranger, evacuating his family to the northern city of Tripoli, had seen him sheltering in the street as he packed up to leave in the hours following the explosion. He took our pup with him in the car. Helped by a Lebanese animal welfare group, Leila tracks Bunduq down, and eventually he is returned by good-hearted volunteers.

Beirut is angry. Senior Lebanese public officials knew about the ammonium nitrate at the port, but didn’t do anything to clear it. All this was preventable. Lebanese people, already living through the worst economic crisis in decades, have now seen their homes and businesses physically destroyed. Meanwhile, Lebanese authorities are absent from most clear-up efforts, and the government, led by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, resigns less than a week after the explosion . A Beirut municipality official tells me that authorities simply weren’t prepared: “We don’t have a proper crisis management team or unit, neither within the Municipality of Beirut, nor within the state of Lebanon,” he says. Febrile protests fill the streets. The irony that their state has tear gas and rubber bullets to beat back demonstrators, but no emergency response plans, is not lost on the Lebanese.

Leila’s severed tendons are finally picked up by medics who tell her that she needs surgery. She goes in for her operation three weeks after the explosion. In the meantime, she has still somehow managed to get up and about and report. I move back into the apartment permanently as Leila stays in temporary accommodation near the hospital treating her foot. After tense nights sleeping in a place without windows or a locking door, I’m relieved when workmen come to install new panes of glass. Our landlord has patched up the apartment with the help of a team of cleaners and workers. I have never properly thanked them, because they mostly came, did their jobs, and left discreetly and silently, without asking for thanks or recognition. I still owe them.

In among the tumult of 2020, I have a new job as a senior correspondent on a publication in Iraq, and by early September, I need to leave Lebanon to start working there, spending most of my time between the capital, Baghdad, and Erbil, in the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. It feels horrible leaving Lebanon as it falls so far and so fast. But I know it’s not goodbye forever, and that Beirut is still among my homes. In November, I return for a short break. Three months after the explosion, glass still sits in piles on roadsides. I am nervy as I jog down to the corniche, as I had planned to do on the evening of the explosion. I don’t like passing beneath tall buildings in the streets worst damaged in the blast, lest they begin to collapse. Leila — now also back in the apartment — is making our house a home again. She has bought a lime tree and a pink bougainvillea for the porch, bringing life to the space where we heard the horrible explosion. A Swiss cheese plant stands next to a photo in a silver frame on our coffee table. A wine stain from a smashed bottle is still smeared on a wall. We need to repaint.

Bunduq, lost and found after the explosion. Credit: Lizzie Porter

As of late December 2020, Saad Hariri, another former Prime Minister, has been hauled back in to try to form his fourth government. A judge has charged former PM Diab, two former public works ministers, and a former Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil with criminal negligence in connection with the explosion. But they are refusing to comply with questioning.

The death toll from the explosion now stands at just over 200 people. They include the entirety of Platoon Five, nine firefighters and paramedic Sahar Fares, who were sent in to try to extinguish the initial fire at warehouse 12. Fares’ fiancé, Gilbert Karaan, writes odes to her on Facebook. On December 20, he writes: “I did not know this year would end on August 4, at 6.07pm…You are a hero, bride, the hero of all Lebanon, the bride of Beirut and the rescuer, martyr Sahar Fares.”

NGOS AND CHARITIES SUPPORTING BEIRUT BLAST VICTIMS

Lebanese Red Cross — emergency response, medical care and financial assistance

Beit el Baraka — assisting with basic living costs and shelter for families unable to support themselves

Lebanese Food Bank — food boxes for families unable to afford to feed themselves given Lebanon’s financial collapse, which was aggravated by the explosion

Food Blessed — food boxes for families unable to afford to feed themselves given Lebanon’s financial collapse, which was aggravated by the explosion

Embrace — mental health support services

IDRAAC — mental health support services

Baytna Baytak — providing accommodation for blast victims

Nusaned — helping to rebuild homes and livelihoods after the explosion

ICRC Lebanon — general healthcare support, and caring for the dead killed in the blast

Abaad — supporting domestic violence victims

Animals Lebanon — an organisation that helped to reunite scores of pets and pet owners after the explosion

SAWA — Volunteer and community led organisation working with Syrian refugees. Dozens of Syrians were killed in the Beirut explosion, and leave behind families who are among the poorest and most marginalised in Lebanon

Syria Relief — supporting Syrian refugee communities across Lebanon

Basmeh & Zeitooneh — an NGO that has helped in clean-up and rebuilding efforts in Beirut, working in particular with Syrian and Palestinian refugee communities

Egna Legna Besidet— a community-based group working on migrant domestic workers’ issues and general women’s issues in Lebanon and Ethiopia. Many domestic workers were caught up in the explosion and their situations have been exacerbated by Lebanon’s labour laws which provide them with little protection

Ahla Fawda — community organising helping with reconstruction and rebuilding efforts in Beirut

Impact Lebanon — a community initiative fundraising for post-explosion disaster relief

*In the BBC documentary, “Once Upon a Time in Iraq,” the Iraqi historian and civilian journalist Omar Mohammed says, “It is a miracle that I’m still able to talk, isn’t it? It’s very dangerous to forget. Because memory is all that is left for us.” Although he was not referring to Beirut (he was instead talking about living through ISIS rule in the Iraqi city of Mosul) his words have stuck with me. There are too many horrific events whose causes and effects need to be documented.

Journalist based in Iraq.

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