Journalists and the traumatic cost of Beirut explosions

  • 19-08-2020
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On August 4, in a second, the lives of thousands of people in Beirut changed forever. The two explosions that hit the Beirut port killed more than 220 people, injured over 7000, damaged more than 70,000 houses and buildings and left 300,000 persons homeless, writes Myra Abdallah.

The media, journalists and WINers in Beirut were not immune. Offices of 28 media organisations were affected by the explosion, 18 were severely or extremely damaged. Forty-four journalists were wounded in the blast, according to a damage mapping by the SKeyes foundation.

Six minutes after the blast, journalists were already at the explosion site reporting for their local or international organisations, even though they had just lived through the same trauma as the majority of Beirut's citizens. They have been reporting on the ground ever since.

None of them has had time to process what happened, many of them have been on the explosion's site and in hospitals, where they have witnessed horrific scenes of the dead and injured.

Many have reported being traumatised, not being able to sleep with severe insomnia, being angry or distracted. Some also felt survivor's guilt after the explosion. The emotions of journalists on the ground is captured in a video of reporter Alain Dargham (MTV Lebanon), who broke down crying on live television, six days after the blast. Videos of other reporters experiencing the same emotions on live TV have also gone viral. 

This emotion comes on top of an already exhausting and traumatic year for the media. A cocktail of the economic crisis, COVID-19, and mounting public anger over corruption and a lame government, had kept reporters busy. But they had also been facing a crackdown on dissent. 

Post-blast, the military has now been empowered under the state of emergency to suppress any protests. They are also allowed to censor the media.

The anger of the people of Beirut has been palpable. On August 8, only four days after the explosion, protests started in Beirut's martyr's square. More than 10,000 angry and furious citizens demanded those who caused the explosion be held to account. They also wanted a political system's change. 

Security forces responded with tear gas and by firing rubber bullets at the protesters, many of whom were peaceful. Volunteer doctors reported that live rounds were used, resulting in unacceptable injuries.

A wave of arrests followed. Some protesters, filmed stepping on a picture of the Lebanese President, were kidnapped from their houses. 

The resignation of the government on August 10, did not end the protests and the demand for "serious" investigation to hold the corrupt system and all affiliated politicians accountable. 

On Thursday, August 13, parliament ratified the state of emergency. It gives the Lebanese army power over civilians for 'crimes related to breach of security'. The military can close spaces of assembly, set curfews and prohibit gatherings deemed to "threat security". It can censor publications, radio and television, impose house arrest on anyone engaging in activities considered "as security threats," enter homes at any time and impose fines. All this comes at a time where mainstream media organisations in Lebanon are clearly and openly adopting the citizens' demands in a change of political system and accountability. 

Anger and collective trauma 

Almost every person in Beirut on the day of the blast is now living with post-explosion trauma. 

When the explosion happened, most residents of Beirut and its suburbs were either in their cars, running errands, or at home. The country, like others, had adopted COVID-19 related lock-down measures: schools and companies were mostly closed, and most people were working from home. However, there was no safe place on August 4: the explosion destroyed everything. 

What started as a smaller fire at the port, caused a less serious explosion, so people who were nearby, were filming and were able to catch the dramatic event on camera. 

The moment itself was traumatising for everyone. Many have reported on social media their fear of the sound of shattered glass. This is their main memory, having seen and heard all the glass in a 15 km radius of the explosion shattered. But the real stress started after residents started to realise the size of the damage. The first few hours were nothing but ensuring a proper search for the missing was underway, ensuring that enough blood was donated and that every person who needed medical assistance was getting it. 

The explosion destroyed four leading hospitals in the city, killing tens of patients, doctors and nurses, which made it harder for injured to receive medical assistance. The Lebanese Red Cross was unable to secure enough ambulances to transport critically injured victims. 

The anger started when the search for victims was halted, just a few hours after the blast, because there was no electricity. This failure was a direct result of corruption. So, on a day when every person had lost something – loved ones, houses, offices, preferred places, memories – Lebanese authorities stopped looking for survivors.

The next morning, the Lebanese people expected a series of resignations, apologies or politicians coming forward. Instead, they were surprised by a total absence and silence of official authorities. It became implicitly known that Lebanese citizens were left alone to pick up the pieces of their city. 

Youth, women take lead in relief work 

Thousands of volunteers could be seen on the streets of Beirut carrying as simple as brooms and shovels to clean the city. Volunteers from outside of Beirut came to help. The cleaning efforts started at 6 am, and it was apparent that nobody has slept the night before. Everyone had a blank stare, none of those who were doing their best to help had fully realised what happened. 

It was chaotic. Volunteers didn't know where to start or what to do. They were just cleaning. Other groups were helping families with damaged houses or injured members; at this moment, non-critical injuries had no place in hospitals. Injured people had to wait for days before they were able to get treated. Volunteers with medical experience (paramedics, doctors, nurses, scouts, even those who had attended a first aid training) were filling the gap. A day after, young volunteers started assessing the needs of houses that had been cleared of glass, closing open windows with plastic curtains, organising food drives and cooking for those who lost their kitchen supplies. 

Groups of women also focused on elder people, especially those who refused to leave their houses, even though they could collapse, and on children and mothers. These groups were providing food, milk, diapers to families with children. Some of them focused on breastfeeding mothers to help them continue breastfeeding even after the shock and the etrauma they lived. 

The citizens have mobilised like never before, but the collective mood remains one of anger. 

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