Time does not heal all wounds: Personal reflections one year on from the Beirut blast

One year on from the devasting explosion at the Beirut seaport, our International Alert Lebanon Team members and associates reflect on the impact of the blast for themselves, their families, the city and the country, as Lebanon grapples with a deepening economic crisis and COVID-19.

Lebanese flags wave at the scene of the seaport blast in Beirut. ©Ali Chehade/Shutterstock

Recalling the events of 4 August 2020 in Beirut, highlights confusion, chaos, and massive destruction of lives and of a city. It was the day that tons of ammonium nitrate, unsafely stored in the Beirut seaport and in the middle of a densely populated area, exploded killing over 200 people, injuring over 6,000, and reducing half the capital to rubble.

For many who were in Beirut on that day, time has been standing still. Unresolved grievances mount and a sense of injustice still prevails. Ongoing investigations, oftentimes stalled due to political interference, are yet to provide answers to families of victims, to survivors, and to the general public in Lebanon.

Shockwaves of destruction and trauma that were sent across the capital and the country in the days that followed the blast are still acutely felt one year later. Since then, people in Lebanon have been going about their daily lives struggling to cope with compounding crises: the downward spiral of the country’s economy and its effect on people’s livelihoods, the ineffectiveness of the state in dealing with the crises, and the arrival of the Delta variant of COVID-19 that is threatening an already faltering healthcare system. But above all, 4 August seems to be leaving the deepest of marks in people’s minds and souls. Not only due to the sheer gravity of the event, but because of the huge task of recovery, and because justice has not yet been served.

Healing from the blast includes seeking justice for the victims, their families, and the survivors

Many are demanding justice and continuing to engage in relief and solidarity efforts as a process to heal their wounds. Civil society organisations have been leading recovery efforts and despite the devastation, local volunteer and civil society networks have mobilised in solidarity. For Caline*, there was “something genuinely beautiful in how the youth of Beirut cleaned the city and carried their parents to hospitals, called their friends to check on them, and started asking about their panic attacks following the blast.”

Others not yet through with their grieving process, are either withdrawing from their roles as active citizens or feeling shame for not doing enough. Zeina* tells us how she was only able to visit the blast site six months after and that “despite [her] first reaction under such circumstances to engage in emergency and relief works, not only to help the impacted communities but also for [her] own healing, [she] refused to clean up the mess of those who were responsible.” Now, one year later Nur* was passing a sit-in organised by the Association of the Victims’ Families outside the Justice Palace and she shared her reflections with us:

“The heat was sweltering; the families were holding placards with photos of their loved ones, worn out and chanting for immunity to be lifted from politicians. The moment I stopped to observe the scene, I felt an overwhelming sense of shame. The onus is, of course, not on us individually but it was a very specific moment of reckoning with how I felt. Shame at how much we’d collectively failed these families, shame at how — one year later — they are out protesting in the heat. Shame at how much we’ve had to accept and adapt to our shameful reality, shame at how much we’ve prioritised our individual micro-lives over the more collective one.”

Unresolved trauma and a feeling of insecurity are still present

Beyond the mammoth task of reconstruction is psychological recovery. Flashbacks of the blast are continuingly triggered. One year after the blast, Lama* tells us that every time she comes across images from the blast or passes by the blast site, such flashes trigger even older memories from the civil war and from the July 2006 War, exposing unresolved trauma from the past.

Trauma is simultaneously close to the surface and runs deep. For many who were in Beirut on that day and survived the blast, a general feeling of insecurity and unsafety is still present so long as justice is not served to those whose lives were lost and those who survived but are dealing with emotional and psychological scars.

Zeina having lived through Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, that ended in 1990, tells us how much she would pride herself for being strong during that time, and yet she found herself feeling vulnerable in front of her children on 4 August, “maybe because this was of a different scale; maybe because during that time I was a child, and now I’m an adult and a mother,” she says.

In the wait for justice, questions remain unanswered

Being mothers of children who have lived through the blast and who still ask questions about how and why it happened, Zeina and Lama find themselves unable to provide answers to their children that can ease their fears of the event recurring.

Many questions remain unanswered. Nur asks:

How do we both co-exist with collapse, while resisting it? What does it mean to work and adapt to reality in a landscape of utter uncertainty? How do we work toward community-building when everything around us feels as though it is in continuous flux? What does it mean to live in a state of anger and/or defeatism, and is that “sustainable”? Do we simply “wait” for things to change or do we take action, and what does action even look like?

People, civil society and NGOs, including our partners, have been taking action to support physical, psychological and social recovery, galvanising to respond to emergency relief efforts and now addressing the more complex and long-term needs.

In the meantime, people in Lebanon are still struggling to find answers that can help them cope with this tragic day and (re)build their social fabric. Common denominators for healing is realising justice, rebuilding homes and livelihoods, and restoring community relations. Justice built on shared memories can ensure accountability, combat impunity, and help promote sustainable peace.

*We would like to thank Alert Lebanon staff, consultants, and friends for recounting their experience from the tragic day and their reflections one year later. Thanks to Alert staff Caline Saad and Lama Hassan, and to researchers Nur Turkmani and Zeina (family name undisclosed).