‘We are so lucky to be alive’: family reunited after Beirut blast

‘We are so lucky to be alive’: family reunited after Beirut blast

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Originally published on World news | The Guardian on 2020 08 12 by Bethan McKernan in Beirut

Four-year-old Amira Hammoud used to love fireworks, asking her grandfather to set them off for her whenever he could. After the explosion that decimated Beirut last week, now even the sound of a fork clattering on the table is enough to make her scream with terror. Traumatised, she has become aggressive and clingy, refusing to let adults leave the room.

But she has at least been reunited with her mother, Hiba, after seven days apart – a small blessing in the midst of Lebanon’s national tragedy.

“We are so lucky to be alive, thank God. I have my daughter back. Nothing else compares to that. My heart aches for the families who have lost their loved ones,” said Hiba, who is recovering from two operations and has two black eyes.

While Amira played with her colouring books at her grandfather’s house in Beirut’s Tayouneh neighbourhood, Hiba – who did not want to be photographed because of her injuries – described what happened to the family on 4 August, when almost 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded at the city’s port.

Amira spells out the name of her mother in playdough. Photograph: The Guardian/Bethan McKernan

She and her husband, Wassim, had left their daughter with her grandparents at their grocery shop to attend a routine appointment at the St George hospital in Ashrafieh, which was so badly damaged in the blast that it had to be evacuated.

“Everyone was trying to get out of the hospital instead of going in. It was so confusing. There were bodies and blood everywhere,” she said. “When I realised that the blast had hit more than just our area, I became so afraid for Amira. I couldn’t stop screaming her name.

“My husband still can’t remember what happened that day. His mind has totally blocked it out.”

In the chaos following the explosion, Hiba and Wassim were taken to the southern city of Sayda for treatment. Amira, unable to comprehend what was going on or where her parents were, stayed with her grandparents. She was helped by case workers from Save the Children and Unicef, who provided psycho-social care and monitored her wellbeing until the family could be brought back together.

“This family is a success story and that’s due to the ability of our staff to pull together and reach families in need even though so many are personally affected by this new crisis,” said Johanna Eriksson Takyo, Unicef’s chief of child protection for Lebanon. “It’s important to understand, however, that this new urgent caseload feeds into what was already a very severe existing crisis with Lebanon’s economic downturn and Covid-19.”

There are now thousands of families like the Hammouds who are struggling with the mental health implications of last week’s disaster. The scale of the issue is not yet clear: Unicef’s partners have identified at least three children killed, 31 hospitalised and around 1,000 injured. The current total death toll is 220, with 6,000 people injured and 300,000 left homeless.

The blast is likely to take a huge toll on the mental health of adults, too, many of whom are already scarred by their experiences during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war and the 2006 confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel.

Hiba, 31, said she had been crying a lot, and that many people she knows were struggling to cope with the new trauma.

According to Dr Ahmed Hankir, a Lebanese-British psychiatrist with the NHS who has family in Lebanon, the explosion is likely to lead to an uptick in cases of depression, suicidal ideation, PTSD, aggressive behaviour and chemical dependency.

“It is by no means a situation unique to Lebanon, but it is true there is already a huge treatment gap in terms of what psychological support is available and the needs of the population. Ninety per cent of the country do not get the help they need,” he said. “We are all in a lot of pain. What happened last week will never be forgotten, it will be etched in the collective memory.”

Hankir, also a senior research fellow at the Centre for Mental Health Research in association with Cambridge University, hopes to bring a successful project he worked on in Zimbabwe – where grandmothers trained in low-intensity therapies such as CBT have proven to be more effective at treating depression than doctors – to Lebanon, which also has a strong matriarchal culture.

Ultimately, however, he said what may be most therapeutic of all for affected Beirutis is seeing those responsible for the blast brought to justice.

“Several studies have shown that there are clear political determinants to people’s wellbeing,” he said. “There needs to be accountability for us as a nation to move on. Lebanon has historically been bad at that, but it’s never too late for change.”

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