By Cloe Attieh, 3rd Year IE Student, Beirut Resident
On the 4th of August 2020, my father, my 16 years old sister and I decided to spend a day at the beach in the South of Lebanon. As we don’t know the region very well, we needed to follow the itinerary on Google Maps to get back home, so as my father drove, I was giving him directions. Meanwhile, my Lebanese friends from IE were texting me to inform me that the flight we all booked to go back to Spain was getting canceled so I called the airline to check on that information. As I got distracted, my father missed the exit we were supposed to take according to the itinerary, which we noticed when I hung up. I told him:
“Ah it’s okay, we’ll take the next exit, 5 more minutes on the road won’t kill us”
Little did I know these five minutes saved us.
At 6:07pm, we got to the traffic light of the “Ring” bridge, where we had a view of the Mar Maroun street in Achrafieh, a neighborhood of Beirut. We were waiting for the light to turn green so we could take the Port of Beirut highway in order to get home.
Then we heard it. Boom.
My father directly looked back as he thought someone had hit our car from behind. His panic turned to confusion when he saw a large distance between our car and the next one behind us. My sister was pulling my father’s shirt with a tear rolling down her cheek as she believed it was an earthquake. I was in complete shock, just quiet and looking in front of me towards Mar Maroun. And then it did it again. Boom. This time, much stronger.
In front of my eyes, all the windows of Mar Maroun and Ring bridge buildings were shattered. Dust was everywhere. Small pieces of rock and paper started falling on our car. It was like black confetti falling all around, with pages of books. A pink cloud appeared on our left, which was the direction we were supposed to take. My father started honking and screaming at the person in front of us to get her to move her car so he can try and get us to safety. My sister was crying and screaming, trying to understand.
We entered the neighborhood of Ashrafieh by default. We saw a police officer running around. My dad stopped him and screamed “Come here, come here. What happened?”
The police officer answered: “There was a bomb. We don’t know anything about it. It is either an attack against Hariri or an attack by Israel.” and he left running.
We entered the street of Tabaris and there was glass and dust all over the floor. Store fronts were shattered —and then we saw people. We saw people bleeding, we saw some helping others with first aid, we heard screams, we heard various sirens. We finally got my mother on the phone and found out she was away from Beirut and safe. She told us “We heard and felt a bomb here (12 km away in Rabieh, Mount Lebanon) as well. I even heard that Karantina felt something too. It is everywhere and we know nothing about it. Please don’t move from Achrafieh, it seems like there are bombs everywhere. Tony, please you have our two daughters, don’t do anything stupid.” She was crying. We agreed. My cousin lived in an adjacent street and it turned out that she was home. We rushed there.
The whole building was a shell of what it once was. Most of it was made of glass as it is very modern, it had suffered a lot of damage. To get into the building, we had to walk on top of glass and wooden parts of the walls that fell through. When we tried, we were stopped by the building’s maintenance team. They showed us the elevators which were out of service and completely broken. They made us wait outside the building while they promised to rescue my cousin as they were evacuating the building anyway. We were standing outside, with incredible pain and fear. Fear it was going to strike again. We didn’t even know what “it” was. We were around asking people for information and no one had an answer. Each person had their own theories. The one which is most recurring until today is, “we heard planes and then we heard the explosion. There were planes attacking us, it was a bombing, we are certain.” We then learned it was a single explosion in the Port and not multiple attacks on multiple regions, and we also learnt Hariri was okay and that it wasn’t an attack on him. We heard a rumor at some point that it was fireworks which triggered the massive explosion. In that first hour, post-explosion, we heard everything. And saw everything.
On the streets of Ashrafieh, I saw four guys carrying a white bed sheet with a person in it. A domestic worker who was to be dead. The entire bed sheet was covered in blood and they rushed her to a car in order to take her to the hospital. Meanwhile, her domestic worker friend started screaming and crying, and she directed her anger at her friend’s boss. She called her names and told her she was criminal for letting this happen to her. She was criminal for taking her daughter and running out of the apartment without checking on anyone else. She wasn’t thinking, she is a woman who was growing up during the Civil War. She got triggered and her maternal instinct was to save her daughter’s life. The heated exchange is my greatest memory of the waiting in Ashrafieh. I also saw my best friend’s brother covered in blood, roaming the streets aimlessly. He was waiting for his mother to pick him up and take him to the hospital. My cousin and her domestic worker friend finally got down and they were both in tears. They witnessed the windows being shattered into the apartment while they had a split second to protect themselves. Yet in all this trauma, the same people from this building were handing out bottles of water to everyone, were helping each other by putting bandages on strangers’ wounds, and were cheering up kids.
An hour later, we left for home. On the road, we started learning more and more about the explosion and how huge it actually was. We couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t believe we were almost at the center and got out without a scratch. I still can’t.
The minute I got home, and I saw my mother, that’s when I broke down and started crying. I rushed to her, took her in my arms and couldn’t let go of her. I couldn’t let go of the idea that if I hadn’t gotten distracted, she would have been left alone. I still can’t let go of it.
We got into our apartment, and as we were lucky to live far enough from the epicenter, we didn’t have any damage. Our priority was to eat so we could go and donate blood. We all ate quickly and got back in the car. We stopped at 3 different blood banks, which didn’t take our blood.
“People were very generous today, everyone rushed to give their blood. Please give us your phone numbers and blood types and we will call you when the need arises. God bless you and thank God for your health.”
The people of Lebanon are beautiful. The next day, people were already on the streets helping and cleaning others’ homes while their own were shattered as well. And even more were there the day after that. Some are cleaning houses, others are giving away food and water to all volunteers, others are picking up food and resources to donate to those who lost everything. The Red Cross volunteers, who were my age, were tending to person after person. The main NGOs came up with big plans that they are putting into action, people are opening up their homes, their hotels to those who don’t have a roof anymore. Doctors, architects, engineers, and many businesses are giving away services for free or at small cost. The civilians are doing the work. Everyone is doing their part and giving. Giving their time, their resources, their smiles, their hope to those on their way. We cleaned friends’ houses and our own, we raised awareness, we donated as much as we could. We lost our homes, our loved ones a few days ago, saw our money at the bank lose all value, went hungry, saw all our parents’ work, which they worked for during their whole lives, wiped away in seconds, yet we were on the ground putting in the work saying “others have it worse than me”. The Lebanese people deserve so much better.
Meanwhile, what was our government doing? Well for one, our government were the ones who kept 2700 tons of ammonium nitrate in our capital’s port since 2014, being aware of its presence and its potential of igniting with the correct combustibles. We saw proof: letters written by the port authorities making our government officials aware of the latter. Yet it remained there. Their lack of action was the reason behind the demolition of my capital. Did any of them take responsibility for it and resign? Of course not. Did they speak to us in a way to give us hope and with a plan to help? Of course not. They lobbied on our screens and said some things which I honestly didn’t even listen to. They are pathetic and tomorrow, as our three days of mourning will have passed, we are organizing a revolution on the main square of Beirut where all our anger will be displayed.
Let it resonate in the four corners of the world: my government murdered my people.
Who is the one that gave us hope, gave me hope? The international community, especially the French president. President Emmanuel Macron visited us on the grounds where we were volunteering and listened to us. He comforted us and told us he came with a plan. He sent us planes with supplies, such as food, medicine, rescuers, investigators, and more. He pledged to talk to the political class for us and get to the bottom of everything. He spoke to us in a way that gave hope to the Lebanese people who most don’t even understand French. It was his behavior, his leadership, his tone. He is a true leader, or at least he represented that for us on that day. He promised to rally the international community behind him, even though I saw them take their own initiatives already. Germany, Italy, Egypt, the UK, Kuwait, the UAE, Poland, Jordan and so many more countries sent aid in all forms possible. They did more to us than our government did. They even seemed to care more than our own government did.
Another thing I want to point out personally is that IE people are beautiful too. I received so many messages, so many phone calls, so many donations that it filled my heart with joy and hope. I want to thank each and every person, student, faculty and administration that took the time to text me and ask about me during this catastrophe. I am thankful for all the actions you are taking for my country and I can never thank you enough. Your messages of hope and strength push me so much, and for this I am so grateful. Thank you for donating money and getting your families to donate to the right NGOs and not our corrupt government. Thank you for believing as well that the Lebanese people deserve better.
What happened on the 4th of August was out of this world. It was something we could have never imagined. One minute we were saying that it was the best day of our summer, the next we were calling all our loved ones with the hope of them being alive. A mistake changed our lives for the best. A simple mistake. Our outcome could have been much worse. And for one reason or another, whether it was sheer luck, or destiny, or God’s plan, whatever you believe in, we got delayed and we survived. Take it from me, your life can change completely at any instant. It might sound cliche but there is no other way to put it. So many of the places we always go to were destroyed. The department stores we go to collapse on its clients. The car flew away and fell hard on the ground. Families were torn apart. People are still looking for their loved ones today. This life can be taken from you at any moment and the lesson I took from surviving the explosion is that the little things don’t matter, always look at the bigger pictures and go for what you really want. Don’t stop yourself for stupid reasons such as what are the others going to think. It is your life, which you can lose at any instant. People died when they were having coffee with their friends and people lost their sight when they were walking on the street. Be proud of who you are, stand up for what you believe in, and tell the people you love how much they mean to you. Don’t focus on the negative, like ego and pettiness, and the craving of winning. Do whatever makes you happy, every day.
As I write this, my hands are trembling and tears are rolling down my cheeks. I needed to share my experience, and here you go.