Sifting through the rubble of our minds in a shattered Beirut

A year on from a fatal explosion in the city's port, residents are still coming to terms with collective trauma

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“Everyone is talking about that one unforgettable summer night that changed everything in Lebanon.” The announcement blasts out on a local Lebanese radio station as I try to make my way through the intersection on the Beirut Ring Road, where around 40 cars are lined up waiting for their turn to refill their petrol tanks. This is the “new normal” in Lebanon. Of course, all traffic lights are off due to the power shortage in the country. The Ring Road, a place where protesters have met and erected roadblocks since the early days of October 2019, is now deserted. All that remains is the graffiti that reminds us of what we had witnessed.

The “unforgettable night” blasting on the radio was not in any way related to the Beirut port explosion of August 4, 2020. It was announcing the weekly weekend party taking place in one of Beirut’s commercial districts, Mar Mikhael, only a few metres away from where vast amounts of ammonium nitrate exploded exactly one year ago.

Even though most of the streets have been cleaned up and are accessible to cars and passers-by, just someone lifting their head up to look at the surrounding buildings is enough to be reminded that the missing windows and shattered panes are not due to renovations. They are the result of the blast.

“I can still hear the sound of shattered glass being cleaned off the streets”, is one sentence with which plenty are familiar. To this day, many Lebanese find small pieces of shattered glass in their homes, some even in their bodies. Not that we need a reminder of what happened, of the blast that destroyed everything. Shattered glass from the summer of 2020 remains on the ceiling of an apartment in a building that overlooks my small home office. It looks like glitter when hit by sunrays in the early afternoon, but you take a closer look to remember that they are not as magical as they might appear to be from afar. For weeks I watched my friends avoid windows, and I did so myself. Sitting at the desk now has a traumatic effect for many and in the back of my head, something might explode in Lebanon at any given minute.

Standing in front of a window is worse. My friend who survived the blast tells me: “If we learned anything from that day, it’s to run away as fast as we can when we see or smell something burning, no need to document anything.” The sentiment is shared by many families who lost their loved ones due to big pieces of shattered glass that tore through their homes when the blast happened, the most serious injury to befall anyone who had been standing next to a window on that day.

But the wounds are not only physical. The psychological wounds are proving to be deeper. We are not over that blast, and even if justice is served one day, in every corner of the city something will remind Lebanese of the event. Meanwhile, for the first time, calls are pouring in from victims of the blast to Embrace Lebanon, a mental health support helpline. It took many people a full year before they became reconciled to the fact that they needed support, that all society needs support after this collective trauma.

Everyone has a story about that day. Even those who reside in the Bekaa Valley heard the Beirut blast. It is present in every conversation when Lebanese people catch up, as well as their memories of the moments that preceded and followed the blast. It’s brought up in conversations randomly, no one asks you if it’s okay to talk about the blast, people directly dive into the subject, into the memory. Discussing what we went through on August 4 resembles some kind of unofficial therapy session. My friend who had been in his house on the day of the blast lost conscious for an hour when it happened. He remembers waking up outside his home in Mar Mikhael. He spent hours looking for his dog, but his most vivid memory was about losing a kitchen item that he loved. “I also lost my favourite cooking pot!” he keeps repeating with a frown on his face. “I do not understand where that pot went, if it flew over due to the blast’s wave then it must have landed on a car and damaged it.” I only found about this almost seven months after the blast, not because I did not care about my friend, but because every single person has a story of that day, and as you go about your daily life, these stories catch up with you one way or another.

Driving through the port area, I often find myself very focused on the road ahead. Twice, I caught myself taking a quick glimpse at the silos where my friend’s father died, and twice I had to park my car on the side of road and regulate my breathing to avoid a panic attack. Needless to say, I now try to avoid the Charles Helou highway altogether.

In downtown Beirut, deserted protests squares await for August 4, 2021, where different opposition groups and activists, the Lebanese people, will protest. Invites have been flooding social media, anger is building as impunity remains the norm, as is the failure to lift immunity for ministers and security personnel who must be questioned regarding the ammonium nitrate and the port.

Back at home, I still find myself sitting on my desk after a long day’s work, pondering, trying to remember the one hour that followed the Beirut blast. My therapist tells me the weight of the shock seems to have erased part of my memory, leaving no trace of what I did or how I reacted. This was up until few days ago, when I unexpectedly remembered calling a friend who worked at a trade and shipping company in the port. Luckily, she happened to be working from home on the day and was safe.

The rest of my memory remains blurred, and that could be for the best.

Published: July 30th 2021, 5:00 AM
Updated: August 2nd 2021, 9:13 AM
Luna Safwan

Luna Safwan

Luna Safwan is a Lebanese freelance journalist who works on press freedom and freedom of expression. She has a special focus on Syria and the Lebanese protest movement, and has reported on migrant workers and marginalised refugee communities.