‘Wounded soul’: Beirut blast haunts scarred survivors

BEIRUT: A year after the catastrophic port explosion in Beirut, Shady Rizk’s doctors are still tearing glass from his body. The last draw was an inch-long splinter over the pit of his knee.

“I find a new piece almost every month … the glass is still in my thighs, my legs and I think my arms,” ​​said Rizk, a 36-year-old network engineer who was sprayed with broken glass during the blast.

“The doctors said that there would be glass in my body for several years,” he said.

The August 4th explosion, which thundered through the city, destroyed entire neighborhoods, killing more than 200 people, injuring 6,500 others and knocking down the lives of survivors.

READ: Beirut rocks a huge explosion as the death toll rises to at least 137

That dark spot in Lebanon’s chaotic history has since turned into a nightmarish year, amid a stalled explosion investigation and accelerating financial crisis that the World Bank is branding as one of the worst of modern times.

With no politicians held accountable and the country facing rising poverty, a falling currency, angry protests and a shortage of staples from medicine to fuel, many survivors are seething in the lead up to the first anniversary of the tragedy.

The survivor of the explosion, Shady Rizk, in the building of his former office overlooking the port of Beirut. (Photo: AFP / Joseph Eid)

“The explosion still lives in me,” Rizk said in an interview with AFP under the office building he was in when the explosion started.

“As August 4th approaches, knowing that no one has been caught or imprisoned, the anger strikes hard,” he added.

“You want to break things, take to the streets in protest, throw Molotov cocktails, start a fire … anything to let your anger out.”

Disbelief: a survivor at the site of the Beirut port explosion

Disbelief: A survivor at the site of the Beirut port explosion. (Photo: AFP / Ibrahim Amro)


Rizk stood on a balcony overlooking the harbor, filming clouds of smoke rising from a warehouse as the hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer stored in it exploded in front of him.

The explosion left him more than 350 stings and permanently impaired his eyesight. At night he can barely see what makes his world even darker in a country ravaged by endless cuts.

But physical scars are a secondary problem, he said.

READ: Hopes for a miracle fade as we find survivors of the Beirut explosion

“The trauma is tearing you apart inside,” said Rizk, who is now planning to emigrate to Canada. “It’s like crying inside.”

Sitting in his nearby clinic, Rony Mecattaf said he was getting used to the permanent vision loss in his right eye after three surgeries and several meetings with specialists in Europe over the past 12 months.

In order to compensate for blind spots, the 59-year-old psychotherapist always sits at the corner of the table and walks on the left side of the street.

The apocalyptic scene in the port of Beirut on August 4th 2020

The apocalyptic scene in the port of Beirut on August 4th, 2020 (Photo: AFP)

He laughs along when his friends jokingly call him the “one-eyed man”.

Mecattaf said the past year felt like a “breaking down of illusions”.

“It was an incredible illusion of this country, this ability that we have always been proud of to have fun … to live life,” said Mecattaf. “It all broke down.”

What remains is the reality of collective trauma and the lack of space to heal as the land slips deeper into chaos.

“There is a survival mode that we are all in,” Mecattaf said. “This survival process does not allow any real and healthy processing time.”

“Home is so sad”

On the roof of her apartment in Mar Mikhael, a neighborhood badly damaged by the explosion, Julia Sabra said she felt unsafe at home now.

The 28-year-old singer moved back to her renovated apartment five months after the explosion.

“My friend was lying on the floor, unconscious, his whole face and leg covered in blood,” said Sabra.

Since she withdrew, she said they were “just afraid of every sound … closing doors, storms, wind too loud, hearing something fall down the stairs”.

As the anniversary of the explosion approached, Sabra said she felt mostly “anger and hopelessness”.

“You can’t take a break … you are trying to heal a particular trauma or wound from the explosion, and you also have to deal with the daily lack of everything,” she said.

In July, Sabra and her band – Postcards – played at the renowned Baalbek Festival, including a track that explicitly refers to the explosion and is called “Home is so Sad” after a poem by Philip Larkin.

The nagging drumbeat and ethereal vocals convey deep sadness and vulnerability and aptly capture the prevailing mood of many Beirutis since the explosion.

“Something has changed,” said Sabra. “I’m not sure if I would say that (Beirut) lost its soul. I still think it has a lot of soul, but it’s a wounded soul.”

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