On a clear day a week ago, more than 160 people were killed, over 5,000 injured, and at least 300,000 displaced. They are our mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children, cousins and friends.
The explosion in Beirut hit everyone in the heart. The moment it happened I thought, “This is it, this is the end.”
I remember I was standing in front of the IRC office waiting for a taxi. I was on my phone, leaving a voicemail for a friend I was supposed to meet later that day—the eerie sound of the blast is immortalized in that message.
In a matter of seconds, the whole scene turned into a war zone. Shattered glass was falling everywhere, and cars in the streets collided. I heard screams and shouting. I felt hopeless and I didn’t know what to do.
I tried calling my sister but my attempts were unsuccessful. I couldn’t get through to anyone. I was terrified—I ran into the middle of the street thinking this would be the safest option, away from falling debris.
Once the terrible sounds of the explosion stopped, I walked for over a mile before I found public transportation to go home. On the way home, I saw many people standing on the sidewalk crying and shouting hysterically, and many buildings severely damaged.
The phone lines finally started working and I managed to contact my sister and my family and friends to ensure they were safe and unharmed.
I couldn’t sleep that night thinking of all the people who were missing under the rubble. “What if they are still alive? What do I need to do? What am I supposed to do? What is the plan? How should I react?” So many questions ran through my mind.
Early the next morning, I went to the scene.
I wish I could find the right words to describe it. Hundreds of buildings were completely smashed: All the restaurants, pubs, clubs—any kind of business in the area—destroyed. Injured people were still being evacuated from damaged homes. There were bloodstains everywhere, and broken glass. There were children’s toys, distorted by the blast.
I started to wonder how many people were missing and how many were lost.
A week later, you can still feel the heavy, negative energy of the city. You can see the emotional impact of the explosion in every face. But you can also see hope.
Hundreds of Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians and people of many other backgrounds are all working side-by-side to respond to the disaster. These volunteers of different ethnicities, religious views, sexual orientations, genders and nationalities came together to support those who have lost everything.
They forgot about their differences and focused on what matters: our shared humanity.
I joined one of the volunteer groups and was assigned to lead a team of six people I had never met before. We started clearing debris from buildings in Mar Mkhayel and Bourj Hammoud, both areas that had seen a lot of destruction. We also reported the needs of people in these houses—food, shelter, medical assistance—back to our base camp.
Many traumatized residents were standing guard over their damaged homes, afraid they would be robbed if they left even for a moment. "I feel like I am a hostage of my own house,” an 80-year-old lady told me.
I heard terrifying stories in every home I visited. The moment people saw us coming, they started talking about their pain and their struggles in the wake of the explosion. Some of them just cried and leaned on our shoulders. One 40-year-old man said, “We don’t deserve this.”
In one of the houses, an elderly couple offered us some cold water in spite of having lost their refrigerator. I almost cried: This couple had lost everything—their home, their car, their money at the bank because of Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis—and yet they were still insisting on offering us some water.
The needs are rising by the day in Beirut and we are now experiencing a local displacement crisis, with hundreds of thousands of people unable to go home.
I hope we have learned something from this massive explosion. I hope we have learned that our differences are only limitations if we allow them to be. I hope we have learned how to rise above discrimination, abuse and harassment. And, above all, I hope we have learned how to unite and stand together—because this is the only beacon of hope we have left.
Photos: Elias El Beam/IRC
The International Rescue Committee is launching an emergency response to provide immediate cash and economic assistance to those impacted and displaced by the August 4 explosion in Beirut to help them get back on their feet and begin to rebuild.
The IRC has been working in Lebanon since 2012, providing support to Syrian refugees struggling to get by and the resource-strapped Lebanese communities hosting them. Get updates on our response in Beirut.