What We Lost That Day


The blast that ripped through Beirut was a year ago.

But for many, the disaster continues. “I am not the same person,” one survivor said. “I should have been there with them,” an ambulance driver said of his colleagues who died. What We Lost That Day Personal reflections from victims of the Aug. 4, 2020, explosion at the Beirut port.

On Aug. 4, 2020, at 6:08 p.m., at the end of a searing summer day, the earth shook, the buildings swayed and the sky roared.

Windows turned into daggers and furniture into shrapnel. The air itself became a battering ram. It felt as if the very world — our cafes, offices, homes and hospitals, our places of leisure and work and shelter — was rising up against us and trying to bury us alive.

In Lebanese Arabic, there is a saying: “The world stood up and sat back down.” It’s meant to describe chaos — a world turned upside down. This is what happened on that day almost one year ago, when Beirut was devastated by an explosion at a port warehouse. Everything slid out of place, and we’ve been unable to return anything to where it belongs.

How can we be expected to rearrange our lives around this still-smoking crater? How do we even begin to make an account of what we’ve lost?

I am a writer — but I have often found myself at a loss for words since that day when thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, knowingly left to deteriorate for six years in Hangar 12 at the Beirut port, caught fire and detonated in an explosion more powerful than the one that destroyed the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

We still don’t even know how many people we lost. More than 200, but each official source in this deeply corrupt country gives a different tally, and so the exact number remains unknown.

And in any case, numbers alone cannot begin to capture the scale of loss.

The explosion shattered houses, buildings, cars, trees, but also our mental health, our sense of security, our sense of the possible and impossible.

We lost friends, parents, grandparents. Limbs and eyes. Memories. Entire neighborhoods. Hope. Our faith in a better tomorrow.

The losses are still piling up. Many have left the country or are laying plans to escape for good. That day was the definitive proof that there is no stable ground in this country anymore on which to build any kind of future.

“I’ve learned to accept my scars,” Andrea Najarian said. Makhoul al-Hamad with his daughter, Sama, who lost her left eye in the explosion.

In a country where, after 15 years of civil war, the warlords simply granted themselves amnesty, replaced their fatigues with suits and ties and walked right into government, what hope is there for any kind of justice? Within a day of the explosion, it became clear that no one would ever be held accountable. No one in authority even deigned to offer words of condolence to the shellshocked and grieving.

We have lost the ability to provide our children with any sense of safety. The people raising this new generation are themselves the children of the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990, and the greatest gift they wanted to give their children was to spare them the insecurity with which they grew up. This dream, too, is now gone.

My friends talk about how their children have changed in ways big and small. How they flinch at loud noises, how they regularly have nightmares about explosions, how they ask, over and over, the questions that run endlessly through our minds, too: “Will it happen again? When will it happen again? How do we know it won’t happen again?”

The parents who rush bedside to soothe away nightmares, who patiently answer these questions with the tremble of uncertainty smoothed out of their voices — they are the lucky ones. Their children lived.

As this grim anniversary looms, I’ve realized, too, that I’ve lost all sense of time. How could a whole year have passed? Even now we are still finding glass in the corners of our houses.

This remade world feels like the only one we’ve ever known, and the one we will live in from now on.

When the alarm bell in the station of the Beirut Fire Brigade sounded on Aug. 4, the ambulance driver Wafic Sibai rushed to his vehicle to find his buddy Rami Kaaki already in the driver’s seat. They had a joking argument about who should go to the fire at the port, but Mr. Kaaki insisted and his friend stayed behind. The team left — 10 people between a fire truck and an ambulance — and called for back-up when they reached the port, just a short drive away, because the fire raging inside a storage hangar was much larger than they had expected. Photos of the 10 members of the fire brigade killed in the explosion on the locker of one of them, Elias Akel. Wafic Sibai, an ambulance driver. Moments later, the flames ignited whatever remained of the thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, a compound used to make explosives, that had been stored in the hangar six years earlier. It set off a massive explosion that wreaked destruction across Beirut. The pressure wave it unleashed blasted through the nearby fire station and threw Mr. Sibai across the parking lot. He soon learned that it had killed all 10 of his colleagues, who were at ground zero when the explosion went off. The loss of coworkers he considered family still haunts him. “The image never leaves my eyes — morning, afternoon, evening,” he said. “I should have been there with them.”

When he was a child, Andrea Najarian’s father worked abroad, so he and his mother moved in with his grandmother Loulou in her apartment near the Beirut port. He described her as a “classic church lady,” with black stockings, gloves, pearls and big hair. She loved him dearly, sewed clothes for his Barbie dolls and let him experiment with her dresses and make up. After Loulou died, Andrea, a 24-year-old make-up artist and drag queen, stayed in her copiously decorated apartment, surrounded by her knickknacks, her photos and home videos, and her smell. Andrea Najarian holding a portrait of his grandmother and wearing one of her jackets. That’s where he was, alone, when the explosion blew out the apartment’s doors and windows, smashing everything inside and throwing him from wall to wall. After two surgeries, he has a constellation of scars across his body. The second operation, 10 months after the blast, removed a piece of glass from his hand that he has saved. He now lives elsewhere, farther from the port. “I lost my home and my childhood memories,” he said. “My grandmother’s memory.” Andrea Najarian shows a piece of glass removed from his hand 10 months after the explosion.

After the explosion, Renée Boutros, a policewoman, couldn’t reach her aunt Jacqueline Gebrine, who worked as a nurse in a Catholic hospital near the port. So she went to the hospital and found a disaster zone: collapsed ceilings, members of the hospital staff using the lights from their cell phones to work, doctors treating patients in the parking lot, on the asphalt. A nun recognized Ms. Boutros and asked her to help identify a body that the staff thought was her aunt. A memorial for Jacqueline Gebrine, a nurse, inside the hospital where she died. A sofa near the place where Jacqueline Gebrine was injured. “She looked fine,” said Ms. Boutros, 37. “I was watching her closely, waiting for her chest to move. Her pen was still in her pocket. Her hair bun was still intact. There wasn’t even any dust on it. But her lips were purple.” Ms. Boutros didn’t sleep that night. “I was asking myself, ‘Why? Why my aunt? Why my people? What did we do to deserve this?’” she said. “There’s no dignity for human life. We lost our humanity.” A year later, she has yet to shed a tear for her loss. “We want justice for all the people who died that day,” she said. “I won’t cry for my aunt until we get accountability and take down this government.”

An Islamic amulet meant to protect the house. Makhoul al-Hamad at home with his son Ahmad and his daughter, Sama, 5. Makhoul al-Hamad, a migrant worker from Syria, spent his adult life doing construction jobs in Lebanon and brought his wife and four children over a few years ago to escape the war back home and to get the children a good education. He was away at work when the explosion tore through the family’s apartment. A neighbor rushed his 5-year-old daughter, Sama, to a hospital overflowing with other blast victims. Mr. al-Hamad, 42, arrived to find that the blast had destroyed Sama’s left eye. He covered her right eye with a pillow so that she would not see the other patients screaming, bleeding and dying around her. That scene has stayed with him since. “I lost my sense of happiness and security,” he said. Sama has recovered well. After a surgery to remove her eye and to close her wounds, she told her parents: “I can hear you talking about me. Don’t worry. I’m fine.” She got a glass eye and, now, her family spoils her. She is a joyful child who dances spontaneously in the street when she hears music and loves school. “I can see her throwing her hat up in the air on her graduation day,” her father said.

Mario Nasser extends his arm to make space for his friend, Elias Khoury, who passed away after the blast. Elias Khoury, a calm 15-year-old who wanted to be an architect like his father, hung out with a posse of boys who also attended the Jesus & Mary School outside Beirut. He spent his free time recording rap songs with a friend and posting them on YouTube under the nickname A$hca$h. The day of the blast, his friends received a message on their group chat — Elias told them he had heard a loud sound coming from the port but didn’t know what it was. He was scared. Then he stopped messaging. Later that night, the other boys learned that he had been badly wounded when the explosion tore through his family’s apartment. They went to different churches to pray for his recovery, but their friend died two weeks later. Elias Khoury’s friends near their school. From left to right: Christopher Khoury, Tarek Nassar, Mario Nasser, Yves Menhem, Lucas Chebli, Yorgho Valassidis and Allen Hobeika. After his funeral, the boys carried his body in a white casket with red roses on it. The boys still hang out all the time and their startling loss has drawn them even closer. But the year that has since passed has left them angry at the government for failing to prevent the blast and to seriously investigate its cause. “We still keep a place for Elias with us,” said one of them, Mario Nasser, 16. “He’s with us whatever we’re doing.”

For more than 30 years, Siham Tekian and her husband ran a convenience store on a Beirut street lined with bars and restaurants, selling instant coffee, soda, chips, deodorant, canned beans, cigarettes and whatever else a passerby might want. For much of that time, she opened at 6 a.m. and worked all day stocking, selling and putting out food for street cats. She only shut her doors long after midnight if money was coming in. She was in her apartment upstairs from the shop when the explosion struck, blasting her body with shattered glass. At the hospital, she got 30 stitches on her limbs and back and 10 staples to patch a gash across her skull. But she never fully recovered. “The biggest loss was my health,” Ms. Tekian, 63, said. “I don’t have the same energy that I used to.” Nerve damage sends pain through one arm and a leg. Her back aches. She gets dizzy if she rolls over too quickly in bed because of damage to her inner ear. If she walks too far or stands for too long, she worries her knee will buckle. The fingers of her right hand often go numb, so she struggles to pull the stems off of green beans when she is cooking dinner. “I am not the same person,” she said. “I miss my arm, my leg.”