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After port explosion, Lebanese excavate their dreams

But the survivors in a forgotten Beirut quarter can’t seem to shed the flashbacks or the broken glass still under their skin

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Updated Aug. 26 at 10:00 a.m.
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BEIRUT — Hoda al-Halabi was struggling to concentrate. As she joked with the workmen rebuilding her walls or beamed at volunteers bringing food, her thoughts kept crashing into a flashback she couldn’t shake. She was still seeing the explosion that rushed toward her earlier this month. She heard her daughters screaming. Her sister, screaming. Possibly herself screaming, too.

The Aug. 4 disaster had looked like some sort of celebration at first. From her kitchen window in Karantina, the neglected district that runs down to Beirut’s port, Halabi saw what appeared to be fireworks popping as a bonfire rose from nearby. Then the air started roaring, and as the mother of four turned and ran, a shock wave knocked her off her feet.

Thousands of people were wounded and almost 200 killed when a warehouse of ammonium nitrate exploded, gutting a stretch of the city and filling its air with glass. Worst affected was Karantina, where Halabi and many more residents now grapple with trauma and how to rebuild homes they can ill afford to mend — but can’t afford to leave.

“What would you do in my position?” Halabi asked on a recent evening. Her kitchen’s blown-out window framed the shredded port and indigo sea like a painting. “There is no choice,” she said.

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A worker rebuilds a wall that collapsed in Halabi’s house in the explosion.

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Halabi cleans her living room while workers repair the house.

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Abdullah Dalloul sits in his former house. Abdullah had worked at Beirut’s port, and from time to time he heard of accidents there, so he thought little of the Aug. 4 explosion when he first saw it.

Karantina wouldn’t exist without the port. It was built as a place to quarantine travelers as diseases spread along shipping lanes during the nineteenth century and thus earned its name. In recent times, Karantina’s history has been woven from tragedy. In 1976, its soil saw the first massacre of Lebanon’s civil war. Its land was taken over to build paramilitary bases. In between there have been fires and floods — and constant cycles of rebuilding.

But the quarter around the port has also created jobs and brought food and medicine to a capital that depended almost wholly on imports. And so Halabi had built a life there. With Lebanon’s economic crisis growing, money was tight, but they made ends meet. Her husband Bashir guarded buildings in the area. Halabi put her love of languages to use, teaching Arabic in the day to support her studies toward a master’s degree in literature at night. She dreamed of pursuing a PhD, and her well-thumbed novels were stacked neatly on wooden shelves.

Building damage assessment

Destroyed

Damaged

Possibly damaged

Karantina

neighborhood

Site of

blast

Med.

Sea

Beirut

1 MILE

3 MILES

TURKEY

SYRIA

CYPRUS

Rafik

Hariri

Int’l

Airport

Detail

LEBANON

ISRAEL

Sources: Damage analysis by Copernicus Emergency Management Service, OpenStreetMap

JOR.

EGYPT

100 MILES

Building damage assessment

Destroyed

Damaged

Possibly damaged

Site of

blast

Karantina

neighborhood

Med.

Sea

Beirut

1 MILE

TURKEY

3 MILES

SYRIA

CYPRUS

Detail

LEBANON

Rafik

Hariri

Int’l

Airport

5 MILES

ISRAEL

JOR.

EGYPT

100 MILES

Sources: Damage analysis by Copernicus Emergency Management Service, OpenStreetMap

Building damage assessment

Destroyed

Damaged

Possibly damaged

Site of

blast

Karantina

neighborhood

Mediterranean

Sea

Beirut

1 MILE

TURKEY

SYRIA

CYPRUS

3 MILES

Detail

LEBANON

Rafik

Hariri

Int’l

Airport

ISRAEL

JOR.

5 MILES

EGYPT

100 MILES

Sources: Damage analysis by Copernicus Emergency Management Service, OpenStreetMap

The books were covered in blood when she awoke from the blast. So was she. A door had crushed her sister, badly injuring her, when it flew off its hinges. Her daughters and their cousins were screaming. She grabbed as many of their hands as she could, and they ran.

Down the road, Halabi’s neighbor Rasha Nasreddine had jumped in front of her three children as the shock wave coursed toward them. It felt, she said, like the air had exploded. For a moment, she was too scared to call out for them in case they didn’t call back.

But one by one she heard them inside their three-room shack, crying for help and crying for her.

There’s a common trope about Lebanon: that it always survives its wars and traumas to rise from the flames. But where aid groups and governments have spoken of that resilience as a virtue, Halabi and Nasreddine say they are just exhausted. They wanted to live, to work and to play with their children. Instead, and yet again, they are excavating those dreams from destruction.

Image: The home of Makrouhy Yerganian, 74, was badly damaged in the blast, and she lost a relative who was living with her.

With only one room for her family of six to sleep in, Halabi has sent her children to stay with relatives in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon. Her house buzzed with activity on a recent day as workmen from a local charity fixed the walls. Halabi limped about, calling out instructions while making everyone tea. She brightened when volunteers popped in with hot meals or fresh water bottles. “Stay with us. Come sit,” she called to one man, who grinned shyly and told her to rest.

Still, her memories keep marauding — advancing and retreating as she fought to suppress them. “I’m seeing and hearing things that aren’t there,” she said in a moment of quiet. But keep positive, keep moving, she told herself. She was lucky to be alive.

In their modest, concrete-block home nearby, Nasreddine’s husband Ali was hammering a metal door into shape. “It’s not ours — we had to find it and bring it here,” he said, looking down at the battered iron. His 1-year-old daughter Aya crawled between his legs, not flinching at the din. Her face was red and blotchy. Karantina sits along a rubbish dump, and without windows, the flies were now everywhere.

Ali fixed the door in place, but it only created new problems. Now the wall around it was starting to crumble. He worried it might fall in on the children. “Look at this place; it’s a junkyard,” he said, looking out across the piles of debris. “We are humans, real people, and we’re living in a junkyard.”

There was still glass lodged in Rasha Nasreddine’s arm under black and ragged stitches, and now it was hot to the touch as infection set in. “I’d go to the clinic, but I’ve had no time,” she said, scooping up Aya and rocking her with the wounded arm.

“We’re rebuilding, I have three kids. There is no time,” she said.

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Worshipers pray inside the mosque, which was damaged in the Aug. 4 explosion.

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Worshipers gather outside the local Maronite church to attend mass on Aug. 15 in Beirut. The structure was heavily damaged during the blast, and services cannot be held inside for the time being.

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Worshipers gather outside the church.

Although the area’s mosque was damaged in the Aug. 4 blast, its worshipers still come. Last week, the imam’s Friday sermon echoed through the scorching summer air on loudspeakers. “The poor are the ones who paid the price for this,” he said, the anger made clear by his tone.

In church the following day, Christians gathered to mark the Assumption of the Virgin and celebrate Communion, and quietly, at the back of the room, an old woman hung her head and cried. As worshipers left, volunteers with a charitable organization were addressing them with a microphone. “We’ll transform these streets so that you won’t even recognize them,” a clean-cut representative told the crowd.

Some clapped and cheered. Others raised an eyebrow and walked away.

“You know how many people have come here promising this?” asked a local taxi driver, Moussa Baddah. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Night fell. The volunteers left. On the street along the port, the air felt unnaturally still.

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Some of the homes in the area have damage, like bullet holes, that dates back to the days of Lebanon’s civil war.

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Karantina residents gather for dinner on the street and meet volunteers and NGO workers helping out in the neighborhood.

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Volunteers and NGO workers set up camp in Karantina in the wake of the explosion on Aug. 4.

In the Nasreddine home, Rasha was putting the children to bed. Her 6-year-old had been more violent since the blast, harrying the dog and telling visitors that he was thinking of burning his sister. On a notepad, he drew a boy with widened eyes, surrounded by bright balls of sunlight.

“I put on a brave face for the children, but when they go to sleep and the city feels calm, I’m alone with my thoughts of what happened,” Nasreddine said. “It’s like the port exploded and time just stopped still. I don’t know how to move forward, or where to go. I don’t know what to do.”

The air inside their hovel was stifling. The only air conditioning unit had split apart in the blast, and her wound throbbed as she tried to sleep.

Her corner of Beirut felt forgotten, and lonely.

Halabi’s place, too, and she was anxious.

Whereas her house had been abuzz before, on this night it was quiet, and the mood had sunk with the sun. The pain from her wounds was worse at night.

She had planned to travel to Sidon to see the girls that evening, but calculations were still whirring in her head: Was it too dark to travel now? She didn’t like to travel at night. Shouldn’t she just stay?

The crushing fatigue made it harder to block the visions that kept floating through her brain.

If she accelerated the rebuilding, the girls could come home, she thought. She missed them. But if she left to see them, she’d miss her husband. She’d always found it hard to sleep without him. But then again, since the blast, she barely slept anyway.

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Rasha’s daughter looks for toys in the rubble of a damaged building.

Nader Durgham, Nadia Al Faour and Alaa Burjas contributed to this report.

About this story

Map by Laris Karklis. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Design and development by Audrey Valbuena. Copy editing by Ryan Romano.

Louisa Loveluck is the Baghdad bureau chief. She was previously based in Beirut for the Post and worked as the Cairo correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.FollowFollow