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After Surviving the Beirut Explosion, an Aid Worker Wonders if Her Country Can as Well
Written by Nour Wahid, Communications and Training Advisor, Save the Children Lebanon
One week on and Lebanon still looks like a war zone.
Debris lines the streets. Many of the windows around my apartment block are now covered up with fabric or wooden boards. People are fearful of toxic gas. They are scared inside their home, but they are also too afraid to leave.
Everybody remembers where they were when the massive explosion occurred.
For me, it was one of the few days, over the past five years, where I've decided to leave the office early. I live ten minutes away from the port. I was lying down on my bed, and my sister was showing me a new dress. Five of my nieces and nephews were playing on the balcony.
People spend a lot of time on their balconies in Beirut. Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis has resulted in a collapsing currency which has impacted fuel imports. The resulting rolling blackouts and fuel shortages mean that many people sit near their windows and on the balconies to get fresh air and sunlight.
Most things were shutdown already in Lebanon. The COVID-19 lockdown had lifted in Beirut the day before, but a new lockdown was due to come into effect on Thursday. It was a brief window as an opportunity to connect with family and friends, exercise and to try to relax.
I got up and decided to post a picture of my brother and his son on Instagram because it was his birthday. I was going from one window to another, to try to get the best light. As I walked back into my room the ground started to shake. Lebanon is no stranger to earthquakes; many people who felt the rumble ran into their hallways.
I could hear screams around the building and on the streets. I ran barefoot into the hallway. My sister was screaming, "Everything is falling. Everything is falling."
I told her that the building is not falling, that there is an earthquake. That same thought saved so many people. The building went from left to right many times. My sister ran to the front door. That’s when the second explosion hit.
All the windows in the apartment blew out. My sister flew across the room. The front door of the house hit me and my sister. I found out later I had fractured my arm.
The energy wave which emanated from the explosion caused windows to shatter and ceilings to collapse all across Beirut. Broken glass, bricks and cement rained down on the pavements. Vehicles and livelihoods were destroyed.
Because we no longer had a front door, I could see and hear different neighbours going up and down the stairs, screaming and weeping. In the confusion, we heard conflicting accounts; “it was a shelling”, “an attack”, “an explosion”, “an earthquake”.
My nieces and nephews were all wounded, their feet bleeding from running barefoot on the glass.
All of Beirut’s hospitals and clinics were overflowing. We didn't want to risk a visit to the hospital. The explosion had severely damaged four, and even before the explosion many were at 80% capacity due to coronavirus cases.
I work at Save the Children's offices in Beirut.
Humanitarian organizations normally turn up immediately after a crisis or disaster. But we’re not normally on ground zero when the disaster strikes. Save the Children’s Beirut offices are only five kilometres from the port and were badly damaged.
I went down there to check on my colleagues and it turned out many had also run into the hallway after the first explosion so were spared from much of the shrapnel when the second explosion occurred.
But some were not so lucky.
I saw an injured man who supported his head with his hands. His wife was pregnant. They came to see the doctor in our building, because they were afraid that the baby had died.
Around 100,000 children in Beirut have seen their homes destroyed. 300,000 people have been left homeless or displaced. The explosion could not have come at a worse time. The socio-economic fabric of Lebanon has rapidly deteriorated. Protests on the streets, despair over the exchange rate and the financial crisis, problems at the banks, robberies everywhere. The price of food, rent and other necessities soaring.
Just one week before the explosion, Save the Children had released new analysis showing the collapsing economy had pushed more than half a million children in Beirut into a struggle for survival. In the greater Beirut area, 910,000 people, including 564,000 children did not have enough money to buy daily basic essentials, including sufficient food.
People were already in a heightened state of alert.
Without intervention, we were already worried about seeing children dying of hunger by the end of 2020. Lebanon shares its eastern and entire northern border with Syria. At the same time as the economic crisis, we were dealing with the fallout from the decade long Syrian war. We have more than a million refugees in the country who need assistance.
This was all before the explosion. Before our main port was completely destroyed. The damaged port is responsible for around 60% of Lebanon’s imports including food. The silos at the port stored 85% of the countries grain, virtually all of which is now destroyed or inedible. Seventeen containers of personal protective equipment to respond to the coronavirus were also destroyed in the blast.
Our country is on a knife’s edge.
The plume of smoke—going straight up into the sky above Beirut—looked like a giant exclamation mark hovering over the city, as if to highlight the absurdity of the past twelve months. The immediate threat to life may have passed. The smoke cleared. But the exclamation mark has been replaced by an even bigger question mark.
We are asking ourselves daily: Can Lebanon survive?
Support is greatly needed to ensure Save the Children's humanitarian response can support children and families as they recover from the explosion as well as COVID-19 and a worsening economic crisis. Our response targets vulnerable communities across Lebanon focusing on child protection, education, psychosocial support, food security, and economic resiliency.
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