No closure for Beirut blast trauma survivors without justice

Lebanese struggle with hidden and untreated wounds one year after deadly blast

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One year after the Beirut port explosion, trauma survivors have yet to heal.

Mental health organisations in Lebanon recorded a spike in calls related to the Beirut blast to their hotlines in the days leading up to the commemoration on Wednesday.

“People are reliving the trauma like it just happened,” said Dr Georges Karam, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology at Saint George Hospital in Beirut.

“They called us asking if it’s normal, if it’s OK that they’re experiencing the same fear again.”

On August 4, 2020, hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded at the Beirut port, killing at least 214 people and injuring thousands more.

The blast left behind more than physical scars and traumatised an already-struggling nation.

People are reliving the trauma like it just happened.
Dr Georges Karam, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology at Saint George Hospital in Beirut

A hotline launched within 24 hours after the blast by Saint George Hospital and the Institute for Development, Research, Advocacy and Applied Care (IDRAAC), the first non-governmental organisation dedicated to mental health in Lebanon, received up to 10,000 calls over the past year.

A free walk-in mental health clinic also established after the blast welcomed around 4,000 visitors.

But while many survivors thought that they had begun to recover, the Beirut blast anniversary reactivated triggering memories and opened unseen wounds.

“At least 25 per cent of people still suffer from [post-traumatic stress disorder] symptoms from the blast,” Dr Karam told The National. “This is a huge number and shows that many people still need help.”

On average, patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, need around six weeks to heal with proper mental health support, he explained.

But the road to recovery is difficult in Lebanon as it is trampled by a lack of justice and accountability.

A local probe into the Beirut port blast has yet to provide answers as investigators battles political immunity.

This slow progress makes it difficult for trauma survivors to move on and move past their anger and denial.

“You need justice to grieve,” said Dr Reve Romanos, clinical supervisor of the suicide hotline at Embrace, a local NGO dedicated to mental health awareness in Lebanon.

“There will be no proper grieving without explanations or answers related to the port blast.”

The Embrace lifeline observed an increase in blast-related calls at 6.07pm on Wednesday, at the exact time during which the explosion occurred last year. They are expecting to receive even more calls in the coming days as people reflect on that fateful evening.

“The Beirut explosion affected us more than we can imagine,” Dr Romanos told The National.

“Just because we don’t see the pain doesn’t mean it's not there.”

Embrace has provided psychological support to more than 9,500 people in Lebanon over the past year alone, but is still working towards tackling untreated wounds.

For many trauma survivors in the country, healing is a burdensome task.

Just because we don’t see the pain doesn’t mean it's not there.
Dr Reve Romanos, clinical supervisor of the Embrace lifeline

Bachir Ramadan, a 31-year-old musician in Beirut, miraculously survived the explosion when he was at work in Mar Mikhael, some 800 metres away from the blast site.

While the young Lebanese man tries his best to recover from his physical and emotional scars, delayed justice gets in the way.

“I will not rest until I see them punished for this,” Mr Ramadan told The National.

“It’s not enough to identify who’s responsible for the blast. I want to see them held accountable for their actions.”

Updated: August 5th 2021, 10:08 AM