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Lebanon: 'What do they call those who no longer have a city?'

An image of the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion

Photo by Patricia Khoder/CARE Lebanon

Photo by Patricia Khoder/CARE Lebanon

As the two-year anniversary of the Beirut port blast approached, CARE's Patricia Khoder, a lifelong Beirut resident, wrote this diary to capture the loss and uncertainty she experiences each day. Patricia often mourns the city she knew before the blast. Poverty, severe shortages of medicine and other consumer goods, and the slow pace of rebuilding are daily challenges.

Portrait of Patricia Khoder
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 noteworthy newspapers in Lebanon. She is currently Communications and Media Manager at CARE International in Lebanon. Photo: Milad Ayoub

This July, she wrote, “Today, almost three years after the onset of the economic crisis in Lebanon, we live with one hour of electricity a day, we lack medicine, we have spent months queuing in front of gas stations. Finding an Internet card can sometimes take ten days. Every day, I waste time sorting out problems which should not arise in a normal country, and which relate to water, electricity, medicines, finding spare car parts.”

Some of these photographs were taken this month, others were taken within six months of the blast that destroyed Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020. They capture the continuing hardships faced by the people of Beirut, but also the beauty and uniqueness of their city, a constant reminder of what was.

A landscape photo of Beirut's port
Photo by Patricia Khoder/CARE

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Every morning I get up and I tell myself, to give myself courage, that I am in good health, I have work and that I did not die in the blast on August 4, 2020.

Yet, I know, like all the other inhabitants of the city, that even if I survived, a part of me has been forever buried under the rubble of Beirut.

I also know, like all the other inhabitants of the city, that we are all survivors.

When I think about it or when we talk to each other, we think it’s a miracle, with all the destruction that there was, that only 220 people were killed and 6,500 injured. There are still, until today, those who are dying from their injuries. Some people died several months later, never waking up from their comas. I am also thinking of the elderly people who witnessed the explosion and who, in the past year, following the explosion, passed away silently.

Image of window with no glass and ragged shutters
Photo by Patricia Khoder/CARE

Friday, July 15, 2022

Since the end of the successive COVID-19 confinements and since the world has come back to life, I have compared the situation in Lebanon to that of other countries. In fact, COVID in Lebanon is a lesser evil compared to what we have been going through for almost three years.

Now, more than one in two Lebanese lives below the poverty line.

Today, almost three years after the onset of the economic crisis in Lebanon, we live with one hour of electricity a day, we lack medicine, we have spent months queuing in front of gas stations. Finding an Internet card can sometimes take 10 days. Every day, I waste time sorting out problems which should not arise in a normal country, and which relate to water, electricity, medicines, finding spare car parts.

Before the explosion, a lot of things bothered me, especially the fact of wasting time; today, I feel that nothing can affect me anymore or that nothing is worth worrying about, because without expecting it, in a split of a second, everything can collapse.

This is what happened in Beirut. The city exploded while we were in it, living our lives, yet struggling with the economic crisis, the worst since the 19th century according to the World Bank.

Sometimes I want to scream or cry, but I calm down and tell myself that I am very lucky. At least I have the means to eat, take care of my family, buy medicine… and, above all, I have survived the blast.

Every day, I see poverty, striking poverty! I am thinking of our program participants, of all the people who have fallen into poverty.

There are those who can no longer afford gas for cooking, who can no longer subscribe to the neighborhood generator and so are living with almost no electricity. There are children who eat twice a day, nothing but sandwiches sprinkled with thyme. There are desperate parents who cannot make ends meet.

With the crisis, the poor have become even poorer and the middle class has sunk into poverty. Among my own friends, acquaintances and neighbors, there are those who live without a generator, those who rarely eat meat, those who ration their purchase of fruits and vegetables and who sell their furniture to pay the rent. This is done discreetly, behind closed doors. They don’t complain, because they have too much dignity and they had never imagined that life would push them down so low.

Image of hollowed out building
Photo by Patricia Khoder/CARE

Saturday July 16, 2022

There is not an evening, not a lunch, not a meeting between friends – who live in Beirut – that is spent without talking at least a little about the blast. From that day of August 4, 2020,  buildings are still destroyed, there are streets and neighborhoods that we no longer go to because they were very close to the epicenter, the silos of the port… we simply don’t have the heart to go there.

I grew up with the silos of the port. Built in 1971, they are exactly a year older than I am. As a child, from our balcony every morning while waiting for the school bus, I watched the boats arrive at the Beirut port. Every day, I passed in front of the silos. The elegant building, of white reinforced concrete, was always there, facing the sea as if guarding the city and it was very reassuring to me.

Today and since the explosion, a few days after the explosion in fact, I am unable to drive past the destroyed silos. I change my path, I take another road.

I just don’t want to see this gaping wound in the city. Maybe, I also refuse to see my own wounds.

Recreational beach in Beirut
Photo by Patricia Khoder/CARE

Sunday, July 17, 2022

I drive through downtown Beirut, driving from my place to the beach. I had always loved my life in Beirut. The proximity to the sea, the fact of going after work and on the weekend to the sea, 10 minutes away from home.

Today, I thought about the sweetness of my life before, about this happiness that I felt in my daily life, just by moving around town. Swapping my clothes for a swimming suit after a long day at work and sipping coffee in the sun. For me, happiness was accessible. I still do that today… but my heart is not there. It is as if I had been mourning for almost two years. As if I had lost a loved one, a man that I am madly in love with.

I have always thought that Beirut belonged to me, that every stone in the city, the cobblestones of the sidewalks and the sea were mine. When I was on a trip and I had a little mishap, I used to say to myself, “I don’t care. This is not home. I’m going home soon.” Beirut was my home. It still is, but it is now bruised, broken and horribly sad.

The night of the explosion, I did not sleep. Actually, I stayed five nights without sleeping a wink. Thanks to (is it ironic? Or have I been really blessed) – or because of – my work as a journalist, I was among the first people to see the extent of the destruction of the city.

My article, published the day after the blast “When the sun rises Beirut my city will no longer exist,” was published around the world. What a sad triumph for the journalist that I am.

On the evening of the blast, I said to myself: “Those who lose their parents are orphans; those who lose their husbands are widows; those who have no country are stateless. What do they call those who no longer have a city? Those who no longer have a city, what are they called?”

Image of building with scaffolding
Photo by Patricia Khoder/CARE

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.

Image of rubble on the ground
Photo by Patricia Khoder/CARE

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 song by Feyrouz on Beirut. Because even when broken and ground, Beirut is mine. This is my city, whatever its state is.

Image of corridor with bags piled high
Photo by Patricia Khoder/CARE

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 needy who suffer and who sleep every night feeling a little hungrier.

Image of sunset over the water
Photo by Patricia Khoder/CARE

Sunday, July 24, 2022

I have always liked Achrafieh, where I live (the part of Beirut impacted by the blast) 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 four 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.

Image of child's stuffed toy abandoned on an empty lot
Photo by Patricia Khoder/CARE

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.

Image of scooter rider passing a damaged building
Photo by Patricia Khoder/CARE

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.

Detail image of windows with reconstructed frames and plastic sheeting
Photo by Patricia Khoder/CARE

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.

Distant image of the port explosion area
Photo by Fatima Azzeh/CARE

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…

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