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One month on from massive port explosion, 'Beirut needs us'

A couple and two children contemplate the damage in front of the blast-ravaged grain silo at the port of Beirut on August 13, 2020.
A couple and two children contemplate the damage in front of the blast-ravaged grain silo at the port of Beirut on August 13, 2020. © AFP
Text by: Sarah LEDUC
6 min

A month ago in Lebanon, a humanitarian emergency burst to the fore, adding a disastrous new element to economic and public health crises that were already raging. The devastating August 4 explosion in the port of Beirut brought the country to its knees. Children, and girls in particular, are bearing the full brunt of the manifold disasters.

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One month on from the monumental blast, Lebanon is still in shock: 191 dead, more than 6,500 hurt and a city torn apart. The wounds have yet to heal and diggers still scour the ruins to recover the last of those lost. Hope fades day after day, but the trauma is as vivid as ever, especially among children.

Beirut's children heard the sounds, felt the quake and witnessed the video replays of the towering smoke cloud on a loop. They saw loved ones hurt or suffered injuries themselves. Local groups today say the priority is to provide psychological support for Beirut's youngest and most vulnerable.

"There is a psychological emergency to manage. The trauma is enormous and children are among those most affected," Marianne Samaha, Plan International's Middle East programme director, told FRANCE 24.

'My son is afraid to dream'

James, 5, was stunned speechless when the blast occurred. Not a teardrop, not a sound. His big brother Joseph, 8, began to scream. Joseph stopped eating after the explosion and doesn't sleep. He's "afraid to dream", his mother, Yasmina Farah, told FRANCE 24. "His 9-year-old friend Yasmina doesn't leave her home anymore,” said the Beirut lawyer and author. “She doesn't want to leave her mother, she's afraid she'll die.”

"Children want to protect us and we, the parents, are trying to put some normality back into their daily lives but without managing to do so," Farah continued. The 41-year-old herself grew up in wartime. "I lived with the bombs, the shelters, the insecurity. After 1990, I lived the good life and buried the trauma. I didn't think my children would experience that. This explosion assassinated their innocence."

During a study led by UNICEF in mid-August, half of those surveyed indicated that their children exhibited behavioural changes or signs of trauma or extreme stress in the aftermath of the explosions. "These behaviours and symptoms can include serious anxiety, silence or withdrawal, nightmares and sleep disorders, and aggressive behaviour," UNICEF explained.

"Children have lost all their bearings," Samaha told FRANCE 24. According to UNICEF, around 100,000 of them were directly affected by the explosion and more than 80,000 children were forced from their homes, displaced by the disaster. Many were separated from their families and are still living apart today. That increases their vulnerability, especially for young girls.

Gender inequality could be exacerbated

"Displaced girls are now living in shared lodging or in buildings that are barely secure, without windows, without locks on their doors, without electricity at night," Samaha continued, concerned that these young girls are "more vulnerable to sexual violence".

Deprived of school in many cases –178 schools attended by 85,000 children are still damaged – and with families facing considerable deprivation, girls are also exposed to the increased risk of economic exploitation. "Gender inequalities are at risk of growing, with girls particularly susceptible to being exploited in domestic work since many restaurants, shops and offices were destroyed," the humanitarian worker said.

Congested healthcare services meanwhile are also complicating access to sexual and reproductive health services for women and girls. At least six hospitals and 20 clinics were damaged in the explosion, rendering them partially or totally inoperative, a worrisome situation for pregnant women.

Plan International and a multitude of other NGOs as well as volunteers have been rallying to meet the urgent needs on the ground. An enormous surge of solidarity was evident from the very start on the streets of Beirut. "We are taking action. That's what allows us to continue to live," said Samaha, who is a Beirut native. "But it is time to start thinking of what comes next, to envision the reconstruction, the recovery, the stabilisation of the country," she said.

"In order to do that, we must treat and educate our children. They are our future," she explained. Between the economic crisis, which saw 40 percent of Lebanese living beneath the poverty line, and the destruction of schools, many children are at risk of not returning to school. For those who will be able to take up their studies again, the cost of buying the books and supplies needed for a single child is now worth the equivalent of two months' salary for the average Lebanese.

As such, many have taken the decision to leave. "My best friend has gone to Dubai. She thinks there is no longer a future here for her children," said a disillusioned Farah. Still, even though she holds French and Lebanese dual citizenship, Farah cannot bring herself to leave her country.

"Is it faith, illusion, denial, hope? I don't know. But I can't manage to leave. Beirut needs us. It will be hard, but we must stay here for our children, for the future of the country. We must stay here to rebuild the city and to rebuild spirits."

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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