Tales of a city: a walk in Beirut’s ground zero

October 28, 2020
Suzy Madigan
‘Myrna’s home in Beirut after the explosion’ Credit: Suzy Madigan

The fliers stuck to the ruined shopfront were a collage of the blast.

‘MISSING. Pepsi, our quite big, quite hairy cat is lost since the explosion’, read one. Next to it, also missing, a photo of a lost brother and son. Painfully hopeful, it gave a telephone number to call. Another, ‘Psychological Support. We are here to help’. Beneath, an LGBTIQ+ rainbow flag. Everywhere, graffitied defiance: ‘Our space is destroyed, but we are not’. ‘Our government did this to us’.

In Beirut, as with Covid-19, everyone is affected but no two experiences are the same. As I stood reading, a woman carrying boxes stopped: ‘Are you a journalist?’ Realising I stood out, I explained I worked for an INGO on the emergency response.  It was a hot Sunday afternoon one month after the August 4 port explosion that ripped through downtown Beirut and we were almost alone on the devastated street. Over 300,000 people from these neighbourhoods were displaced and many buildings rendered uninhabitable.

Lined with bars and restaurants, this area (Gemmayze), a liberal, social hub of Beirut, would have been bustling prior to Lebanon’s economic crisis and Covid-19. The blast was the final indignity: instead of a vibrant hubbub, the street was disturbingly quiet. There were just a handful of people repairing houses, occasional Internal Security Forces (ISF) members patrolling and a lone television crew, their camera doggedly trained on the collapsed building where the search for a possible survivor one month on had just been abandoned, along with Beirutis’ hope for a miracle.

‘I want you to see what happened to my mother’s home,’ said Myrna. She led me up to her mother’s badly damaged apartment. It was one of Beirut’s heritage buildings, like others potentially under threat from developers.

Eighty-five-year-old Maggy was sitting in her kitchen when the blast tore through her apartment shattering glass and a lifetime of memories. At the door, I stepped back in shock. It was covered in blood. ‘Her arm was injured, but she’s ok,’ said Myrna. ‘She’s staying with us. She doesn’t want to come back here now.’

I helped Myrna carry down the last of Maggy’s things, leaving the family home empty. ‘I’m crying every day. Losing this house, the story of my life, my memories. But I still have my husband and children, I’m still alive, Mum is alive, thanks God.’  Amid a warm goodbye, Myrna expressed that simple human need: wanting others to understand us. ‘Thank you. I love the strangers in Beirut trying to find out what happened.’

I walked down the middle of the empty main road, flanked by gutted buildings, warped metal and splintered glass. Yet the street was so clean. Colossal amounts of rubble had long been cleared by the lightning solidarity of volunteers. Ordinary people with brooms, many of them women.  ‘It was significant the leading role that women took,’ Abeer, a female activist had told me. ‘Among the volunteers there were a lot of women. Women were first to give food and then do clearing.’ Women remain prominent in political protests. In a deeply patriarchal society, this means something.

In the deserted street, a single café had opened. David, a waiter in his twenties, chatted to me, his sole customer. The café had been badly hit with customers on the terrace taking the force of a glass-fronted office exploding over them. A colleague who had helped injured people was experiencing traumatic memories. We spoke about men’s reluctance to discuss emotions and whether the blast might reduce stigma around counselling. Having shared information about the psychosocial services CARE provides through partners, I later received a message. David had reached out man to man: his buddy was ready to talk to a professional.

In emergencies, language like ‘affected population’ obscures the human stories that make up the whole: the older woman losing the family home; the female activist sweeping streets and calling for change; the young man needing to talk through his nightmares.

A new analysis by CARE, UN Women, ABAAD, UNFPA and UNESCWA explores some of these varied, often overlapping, identities and provides recommendations for humanitarians to nuance their response. It examines the gendered impact of the Beirut explosion plus the diverse risks facing different people.

In too many emergencies, humanitarians can fail to analyse people’s differing needs. Even basic breakdowns by sex and age can be absent from assessments, let alone information specific to marginalised or hidden groups.

Older women living alone like Maggy constitute 8% of assessed people living within the blast radius. Older people with mobility issues, like those with disabilities, can struggle to access assistance. If NGOs and authorities don’t actively seek them out, they can be left behind.

Other less visible people include LGBTQI+ individuals for whom discrimination reduces livelihood opportunities, access to housing and safe public spaces, many of which were destroyed in the blast. Renee, a trans refugee woman, said, ‘The areas affected by the explosion were safer than other areas due to the foreigners, more open-minded people, even when they are not LGBTIQ+ … now this area doesn’t exist.’

Mental health is a humanitarian priority: according to NGOs in Beirut, more older people and LGBTIQ+ individuals are phoning hotlines with suicidal thoughts. Men too, although barriers remain. One psychologist in the report says, ‘Men want to ask for help, but they don’t know how. They are supposed to handle it better because “they are men”.’

Tackling gender norms around masculinity is crucial not only in relation to mental health, but to reduce gender-based violence (GBV). The report highlights the increasing GBV risks (including domestic violence and sexual harassment) in empty streets and unsafe buildings. ‘People whose homes are damaged do not feel like they are living securely because literally anyone can just come in,’ reported one Syrian refugee woman.

Refugees often lack escape. A Civil Defence frontliner said, ‘Syrians are unable to leave their homes, even if they are heavily damaged by the explosion.’

Migrants face challenges too. Since the blast, 21% lack secure shelter exacerbated by insecure legal status, lack of proper identification and racism. Lebanon’s economic crisis had already prompted kafala sponsors to abandon female migrant domestic workers in front of their embassies. This has only worsened since the explosion.

Lebanese society, perhaps more than others, is a mosaic. Those colours are what make the country both beautiful and highly complex. As humanitarians we can’t know every story. But as we respond, we need to understand as many as possible.

Suzy Madigan is the Senior Humanitarian Advisor for Gender and Protection at CARE International UK.  She is currently deployed as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Regional Gender in Emergencies and Protection Advisor.

*Some names have been changed to protect identities


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