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Broken Glass, Blood, and Anguish: Beirut After the Blast

The blast has shredded the hopes of many here that their country could haul itself out of economic calamity, as angry demonstrators bore pictures of the dead to Martyrs’ Square, never more aptly named.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The coffin of firefighter Ralph Malahi, who was killed in the August 4 explosion, being carried to his funeral by friends and colleagues from the Karantina Fire Department, Beirut, Lebanon, August 15, 2020

As I emerged from the car, the air was still whirring with debris. Everything was eerily silent. But it wasn’t. I just couldn’t hear anything. My ears were ringing.

The street scene in front of me, almost two blocks from my apartment and walking distance from the epicenter of the blast, was a silent horror film. Stunned people stumbled out of cafés, dogs dripping with blood cowered in corners, cars crumpled under chunks of concrete. A young girl approached me, dust layered in her eyelashes and hair.

“Can I use your phone to call home please?” she sobbed.

“Of course,” I spluttered. We couldn’t get through to anyone.

I looked up at her to check the number and realized she was missing an ear. My inner doctor took over and I did a quick trauma assessment. She also had a flesh wound to her right upper chest. She was bleeding but not profusely, and the bleeding was not pulsatile, so her arteries and large vessels had probably been spared. I reached out to use her scarf to apply pressure to the wound. Meanwhile, I finally connected to my husband on the phone.

“Iman is hurt. She needs you,” said Dion, breathing heavily. He is usually the calm one, the stoic one, the one I have to beg to show some emotion in an argument. The change in his voice would have been indistinguishable to anyone but me, but I started shaking when I heard it.

I turned back to the injured girl. Never in my medical career had I ever left a patient in need. I have been in war zones, from Afghanistan to Gaza to Iraq, but never with my four-year-old daughter. The reality of the situation was swimming into focus for me: choices had to be made. Even as I decided what I had to do, I knew I would be replaying this moment for years to come.

“I’m so, so sorry, but my daughter is hurt,” I said to the girl. “I will stabilize you, but I have to go to my daughter.”

I bolted as soon as I could, trying not to take in the unrelenting scenes of devastation: confused elderly people wandering into the street, bleeding from wounds, children howling in their mothers’ arms, shop owners cautiously creeping out of their stores with shards of glass still raining down on them. The glass everywhere crunched under my feet. I took the stairs up to our third-floor apartment, skipping over pools of blood dribbling down the stairs, sidestepping the woman holding her gashed and gaping head.

As I went, I yelled out—to no one in particular, and knowing that most of my neighbors do not speak English—“Is my daughter okay? Is my daughter okay?” I screamed it into the void like a prayer or a call, or even a threat, to the heavens.

As I raced to get to her, possible medical scenarios played out in my mind: my child with a traumatic brain injury, a seizure disorder, internal bleeding. The inner doctor is a cruel tormenter sometimes.

I pulled open the French doors to our apartment. It was unrecognizable. The coffee table I had lovingly painted was upside down, several feet from where it usually rested. There was our wedding album on the floor. Tossed in the corner, my little girl’s tricycle. Then, I saw the only thing that mattered: my daughter, hiding in the closet with my husband. She was naked, covered only in a towel.

It was unclear whether Dion even realized that he himself was bleeding, but I could see that he was.

“Mama!” she cried. Once again, my inner doctor took over to do an assessment: airway, breathing, circulation, exposure. Okay, she is speaking, which means she is breathing, so her airway and lungs are somewhat intact. She is alert and aware of her surroundings, she recognizes me, which tells me about her neurological status.  I quickly took her pulse. I checked her body for wounds: oozing cuts and abrasions speckled her delicate body, fragments of glass embedded in her perfect baby skin.

I shifted my attention to her lower limbs where my husband was keeping pressure on her leg wounds—three gashes, deep enough to reveal bone. Her hand wound,  so severe that I could see tendon and bone, was most frightening to me. I could not see the end of the wound, only a sanguinous tunnel of indeterminate length. For a moment, I was back in anatomy class studying a cadaver. I cannot panic in front of Iman. Time for my inner mama to take over central command. 

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“Iman, remember how we’ve been learning about weather? Did that feel like a hurricane or a tornado to you?” I said, as I whirled around with her in my arms, broken glass hissing under my shoes. She cracked a smile.

I called the Lebanese Red Cross and explained where we were, but there was too much chaos for them to get to us. From our balcony, where we used to sit with our coffee and watch Beirut’s busy fruit vendors, Dion saw ambulances down on the street.

With me still cradling Iman, we ventured down the stairs. As we made our way down the street toward the ambulances, I noticed I was stepping on one of my living-room cushions. I’d bought it on Etsy; it was now half a block from where it usually sat. My foot now used it as a stepping-stone over debris to get my blood-stained, wounded daughter to an ambulance. Seeing an ambulance leaving, we sprinted toward it and were among the last people who got aboard.

The ambulance was full of bleeding, injured, weeping, wailing people in need of medical attention. I counted three children, two elderly people, and at least five other adults packed in like sardines. There was no room for a paramedic. We made our way in, donning our coronavirus masks. There were so many people crammed in that the ambulance door had to be left open.

Balanced on top of medical supply boxes, I tried to hold onto whatever I could to stabilize us during the jerky ride. Next to me, an elderly man bleeding from his head was drifting in and out of consciousness. I wrapped Iman in my arms to restrict her view of the carnage. The air inside the ambulance was a rancid blend of smoke and the smell of blood. I didn’t know what to do, so I did what I always did when Iman needed calming. I sang.

I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got peace like a river. I’ve got peace like a river in my soul. I sang this over and over, calming her. We were suspended in time, back to the days of diapers and giggles and coos.

I could feel blood from the man next to me dripping on my arm. A woman in front of me kept saying her head was open and she could feel her brain.

I’ve got love like an ocean, I’ve got love like an ocean. I’ve got love like an ocean in my soul. Back to first steps, and tender hands gripping my finger. While I stroked her soft brown hair across her forehead, in the way that only mothers know how to do, I realized Iman was falling asleep in the midst of this nightmare.

The inner doctor activated. Oh God, is she just falling asleep or losing consciousness? “Wake up, Iman. Wake up now,” I heard my own frenzied voice. She woke, but was somnolent.

I’ve got joy like a fountain, I’ve got joy like a fountain. I’ve got joy like a fountain in my soul. And so it went, for perhaps an hour.

At last, we arrived at the Hôtel-Dieu de France, the oldest French Mandate hospital in Lebanon. I carried Iman into the emergency room, walking on a corridor floor pooled with blood. Two wounded men were lying on top of the doctors’ desk station, their legs elevated and with blood congealing slowly on the ground below them. The staff’s computer keyboards were smeared with blood. Gauze and crimson-stained scissors were strewn haphazardly about.

In the ER, we found a bed that Iman could share with another child. Iman said she thought the other girl went to her school. From where he lay on the floor, the girl’s bloodied father tried to comfort her. Above him, the rafters were exposed and electrical cables dangled into the room. It dawned on me that the hospital itself has been rocked by the explosion as well.

In the next room, a little girl of Iman’s age had gone into cardiac arrest. In doctors’ parlance, the patient was “coding.” I could hear the doctor’s hands pounding relentlessly on her chest, performing CPR. The cadence of his work slowed, then stopped.

I realized I needed to switch from being my daughter’s trauma physician in the field to being her trauma physician in the ER. “We can wait,” I told the ER doctor. “She is wounded and needs help, but we can wait.” And we did. I’ve got love like an ocean. I’ve got love like an ocean…

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We are the lucky ones, the privileged ones who got medical care, who have options, who have food, the ones who are now living in a hotel because our home was wrecked. We have the medications and supplies for the painful daily changes of Iman’s dressings.

We moved to Beirut less than a year ago and quickly settled into a Mediterranean lifestyle. (My husband, Dion Nissenbaum, is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal; I am a pediatrician.) We found an enchanting, airy apartment overlooking Armenia Street, the hub of East Beirut nightlife, which meant that the deep bass of remixed Fairuz and pop songs would rattle our windows until 2 AM most nights of the week. But we didn’t mind too much, because in the morning we could pick up warm chocolate croissants and fresh fruit from the Bekaa Valley. Iman started going to a Montessori preschool where she was learning Arabic, French, and English.

But all was not well in Lebanon. In October 2019, four weeks after we arrived, the cash-strapped government imposed a surprise tax on the popular messaging service WhatsApp, triggering a spontaneous street protest that converged on Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut. Angry activists wearing Guy Fawkes–style masks and riding scooters smashed windows in the chic downtown shopping mall and tossed tear gas grenades back at the riot police who were trying to clear the streets. The next morning, we walked over shattered glass—for the first time—to bring our daughter to preschool just two blocks from Martyrs’ Square.

We knew the risks of moving to Beirut before we left Washington, D.C. Armed conflict between Hezbollah forces and Israel seemed like the biggest of them. But fears of another civil war seemed overblown. The demonstrations quickly morphed into jubilant nationwide marches with DJs, dancing, and a sense of unity unparalleled in an otherwise fractured nation.

Activists in Martyrs’ Square erected a towering cutout of a clenched fist with “revolution,” thawra in Arabic, written on the forearm. I stood on our balcony as activists marched down our street chanting that word, and I explained to Iman why they were marching: for an end to government corruption, for clean water, for electricity, for the basics of affordable living. After two weeks, the government resigned.

A sense of optimism surged through the country. People thought this might really be the moment Lebanon would bring an end to the rule of the aging warlords who had sucked the country dry for their own personal and political gain. It was not to be.

Instead, a weak cabinet was installed, with no real power to enact change. The street protests tried to keep pressure on, but they ran out of steam as fall gave way to rainy winter days that put a damper on the movement. Then, in the new year, came the pandemic, which brought an abrupt end to the thawra.

Lebanon went into a strict lockdown in March. The government shut the airport, imposed a curfew, and ordered almost every business to shut their doors. Our street fell silent. No more booming bass beats in the early hours. Instead, we could hear the sound of neighbors arguing, several apartments removed.

The lockdown helped Lebanon avoid a deadly first wave of Covid-19. But the economy went into freefall. Lebanon relies heavily on imports, making the cost of living in Beirut surprisingly expensive. A sense of desperation began to spread. Parents couldn’t work, so their kids went short of food.

When the lockdown was lifted, the protesters were back—but now much angrier than before. On the other side, police and soldiers used a heavier hand. In March, the government defaulted for the first time, on a $1.2 billion loan from the European Union. Lebanon went into bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund in an effort to save the country from economic collapse. But the negotiations went nowhere.

The currency collapsed. Prices at the supermarket spiked, putting simple items like rice, fish, and chicken out of reach for many families. Instant noodles, all people could afford, rapidly disappeared from the supermarket shelves. People began to sell their possessions online—even their daughters’ dresses—in order to buy food. Security cameras captured one man holding up a corner store for a small pack of diapers, which by then cost around fifty dollars. Brazen robbers were caught on surveillance video as they carted off a safe from a restaurant early one morning.

Everyone was desperate for dollars, which were in short supply. With the official exchange rate virtually meaningless, people started swapping coveted US dollars on a thriving black market. First, one could turn one hundred US dollars into three hundred of buying power. Then it was four hundred. Then five hundred, then six hundred.

As the humid Beirut summer settled in, the problems of Lebanon’s pitiful power supply worsened. The country uses scheduled, rolling power cuts to manage demand. In our apartment building, we paid a premium for the generator that kept our lights on for a few extra hours when the government shut off the electricity every day. But the summer heat brought surging demand that tripped power outages that stretched to twenty-two hours a day. Overworked generators caught fire, and the price of fuel for them skyrocketed.

More and more citizens with dual nationality began to quit the country. Lebanese families that had employed live-in nannies from Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Sierra Leone could no longer afford to pay them: they were tossed out into the streets.

Amid the chaos and escalating hardship, we tried to maintain an oasis of normalcy for Iman. Her preschool reopened for summer school, and we took weekend getaways to the beach, where Iman could build sandcastles and befriend hermit crabs in tidal pools.

Then came the blast.

At first, we thought it must be an Israeli air strike, targeting some suspected Hezbollah arms depot. Or maybe it was a Hezbollah car bomb aimed at destabilizing the country just before the United Nations was expected to release a report linking the militant group to the 2005 car bomb that killed Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister and power broker. 

The reality turned out to be both more banal and perhaps more insidious. For more than six years, the Lebanese government had allowed a dangerous stockpile of ammonium nitrate to deteriorate in a warehouse at Beirut’s port. Lebanese officials knew from the beginning that they were sitting on a time bomb. They did nothing about it.

Still, it sat there, a huge powder keg, until August 4 at 6:07 PM, when the colossal explosion erupted, killing more than 170 people and injuring thousands more, including my daughter. Negligence is too feeble a word to describe the government’s failure. 

The blast has shredded the hopes of many here that their country could haul itself out of economic calamity. Another government, this one only eight months old, resigned in disgrace, as angry demonstrators bore pictures of the dead to Martyrs’ Square, never more aptly named.

Someone has spray-painted the words “My government did this” on a concrete highway barrier close to ground zero at the Beirut port. No one now expects anything to get better. The only real question seems to be: How much worse can it get?

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

A man taking a photograph of the destroyed Beirut port, Lebanon, August 16, 2020

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