18:07:36 in Karantina, Beirut: a time for humanityPublished: Aug 19, 2020 Reading time: 5 minutes
18:07:36 is the exact time of the explosion at the Beirut port according to the Meri family clock, which remains frozen in the moment.
In this moment, an estimated 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded at the port. The explosion, which ranks among the largest non-nuclear blasts in history, destroyed over 60,000 homes, left 300,000 people homeless and damaged countless businesses, schools, hospitals and historic buildings around the city. Even kilometers away the impact was immense. Many residents of Beirut are all too familiar with the sound of explosions, but this was like nothing they had experienced before.
The Meri family, a family of five: Aida, Talal and their three boys Khaled, Hadi and Khodr, live in Karantina, a residential area by the port in Beirut. At seven minutes and 36 seconds past six on Tuesday 4th August, their futures also froze.
From the balcony of their home, the wasted grain silo of Beirut port, which now serves as little more than a location marker for the blast epicenter, is visible just 500m away.
Aida was the only one home at the time of the blast, talking to her sister via video-call. Aida’s sister watched her be blown from the screen and reappear in blood. Just a minute’s drive away, Talal was on the road taking their youngest, Khodr, to football practice. Only 200-300 metres from the explosion when it happened, they rolled down the car windows to take a photo of the initial blast, before a second, city-shattering one detonated.
They were extremely lucky to survive. Across the city, Hadi was knocked from his scooter and Khaled witnessed the chaos unfold in the densely populated hub of Gemmayze, an area reduced to blood, glass and rubble. Everyone in the city has a story to tell.
Across Beirut, so many people suffered glass and shrapnel wounds. In the minutes after the blast, people recall movie-like scenes of neighbours covered in blood walking the streets, trying to understand what happened, trying to help each other. In these moments, any concern about COVID-19 was wiped out. As the country’s ambulances screamed to the scenes, blocked and restricted by the material damage, friends, family members and strangers rushed to help one another, sizing up each other’s injuries, deciding who to prioritise for medical attention when it would arrive. Many do not remember how they arrived at a hospital. Others recall being picked up by strangers on motorcycles, in their taxis or cars. Three of the main hospitals in Beirut and half of the city’s medical clinics were rendered out of action by the blast, and so many of the injured travelled kilometres out of the city centre, stopping at hospitals on the way in search of help.
In the days that followed, once family and friends were accounted for, the Meri family began to comprehend the extent of the damage done to their home, a place they have lived for over a decade. With the glass-laden dust settled, the gravity of the destruction sunk in. Not a single window pane or piece of furniture remains intact in their home. In their bedroom, Aida points to their once-beautiful wardrobe. “I spent five years saving up for this. I put away 1000LBP after 1000LBP saving to buy this, to make the room nice.” At one end of the room, the headboard, completely separated from the bed by the blast, stands vertical against the wall; at the other end of the room, an electric fan lays cut in half, and around the room tarp covers the holes where windows had been.
Aida speaks with sadness and disbelief at the loss of all their possessions, but nothing brings her to tears except talk of her sons and what lies ahead for them now. Her sons are alive and unhurt, and for that she and Talal are eternally grateful, but the thought of a future for them now visibly crushes her. Despite having lost everything they had built together, when asked what they need, both her and Talal don’t know where to start.
In the months before the blast, living conditions across the country had deteriorated significantly. A crippling combination of hyper-inflation, a rapidly-depreciating currency, and COVID-19 restrictions had sent the country and its economy spiraling.
Talal usually works as a taxi driver in Beirut, but since COVID-19 broke out he hasn’t worked. He has diabetes and hypertension, so while many taxi drivers had returned to the wheel trying to salvage an income despite rising COVID-19 numbers, Talal worried about getting sick, and what that would mean for his family. A proud man who left school at 11 to support his family when his own father got sick, he refuses to take any chances. Now, he and Aida mourn that their sons Khaled, a business graduate, Hadi, a college student, and Khodr a young football talent whom they affectionately call “Lebanese Ronaldo,” will have so much to overcome, despite everything they have worked for.
With a damaged house, car and two scooters and COVID-19 again on the rise – the near future looks bleak for them. Yet, despite everything they have lost, they speak with love and appreciation for what they still have: each other. They also look to the rest of the world and are genuinely thankful that people are supporting Lebanon. “Regardless of nationality, there are people with humanity everywhere, helping us,” says Talal. For the Meri family, regardless of the state of their home and what lies ahead for them, there is dignity. And as they offer their guests Lebanese coffee brewed on a donated gas burner, insisting we sit in the least-damaged chairs and serving us the only unbroken cups in the house, there is also incredible generosity.
Let’s show them ours.