Beirut blast: Lebanon may be at a turning point – but it could take decades to recover from this catastrophe
Lebanon may be at a turning point. If this country is, it will have been borne out of tragedy.
A catastrophic event, from which it may take decades to recover from, may be the catharsis for change.
At one of Beirut’s biggest hospitals, we see a weeping woman, her head bowed in the corner of the intensive care unit, gripping the hand of a dying loved one. She doesn’t want to say goodbye. She doesn’t want to leave him.
But his injuries have overwhelmed him and we’ve watched a string of other relatives walk in one by one to say their final farewells – to a man they love but who has been made physically unrecognisable by the blast that ripped through Beirut. His eyes are blue and puffy with swelling.
He’s on a ventilator to help him breathe. He’s too weak to manage any of his bodily functions. He’s being kept alive by machines and his life is ebbing away. So many of the injuries from the Beirut blast are like this. Brutal. Life changing. Life threatening. Life ending.
Maybe it is knowing this that provides the fuel for the foreign search and rescue teams now descending on Lebanon.
There’s a row of bright red wagons outside the accommodation the Sky News team is staying in. Emblazoned on the side of the vehicles is lettering telling the Lebanese the Qatari search and rescue teams are in the capital.
We’ve spotted a Turkish team as well as French, Russians and specialists from the Czech Republic.
They are all here in the slim hope that more than 48 hours after the massive explosion, there may be people trapped beneath the rubble who are waiting to be rescued. It is a job requirement, it seems, to be resolutely upbeat.
“Of course we are here to rescue,” says one English-speaking member of the Russian team.
We ask if he thinks there are likely to be survivors after this length of time.
“Maybe,” he replies: “We hope. The time is late. But we hope.”
Time is not their friend but all these teams are here for one purpose: to help. And everyone right now in Lebanon wants hope as well as help.
It is in critically short supply. We accompany the Russian search team into the epicentre of the blast at Beirut port. They believe they are the first international team to get access to the site.
This will be the first time foreign eyes have been this close to the seat of the explosion. Other international teams swiftly follow.
Everyone wants to help but in this period of national grieving and loss, the international teams are anxious not to upset their hosts.
The stated intention is to help but not to take over or command. The Lebanese army and civil defence force of volunteers have been here since the blast. And they’ve been working long hours.
Because this is an exhausting, emotionally draining and utterly bleak assignment. When we arrive, the huge silo which once stored the country’s grain is jutting high into the sky with the left end noticeably buckled.
The end huge white column has crashed, spilling mountains of corn everywhere creating a large grain hill. But on the side facing the harbour where the explosion happened, the columns storing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of grain have been halved, exposed and are now empty of corn.
Lebanon now has less than a month of grain left – for the whole country. The situation is dire.
But it’s the harbour side, right next to the crater caused by the blast and now filled with sea, where there are teams of Lebanese soldiers and civil defence volunteers digging into the debris. They know there’s very little chance of finding anyone alive here.
There’s a flurry of excitement. They’ve found something. But within minutes, it’s evident it’s not good news.
“Pieces,” one tells us as he moves away, “We’re just seeing pieces.” He means pieces of human body. This has got to be the grimmest of grim assignments.
The Russian team with whom we have entered the port are ferrying generators, shovels, and heavy-duty cutting equipment up the bank of corn. They’re going to work on the reverse side of the silo.
The civil defence has been examining a map of the port and one of them tells the Russians of a discovery. They pinpoint an area that they believe is the location of an underground bunker or chamber, some five metres below the surface.
There’s hope that a group of port workers may have been down there when the explosion happened.
Bahsar tells us they’ve not found anyone alive above ground. “We’ve not even found bodies,” he says, “Just body parts: a hand or an elbow.
“No one above ground when this happened can survive. But below – maybe.”
He’s hopeful there could be survivors.
“Maybe, just maybe. We are praying,” he says with a slight smile.
This is going to be a long job – and they’ll have to be patient. The numbers pulled out alive from this have been very small. Each time, it is a miracle.
But their inspiration must surely be the battered and maimed filling the city’s hospitals. In a country so divided by politics and religion, there is an emerging unity in anger over how this happened and why.
A 28-year-old music manager called Ayla looks like he’s been in a war. He has both arms bandaged up to the elbow; his right eye taped down and covered with protective plastic; and he has stitches in his legs, thigh and forehead. But he is well enough to know what he wants and does not want.
His testimony of what happened to him in the seconds and minutes afterwards are horrifying. He was in his car with a friend when the blast blew the car windows all over them. When he emerged from the vehicle, he was among screaming adults and children.
“I saw so many body parts,” he said.
“I’m very, extremely lucky to be alive… I can’t forget the explosion… the sound, the visuals in front of my eyes… I literally saw body parts… there were people screaming, kids screaming. I saw a hand, two legs…”
His voice tails off and he just exhales.
“Wooooh,” he says.
He admits it is going to take an awful long time to recover from what he experienced and the pain he saw.
“The only way I’m going to recover is if I leave Lebanon,” he says, “I want to leave. I surrender.”
His disgust for the authorities is feeding this anger.
“Who keeps ammonium nitrate there for this long and does nothing?” he says.
“I don’t know if it was an attack or a mistake, but someone has to pay for this.”
In the paediatric section of the hospital we’re in, there are more victims. Seven-year-old Alexander is looking very uncomfortable.
His eyes are swollen blue and he’s thrashing around his hospital bed, reaching out for his mother with his eyes flickering open and closed.
He was playing at home in his front room when he got hit.
Such is the randomness of this tragedy, his mother Natalie who was nearby was unhurt.
His father too is unscathed. Natalie is now wishing she could take her son’s place, and her fury is tangible when I ask her what she thinks happened to cause the explosion.
“I don’t know,” she says.
“I don’t know and I don’t care. I really don’t. I don’t want to think about it… I don’t want this anymore. I just want to leave (Lebanon). I want to live in a place with no politics, no guns, no religion.
“We cannot live like this anymore. It’s too much to handle… it’s really too much.”
Many, many others are beginning to feel the same here.
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