Damaged building in Beirut, Lebanon

"What do they call those who no longer have a city?": life in Beirut 2 years after the explosion - Part 2

Two years ago, an unprecedented explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon killed over 200 people, left some 300,000 homeless and caused long-lasting damages to the city's infrastructure and economy. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war impacts further exacerbated the social and economic crisis. CARE International's Communications and Media Manager in Lebanon, Patricia Khoder shared her daily challenges and reflections on living in Beirut today, while looking back at the city's recent lively past. This is part 2 of Patricia's diary.

Beirut Diaries: part 2

Monday, July 18, 2022

This morning on my way to work, I remembered that I had forgotten my packet of antihistamines at home. I stopped in front of the pharmacy hoping to find the medicine. There were a few boxes. This drug, which cost 8,000 Lebanese Liras (5 old dollars) until 2019, sells for 180,000 Liras today (120 old dollars, 6 new dollars).

In 2019, the US dollar was at 1,500 Lebanese Liras, today it is at 30,000. According to figures from the World Bank, released last summer, more than 60% of the Lebanese population lives below the poverty line.

Last year we went for very long months without medication. Pharmacy shelves were empty. Importers could no longer open letters of credit to bring medicines to Lebanon, especially since the State had not authorized the price increase. Today, only drugs for chronic diseases are subsidized by the state, they are still non-existent on the market.

I'm so happy to have found my antihistamine. Last year, there was nothing left in pharmacies. Not even an ointment for simple skin irritations.

Many Lebanese, those who can afford it, have been bringing medicine from abroad for more than a year now. They ask family members or friends to bring them when they come to Lebanon, or they bring them when they travel.

For more than a year, cancer patients have been protesting intermittently because they no longer have access to treatment.

According to a UNICEF study dated 2021, 50% of families do not have access to their medicines.

In Lebanon, which was the hospital of the Middle East, again according to UNICEF, 40% of doctors have left the country. The number of women who die during childbirth has also increased, from 13 deaths per 100,000 in 2019, it reached 37 deaths in 2021.

Soon the longevity rate will, in its turn, decrease too.

Building damaged by the Beirut port explosion in 2020

Building damaged by the Beirut port explosion in 2020

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

At night, there is not a single light in Beirut. The streets are pitch dark and there are no streetlights or traffic lights. It is that we live with one hour of electricity provided by the State per day. The rest are subscriptions to private generators, which have become more expensive since the beginning of the war in Ukraine and which do not work 24 hours a day. At night too, the asphalt shines in certain neighborhoods of Beirut. The blast shattered the windows of the city, reduced them to powder and this glass powder over time has mingled into the asphalt.

Today, there are still houses in Beirut without windows and signs in the street that read “Beware, falling glass”.

There have also been artistic initiatives, workshops that have recycled the broken glass of Beirut, to make vases and trinkets, all this to give new life to these tons of broken glass, in an attempt to offer a new life to the city. I bought several vases in pastel colors and a necklace on which "you are mine" is written on a piece of transparent glass recalling the words of a cult song by Feyrouz on Beirut. Because even when broken and ground, Beirut is mine. This is my city, whatever its state is.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Since I started writing this diary, I have had tears rush into to my eyes sometimes - yes only sometimes - when I think of the blast or when I talk about it. Crying relieves they say. I don’t know. Until August 4, 2020, I always cried very easily, for everything and anything. Not anymore. Since August 4, 2020, and until the writing of this diary, I have not shed a tear. I know that my anger, like my sadness, are immeasurable.

I can't and I don't want to cry. I am afraid that if I start crying, I will never be able to stop again, I will collapse and I will never be able to get up again.

Next to my house, there is a very small inscription repeated on a large wall: “We will not hold accounts, we will take revenge”. I like walking past this wall. In fact, I took pictures of it several times. It was by passing so many times in front of this wall that I understood that my anger today is still the same as on the first days following the explosion.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

There is no bread. Lebanon imports 72% of its wheat from Ukraine. The state, which had promised to find other markets, has not solved the problem, yet; and will probably never do. Before the crisis a bag of bread cost 1000 Liras (less than a dollar), today it costs 20,000 Liras (14 old dollars less than a new dollar). Every day, there are endless lines in front of bakeries, and people - even if they wait - go home without bread. It is especially the most vulnerable who suffer from it and who sleep every night feeling a little hungrier.

Rubble in a street in Beirut

Rubble in the streets of Beirut

Friday, July 22, 2022

This afternoon, my neighbor, injured, like 6500 other inhabitants of the city during the blast, was on her balcony. I also went out to the balcony. “Look, there are still three apartments with blown facades,” she said, speaking of the buildings around us that are visible from her balcony. "It's sad, every time I go out on the balcony, I try not to look at them," she added. I answered her “Their inhabitants are abroad. That's why they haven't been rebuilt yet." And then before closing my door and going inside I told her, “At least you see what has been rebuilt. So far, my eyes and my brain see nothing but destruction.”

Even if there is still a lot to do, a lot of work has been done since the blast, more than half of the city has been rebuilt, restored. Some old buildings have had a makeover.

This was possible thanks to NGOs and personal initiatives, especially since Lebanon was already in crisis before the blast and no one since October 2019 has had access to their bank account. So even if they want to rebuild and restore their homes and businesses, residents cannot withdraw their blocked money from banks. In addition, for those who are still earning money and who are not unemployed, they have to deal with the devaluation; the local currency has lost since 2019, 90% of its value facing the dollar.

As I said to my neighbor, my brain is zapping reconstruction. For two years, I have only been seeing what has been destroyed, what has been lost, what with time will crumble completely.

A few days after the explosion, during my sleepless nights, when I was unable to close my eyes, I was sitting on my balcony, I wondered like an automat: “When will it be rebuilt? When will Beirut be rebuilt?” And then I thought about the irreversible things in life: death, incurable diseases, and big breakups, and my answer dawned on me: “Patricia, it will never be rebuilt. You have to live with it”.

Saturday, 23 July,2022

Today, I spoke to one of my childhood friends whose parents' house was located a hundred meters from the silos. His 85-year-old father was injured in August 2020 and he lost his sight due to broken glass. He died four months after the explosion, although he was physically recovered and could stand up. He couldn't bear going blind. Little by little, he let himself die until one day, he died in his sleep. My friend's 80-year-old mother was disfigured. After the blast, she lived with one of her children until the restoration of the house facing the sea. She was eager to move in again. She stayed there for a few weeks before renting a house in another part of the city. The trauma from the blast was tremendous. When I asked him about his mother, he replied, "She's fine, as best as she can."

His mother, like him, like me, like all of us, are fine, as much as we can.

Sunday, 24 July, 2022

I have always liked Achrafieh (the part of Beirut impacted by the blast and which has several neighborhoods and where I live) on summer Sundays. Almost all the shops are closed, and most locals go away for the weekend. The streets are empty, and it is very hot and humid. We feel that time has stopped for a day. Moreover, here when we want to say there is not a single soul, we use the expression “like Achrafieh on a summer Sunday”.

This morning before going to the beach, I walked around the deserted city and thought how much I would miss Beirut and my life if I left the country, if I settled elsewhere.

Until the crisis that started in 2019 and until the port explosion in 2020, I had never really thought about leaving Lebanon. I was two and a half years old when the war (1975-1990) broke out, but that did not prevent me from studying and building my life in Beirut. All my life, since school, I have been seeing my friends leave for France, Canada or elsewhere. There were two peaks in emigration: at the end of the 1970s, when the war in Lebanon was in full swing, and in 1989-1990 when everything was destroyed. Now with the crisis and the blast, we have broken these two records.

According to a study by a local research center, in the first nine months of 2021 alone, 79,000 people left the country. This is a lot, in a country of 4 million inhabitants.

This is the third mass exodus in the history of Lebanon. The first was in 1916, with the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon, the second occurred during the war from 1975 to 1990 and now in three years, we are breaking a third record.

My friends who came back to Lebanon with the semblance of stability over the past 20 years and until 2019 have returned to their former host countries; those who remain in Lebanon send their children to study abroad. It goes without counting young graduates who go to settle out of Lebanon. Soon, we will just be a country of old and helpless people.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Since the crisis and the blast, I have thought intermittently of settling elsewhere. I tell myself that in Lebanon I am sad for my country and that elsewhere I will also be sad for my country - just like my friends established abroad - but elsewhere, I will lead a normal and stable life.

I know that wherever I go and whatever happens, I will have Lebanon under my skin.

I also know that I will always remain – like all the inhabitants of the city – a survivor of Beirut. We will be, until our last breath, the inhabitants of a city that exploded in peacetime while we were in it.

What saddens me the most is that the Beirut blast was the third largest in the world after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that already two years later the world is starting to forget about it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Today during my lunch break at the restaurant, I saw William Noun, one of the brothers of the firefighters who died in the port silos. Big mouthed, he is in all the demonstrations, and he has been arrested several times by the authorities because he demands accountability, because the investigation has been dragging on for two years and because today and for months it is completely paralyzed. I spoke to him to tell him that we would have liked a hundredth of the Lebanese to have had his courage.

There were nine firefighters in the silo area at the time of the explosion. Their remains, found after more than ten days of the explosion, were identified thanks to DNA tests and their families had to open the cemeteries several times until September 2020 to bury the little that remained of their loved ones.

Two weeks ago, I ran into the parents of the youngest Lebanese victim of the blast. Alexandra was an only child and was three years old (the youngest victim was an 18-month-old, non-Lebanese boy, son of Australian diplomats). They were holding a newborn in their arms, a three-or-four-month infant. I just smiled at them. I found it indecent to go talk to them and disturb their newfound happiness.

Damaged garage door in Beirut

Garage door damaged by the Beirut blast in 2020

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

This morning, a colleague, who does not live in Beirut, told me about a gas station that is still standing destroyed by the blast. "As if it was still the day after August 4, 2020," she said.

“His owner died in the blast and there is an inheritance problem,” I explained to her. Chawki was a grumpy man whom no one in the neighborhood liked. His gas station was located across one of my favorite bars. When I went to the bar, I used to park my car in front of his gas station and argued with him, inevitably. He was like that with everyone. The owner and the employees of the bar were spared by a miracle, injured they were treated in suburban hospitals, because there were no more places in the hospitals of the city, like hundreds and hundreds of Lebanese,and without any anesthesia. I no longer go to this bar even though it was the first to reopen after the explosion. The heart is not there. And today, I even miss my fights with Chawki.

In another neighborhood, a young man who greeted me with a big smile in a city parking lot was also killed by the blast.

Chadi and his family had been running a parking lot near the dance studio where I went two to three times a week after work. I only learned of his death a week after the blast, when I saw the photo of his mother in a newspaper.

Chadi remained 48 hours under the rubble of a building, he was visiting a friend. Deaf and dumb, he did not hear the emergency services trying to locate him. His lifeless body was still warm when he was found.

Chadi was unbeatable on social media, and even if I didn't speak his language, we could understand each other. By communicating with him I used to forget all the setbacks of the day. Chadi was a blessing. He was my friend, but he didn't know it.

The Beirut port after the explosion in 2020

The Beirut port after the explosion in 2020

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Resilience. I can't hear that word anymore. Really, I cannot anymore. “The Lebanese people are resilient”. That's probably true. But we are also a people who adapt to everything. And this is very dangerous; it is even suicidal.

Friday, July 29, 2022

I feel that each passing day is one more step towards the abyss. It is as if we are going down the stairs but instead of stepping on a step, there is only emptiness. I see no way out, no way out, from what we are going through. But despite everything, we have to stay standing and we have to continue to live.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Last year for the first commemoration of the Beirut blast, there was a demonstration. Returning home that evening, there were candles lit all along the sidewalks. I said to myself: Beirut died last year and today, a year later, is its funeral. It took us a year to bury the city. I wonder how I will feel this year…

Read part 1 of Patricia's Diary

Portrait of Patricia Khoder

Patricia Khoder, Communications and Media Manager at CARE International in Lebanon

Patricia Khoder is a lifelong resident of Beirut. She majored in translation and journalism at Université saint Joseph and worked for over 20 years as journalist at L'Orient-Le Jour, one of the most trustworthy and prestigious newspapers in Lebanon. She is currently Communications and Media Manager at CARE International in Lebanon