BEIRUT - As Mahmoud al-Kanu walks into the basement of the 25-story building where his father works as natour (concierge), he points out the exact place where his family was standing at the moment of the blast five days ago. The dry bloodstain is where Sidra, Mahmoud’s 16-year-old sister, died instantly. “All the debris from the building fell on my family,” recalls this 26-year-old Syrian man while staring at the skyscraper that the August 4 explosion transformed into a maze of shattered glass, wood and steel. The building stands barely 400 meters from the epicenter of the Beirut port explosion that has claimed more than 200 lives and injured 6,000.
His father suffered a brain hemorrhage and his mother broke her leg and suffered damage to her spinal column. Both are recovering in different hospitals in Beirut. His 10-year-old sister Houda sustained a serious injury to the back of her neck and was sent to a hospital in the Beqaa, in eastern Lebanon. “She was in the intensive care unit for four days. She was in pain and crying but the hospital didn’t perform the [needed] surgery because they asked us for $3,160 and we didn’t have money,” he told Syria Direct. Four days later an NGO – whose name he could not recall – covered the cost and Houda underwent surgery.
Mahmoud’s parents and his six siblings, originally from the countryside of Aleppo, lived in the basement of this building while he lives in Jounieh (north of Beirut). “There is nothing left of our family house, we lost everything, my life is broken,” he said.
With a gentle smile, he recalls the avid curiosity of Sidra. “She was always asking to go to the school, but our economic situation didn’t allow it, she was trying to learn English via videos and TV.
He walks into the kitchen, sidestepping the upside-down furniture and takes several bottles of olive oil. A calendar still hangs on the wall. All the belongings he is able to rescue fit in the trunk of the car. “Money cannot bring our families back, but I hope the world will help us.” His dad’s shoes still lay among the wreckage.
A street over sits Cyrano Bar, where 20-year old Rawan Misto was supposed to leave work the day of the explosion at 5:45 pm, around 20 minutes before the blast, her mother Mona Jawesh told Syria Direct from their family home in Sin El Fil, an eastern suburb of Beirut. Mona, originally from northern Syria’s city of Aleppo, has called Lebanon home since 1997. Her three children, Rawan, Rima and Alaa have grown up in Beirut.
When Mona felt the explosion, she could not contact Rawan so she walked through a “mingle of trees, steel and blood” until she reached the area where her daughter worked and someone told her Rawan was slightly injured. Mona toured the hospitals of the city until late that night. “There was not a single hospital in the city I did not go to,” she said. The following morning, she was notified that Rawan had passed away.
Rawan’s birthday was the Saturday before the blast. “She told me ‘I am tired, let’s do something the following Saturday’. We celebrated her burial instead,” says Mona. Friends of Rawan took care of the funeral given the distress of her family.
Mona is overwhelmed by the outpouring of condolences she is receiving. “Her photo is all around Facebook. My daughter was really loved, all the clients of the bar remember her,” she says. Rawan’s aspiration was to become an actress and she was hoping to get into university. Mona looks at videos of Rawan in acting castings on her phone and adds: “She had so many dreams to accomplish, and then in one second everything is gone. My heart is burned.”
“It is hard for me to accept the condolences yet. I still want to believe she is here with me. She was an angel,” her mother says. On the balcony at the family home a big banner with Rawan’s photo reads: “We will never forget you.”
Injured and forgotten
In the neighborhood of Geitawi, Mariam Muhammad al-Ahmad doesn’t move from the bedside where her 13-year-old son Mousa lies. This family originally from Syria’s eastern city of Ras Al Ain came to Lebanon six years ago; Mariam, her husband and their three sons live in the basement of the building.
The 30-year-old mother has some bruises on her back due to the shockwave. Her son was at the door’s house at the moment of the blast and was badly injured on his head. They tried to seek help in two hospitals, but they were full; “injured people were lying next to each other, it was full of blood,” she recalls. He was admitted to the Hospital Aboujouadé - in Jal el Dib, north of Beirut. “To do a scan of his head they asked for 400,000 LBP [$263 at the official exchange rate], and a full body scan plus the doctor fees was 800,000,” she explains. They could not afford it; so the doctors treated and dressed the wound and sent them home. Syrians face a myriad of obstacles to access healthcare in Lebanon.
One week later, Mousa has difficulties walking so his mother has to carry him to the bathroom. She says he has also lost hearing in his left ear and his lips are swollen. “He cannot eat solid food because he cannot open his mouth due to the injuries,” she explains. Mousa trembles intermittently. “He is always cold; I don’t know if it is because of the blood loss.”
The Lebanese Red Cross referred Mousa to Rafik Hariri Hospital on Monday morning, but Mariam says she is afraid of exposing her son to COVID-19 (Hariri Hospital is the main hospital dealing with Covid-19 patients) and was not sure she could afford the taxi to get there.
“No society has helped me. They come and ask me questions but I’ve not received any help yet,” she complains. Her family is registered with UNHCR but they don’t receive financial help. “If I am not in need, then what are the criteria to be qualified for help? Do we need to become beggars?”
“I came here escaping war and destruction. That is enough, I need to leave this country. If the Lebanese people can barely make a living, howare we (Syrian refugees) supposed to survive?” she asks.
“I just want to leave Lebanon,” says Mousa while sobbing and covering his face with the blanket.
In Karantina, one kilometer away from the site of the blast, a group of Syrian men works in a car repair shop, in the midst of debris. “One hour before the explosion we closed the car repair garage, so no one was here then,” Talal Muhammad, originally from Syria's northeastern Hasakah province, told Syria Direct. This 40-year-old Syrian lives with his family in Achrafieh, a neighborhood that was badly damaged. Their house, however, was ‘spared’ because all the windows were open. “But our children, especially the baby, are shaken, they are constantly scared now,” he explains.
His colleague Hassan Baqour, a 50-year-old from the central Syrian city of Hama, lives in the street parallel to the car repair shop. Hassan says he was saved because at the moment of the explosion he was undergoing his daily dialysis session in the Rafik Hariri Hospital, on the other side of town. But “our house is damaged and no one is helping us with repairing the windows and the doors,” he complains.
Karantina, a low-income neighborhood, has received less attention in terms of cleaning efforts compared to more affluent neighborhoods like Mar Mikhael, but on Monday morning, dozens of young volunteers were cleaning rubble and assessing the damages in Karantina’s streets.
Fatima Khaled, from Hama province, lives in the building next to the car repair shop. Her house has become windowless, and the doors are damaged. “If we had been in the kitchen, we would be gone,” says this 48-year-old who sustains a bruise on her shoulder. “We didn’t ask for help. On the contrary, we helped the injured and we gave food and water to volunteers,” she adds.
Fatima sits with a group of neighbors in her living room. They all are Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR, but they complain that none of them are receiving financial help. Gusun Doudi, 45-year-old from Hama city sitting next to Fatima adds: “The only help we want is to get out of Lebanon, but we can not return to Hama.”
This group of neighbors know they have been spared the worst, their material damages are repairable. One street over, Ahmed Staifi, originally from Idlib, lost his wife and two daughters.
As the retrieval of bodies and identification works continue, the death toll has risen to over 200 fatalities, but the number of Syrian victims is not definitive. According to the Syrian Embassy in Beirut, 43 Syrians lost their life in the explosion, while UNHCR has identified 34 refugees; the Ministry of Health in Lebanon has confirmed only 8 Syrians in their latest published list (with 152 names and several with unidentified nationality).
The Lebanese authorities were warned in July about the dangers of storing 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in the port, according to Reuters. “What they have done is haram [against religion]. No one is taking responsibility, they are not human,” says Mahmoud about the port authorities. “May God not forgive them,” adds Rima Misto, the sister of Rawan.
The rage of families of the victims, survivors, injured people and Beirut residents in general exploded on August 8, when thousands took to the streets. Human Rights Watch stated that the “the government and political elites’ incompetence and corruption” is “widely considered to have led to the August 4 blast at Beirut’s port, which devastated the city.” The Lebanese government resigned on August 10. The revolutionary chants from the October revolution days are again echoing in the streets of Beirut.
Rima recalls that she and her sister Rawan used to go every day to the ‘thawra’ (revolution in Arabic). She and her family are now mourning so she has not joined yet the expressions of anger on the streets. But Rima says she can feel that “everyone wants to avenge Rawan, all the victims, and revenge for Beirut.”