Beirut Blast: from trauma to purpose
By Racha Doumit, on 4 August 2023
Three years ago, day for day, my city blew up before my eyes. I have been thinking of a softer way to start this piece, but I figured why bother. Nothing about August 4 or the days that followed was soft. One moment I had a clear view of the Port of Beirut; the next all I could see was a thick coat of toxic ashes. I could not fathom what the city would look like once the ashes set. Hands shaking, I tried to get a hold of beloved ones who I suspected were in the blast-affected region. Thoughts racing, I visualised weeks of mourning. Little did I know that long after the ashes were swept, I would still be mourning.
At times, I feel like I am mourning a country I never knew, one where the government actively seeks to protect its citizens; one where reports of inappropriate storage of hazardous substances do not go unaddressed for seven years; one where residual risks do not result in one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in the history of humanity. I am mourning a time when August 4 was just another day, when the sound of sweeping broken glass did not trigger my trauma, when the only pictures I had of Beirut were those of a vibrant city. I am mourning not only the dead, but also the unlucky who survived, those who deal with the aftermath, those who wake up every day to face injustice, those who tirelessly lobby for change, those who were pushed to escape the place they call home.
August 4 became just another reminder of the struggles of being Lebanese, of embodying the myth of the Phoenix, of piloting life in survival mode. It was a decisive date that pushed me to pursue a master’s degree in Risk, Disaster, and Resilience. That’s when August 4 became just another event on a long list of tragedies. Class after class, it was considered as a case study. I had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that the blast was reduced to a dissected disaster, a prime example of mismanagement of risks, state neglect, and ill-preparedness. I struggled to dissociate from my emotional attachment to the event. It was tough to take an academic stance on a disaster I experienced: victims were now numbers, destruction was quantified, and years of struggle were just the recovery phase. At times, when caught off guard, I teared up when the picture of the silos was displayed on the board or when the professor referred to “the catastrophic blast that happened a couple years ago in Beirut”. As the year progressed, I delved deeper into identifying hazards, understanding vulnerability, and reducing exposure to risks. Progressively, the blast became less about mourning the country I never knew and more about creating an alternative reality through advocacy and policy. Ironically, it became less about August 4 and more about all other days in the year. It became less about me, my people, or my country and more about the intrinsic need to promote a safer world for all.
Understanding that the blast is bigger than my country was a hard pill to swallow. It does not signify that I came to terms with it. I am still mourning, I probably always will. Only now, I appreciate that advocating for disaster risk reduction extends beyond the borders of my tiny Mediterranean nation. Yearning for Disaster Risk Governance in Lebanon concurs with expecting all governments to uphold higher standards of safety. Seeking justice for Beirut, its victims, and its survivors equates to calling for accountability for all disasters. No matter how hard we try, we cannot alter the past: many died, many were injured, all were traumatised. No matter how disillusioned we feel, we cannot repeat the past: lives and livelihoods must be protected. Beirut was a victim of its own dysfunction—other cities should not endure that same fate.
Racha Doumit is pursuing her master’s degree in Risk, Disaster, and Resilience at IRDR. Prior to joining UCL, Racha worked as a WASH Engineer with the Red Cross in Lebanon.
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