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Panic Attacks, Recovery and Mourning: Life in Beirut One Year After Port Explosions

A woman stands in front of a wall covered in flyers and graffiti.

All photos: Milad Ayoub/CARE Lebanon

All photos: Milad Ayoub/CARE Lebanon

Ritta Hanna recalls the day she nearly died, her life changed forever

Ritta Hanna was having a drink after work Aug. 4, 2020, when two massive explosions rocked Beirut, Lebanon’s capital city, largest port, and lifeline for the country.

“My car was parked here. It wasn’t broken as much as my body,” Ritta says upon returning to the scene for the first time in a year since the port explosions. The double blasts destroyed grain silos containing critical food supplies. Only 10% of Lebanon’s food supply is domestic and 85% of the food stock stored at the port was lost.

“The few times I have driven down the avenue that runs alongside the port, I had panic attacks. I have wanted to come back to this neighborhood where I was injured for several months, but I could not find the courage,” she says.

700% increase in cost of food in the last year

Thousands of injured overwhelmed Beirut’s hospitals, which were already at capacity due to COVID-19. Medics had to treat people wherever they could – in hotels, car parks, and veterinary clinics. Ritta suffered serious injuries to her arm and foot and has undergone six surgeries since August 4, including bone and fat transplants.

“I still have at least three surgeries left, for one of my toes, my arm, and my right hand. I can barely write,” she says, slowly moving the fingers of her injured hand.

“I paid for the explosion in my flesh and blood and my whole life was turned upside down.”

The 2020 explosion killed 214 people, injured more than 6,500 and displaced about 300,000 people from their homes. While exact figures are not available, only 30 percent of the people in the devastated area have returned to their homes, either because the necessary work was not done to allow them to safely return, or because they remain too traumatized by the experience to go back.

“People ask me if I have nightmares at night because of the explosion. I don’t even have to close my eyes to see the images scrolling in front of me, all day long. That day the world turned gray. I saw the stones propelled by the blast fly towards me. I protected myself with my arms. I started screaming, but I thought I was dead. But I also told myself that when we die, we shouldn’t see so many dead surrounding us. I saw lifeless bodies in the street, when I was waiting for help, when men whom I did not know carried me from place to place to take me to the hospital and also on the floor of the hospital where I waited a long time before being rescued,” she says.

All photos: Milad Ayoub/CARE Lebanon

One year after the Beirut blast, Lebanon continues to sink into poverty and its capital has still not been fully rebuilt despite support provided by the international community. Supermarket shelves across the country are empty, and where groceries are available, the cost of food has soared by 700% over the past two years, and 50% in less than a month.

Ritta lost her job as marketing director in March 2020. She recently started to look for work and is considering setting up her own business.

“I don’t know why I’m still alive. Every day I ask myself this question, ‘Why I didn’t die?’ But as long as I’m still standing, I decided to take charge of my life and to rebuild myself.”

She says the compounded effects of the port explosion and severe economic crisis are causing people to leave in search of better opportunities. Ritta says she is determined to remain in Lebanon.

“I paid for the explosion in my flesh and blood and my whole life was turned upside down. I can leave but I decided to stay here. With what happened, I am even more anchored in my country.”

Aftermath of Beirut Explosion

Patricia Khoder, spokesperson for CARE in Lebanon, documents Beirut shortly after the double explosion which took place in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020.

Dark smoke plumes rises over destroyed buildings that make up the devastated skyline of Beirut.
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