Bodies Not Their Own: The Neglected Victims of Beirut’s Port Explosion

2021-04-07    |   

Bodies Not Their Own: The Neglected Victims of Beirut’s Port Explosion

When Muhammad Daqduqi emerged from his coma, he did not recognize his own body. It was different, incomplete, and mutilated. Half the world around him was draped in darkness. He felt that he was not himself. He returned to sleep hoping that he would wake up in a different reality. But when he woke up again, he realized that his life, not the world, was forever changed.

 Muhammad’s leg was amputated, he was blinded in one eye, and his arm was crippled as a result of the explosion of Beirut’s port on 4 August 2020. He now spends most of his time in bed to avoid facing the pain of movement and his new reality. He found himself confronting new difficulties and challenges in a country unfriendly to those with special needs.

People newly afflicted with a physical disability may struggle to acknowledge their new reality, and many of those we met believe that they will eventually recover. In fact, just five people have filed applications for disability cards since the explosion, according to General Director of the Ministry of Social Affairs Abdallah Ahmad.

 In this investigation, the Legal Agenda sheds light on the chaos surrounding collecting data on people who sustained disabilities in the port explosion. We met with ten such people who have been examined by the technical team of the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities (LUPD). We witnessed their new day-to-day suffering, how the state institutions have treated them, and how they have been left to face their losses alone and pursue treatment at their own expense. The investigation also touches on whether the post-explosion reconstruction is adhering to standards of social inclusion for this group.


Statistical Chaos

 There are still no official figures for casualties left with some type of disability after the Beirut explosion. The Legal Agenda toured around the ministries and state bodies concerned in search of clear statistics, but there is evidently no coordination or networking among governmental and private bodies. Each one is working on its own field survey instead of a strategy for conducting one survey to produce unified figures, which would save everyone time and money.

 The Ministry of Social Affairs – the main body concerned with this group – is now, four months after the explosion, conducting a survey of approximately 5,300 wounded using UNDP funding. The survey will identify cases of permanent or temporary disability in order to assess their needs.

 On its part, the Legal Agenda conducted its own tally from data it obtained from the Ministry of Health on the wounded and the types of injuries they sustained. The cases were distributed across two lists. The first, titled “Names of Wounded in Intensive Care Due to the Beirut Explosion”, contained 131 people. The second, titled “Names of Wounded Hospitalized Due to the Beirut Explosion”, contained 1,222.

 The two lists, which together contain 1,353 wounded, included 44 classified as afflicted with some type of disability. However, many of the cases were not classified or marked as “uncertain” or “/” without any explanation of what this symbol means. Hence, these cases could include other people newly afflicted with disabilities.

 Our figures converge with the findings of the LUPD’s field survey. So far, the latter has identified 258 disabled people who were wounded in the explosion, with 42 becoming disabled disability as a result of the explosion (24 with a temporary disability and 18 with a permanent disability).

 From the Lebanese Red Cross, the LUPD also received data on 3,000 wounded whom the former classified as having some type of disability. However, the LUPD’s supervisors scrutinized the data and determined that the wounds inflicted on most of them are not severe enough to cause disability. Moreover, the list did not contain the names of the newly disabled whom the LUPD had managed to identify. In a phone call with the Legal Agenda, Secretary-General of the Red Cross Georges Kettaneh said that the organization has not conducted its final tally of people with disabilities, and all the lists are now with the Ministry of Health.


Timan is at the Mercy of Hospitals’ Discretion to Cover Follow-Up Treatment

 Timan Madadi is an Iranian working in the Iranian carpet expo in Beirut. In the explosion, he sustained fractures to his right hand and tears to the tendons of his left hand and right leg, which have affected his mobility. Now he requires crutches, which has negatively impacted his day-to-day activities, including his self-care and work.

Timan’s boss, Amina Asili, is dissatisfied with the way that the hospitals and ministries concerned have handled the wounded. She says that shortly after the explosion, she took him to the American University Hospital, where he underwent surgeries at the expense of the Ministry of Health. But 25 days later, Timan felt acute pain in his right hand. It turned out that the doctors stitched the wound without removing the glass fragments inside, so new surgeries were needed. But the American University Hospital refused to readmit him at the ministry’s expense, so he was forced to tour around other hospitals until Al Rassoul Al Azam Hospital agreed to perform the surgery and bill the ministry.

Timan’s treatment needs did not end with the surgeries. He requires several physiotherapy sessions, but he has not commenced them because they are expensive. Amina says that Timan’s condition is deteriorating daily, and she does not know which party is responsible for following up on him.

Timan is one of several wounded who have faced hospitals’ discretion and refusal to continue treating them at the expense of the Ministry of Health, as stipulated by Minister Hamad Hasan’s circular on September 4. The circular asks casualties of the explosion to pursue all their treatment, scans, and tests in hospitals at the ministry’s expense. Our investigations revealed that all the casualties who sustained disabilities were treated for their fractures and wounds at the ministry’s expense, but anything related to their new disabilities has been left for them to cover.

Responding to the Legal Agenda, Head of the Department of Hospitals and Clinics in the Ministry of Health Hicham Fawaz says that, in principle, everyone (whether or not they were wounded in the explosion) has a right to receive treatment at the ministry’s expense. He stresses that the minister’s circular is clear in this regard and invites the wounded and sick to lodge a complaint with the ministry’s observing doctor present in most hospitals. On the other hand, Director of Medical Care in the Ministry of Health Joseph El Helou called upon the wounded to complete their paperwork in the ministry and submit it to the hospitals so as not to give the latter pretexts for evading their responsibilities.


Muhammad Goes From Port Employee to Bedridden

The clock struck 6 PM, marking the end of the shift of Muhammad Daqduqi, who works for container transportation company BCTC at the Beirut port. As he made his usual route home, which passed by the fire burning in Warehouse no. 12, he walked with the company’s directors, who were heading there to check on a nearby depot. As the sound of firecrackers burst nearby, Muhammad rushed to his car and hastily started the engine. He was unable to turn forward, so he reversed, stopping momentarily to pick up a colleague. It was then that the first explosion rang out, sending people scrambling. Muhammad describes the scene as “apocalyptic”, with faces gripped by fear and confusion as though everyone sensed that another explosion was coming.

After the second explosion, Muhammad lost consciousness for three days. He does not know how he was transported to hospital but when he awoke, he found a body not his own. His right leg was missing, and his hand mutilated. He could not see as before: everything to his left was black, and everything else was blurry. In fact, Muhammad had sustained a severe injury to his right leg that required amputation, mutilation to his right hand, complete loss of sight in his left eye, and partial blindness in his other eye. Consequently, he will be unable to practice his profession, move about independently, or care for himself (e.g. going to the bathroom, showering, getting dressed, and using the phone). These injuries will also affect his social role as a father to three children. Muhammad discovered all these changes to his life and body as soon as he left hospital: when he arrived at his fourth-floor home, his brothers had to carry him up the stairs. He now needs help with the most basic aspects of daily life. However, he constantly consoles himself with the fact that he survived: “I say, thank God I’m still alive and didn’t die – but it’s hard when you feel helpless”. Muhammad spends most of his time bedridden: “Sometimes I prefer to stay sitting in bed rather than get up and suffer the pains”.

Unlike the state, which has provided him with no assistance so far, the company for which Muhammad works has not abandoned him, and he still receives his full salary without delay. Social security also covered Muhammad’s treatment, and the insurance company paid the differences as well as other expenses not covered by social security.

Sama Sees the World Through One Eye

Sama al-Hamad did not cry or scream when her eye was wounded. The five-year-old stood up, shook the dust off her clothes, and then sat down and waited for someone to rescue her.

Sama’s father, Makhul al-Hamad, who fled the war in Syria in search of safety in Lebanon, was on the fifth floor filming the fire blazing in the port as his brother, Salah, stood behind him. When the explosion rang out, glass showered their bodies. Makhul summoned the strength to stand and check his brother, who was bleeding from the head and unconscious. Seeking help, he rushed down to his home on the first floor and was shocked to find blood covering his daughter’s face. He looked into her eye, “which she was usually full ofseeing light”, and found her pupil constricted. He knew then that her eye had been “extinguished”. But there was no time for sadness as he had to check on his son, who had gone out an hour earlier. So he left Sama, ran into the street, and saw his son hurrying toward him.

Returning home, Makhul found that the neighbors had taken Sama to hospital. He climbed to the fifth floor, lifted Salah onto his back, and walked toward Saint George Hospital University Medical Center. On the way, people helped carry his brother to the damaged hospital. There, he saw many wounded in the car parks. Makhul and several civilians delivered first aid to Salah to the extent of their knowledge, tying a jacket around his bleeding wound. Someone advised rolling Salah onto his side, and as soon as Makhul did so, Salah vomited and began to moan. Makhul’s heart eased, and he remembered Sama.

Makhul called his neighbors, who informed him that they left Sama at Rizk Hospital as its administration had barred anyone from entry. He rushed there but was only allowed inside over an hour later. He found Sama alone in the emergency department, gasping from fear and tears and surrounded by the wounded and corpses. Makhul ran to her and embraced her, trying to cover her view of the painful scene: “There were people dying right before my eyes. How did this five-year-old girl stand these sights?” A nurse came and led Sama and her father in search of an unoccupied room or bed. Then Sama was brought into the operating theatre, from which she emerged to see the world with only one eye.

Today, Sama is back home trying to adapt to her new situation. She plays around the house with her doll, as usual, and says that she loves to play the roles of mother and teacher. With the Emirati Red Crescent’s assistance, she obtained a glass eye, but she will always need medicines and creams to moisturize her eye. Her father says that her laughter and childish boisterousness have been muffled by the boom of the explosion, which she constantly talks about. Sama will grow up and, with a glass eye, find her true calling.


Fatima, Her Family’s Sole Breadwinner, Fears Leaving the House

 The explosion severely wounded Fatima Jaber, 47, and left her unable to work. Her right hand, on which she depended to make a living for herself and her children by cleaning homes and schools, was amputated. Her right leg was also severely injured and her nose broken. After her divorce approximately eleven years ago, Fatima took it upon herself to raise her four children and put them through school. She managed to establish her own home in Karantina, which did not withstand the explosion. Now she has no work or daily income.

 Fatima was home alone when the explosion occurred. Part of the house collapsed onto her. She does not know who took her to the hospital, where she awoke four days later to find herself with a disability. She weeps as she describes her new situation: “I’m trying to adjust, but it’s very difficult”. She speaks about “simple things” that she can no longer do, such as tying her hair or getting dressed, as well as her mental anguish about needing someone to support her.

 With the loss of her home and unable to rent one, Fatima and her four children, who are still in school, moved to her sister’s house. It has two rooms and her sister’s family already consists of ten people, so Fatima feels like a burden on her sister and brother-in-law.

 Since being discharged from hospital, Fatima has avoided leaving the house: “When I look at myself in the mirror during the day, I’m ashamed to go out”. She has undergone four surgeries, partially at the expense of the Ministry of Health. However, many aspects of the treatment, such as scans and medical supplies, have been paid out of her own pocket.

 Fatima says that the High Relief Committee contacted her and told her that to obtain its aid, she must provide documents about her home. “Believe it or not, they want paperwork!” she says as she fights back tears. “I said to them”, she continues, “where am I going to get the paperwork if it disappeared under the rubble? Am I supposed to chase after it with my severed hand and broken leg? I don’t want anything from them. I don’t want money – I want them to bring my hand back!”

 Fatima has contacted other parties, including the Red Cross, the Army, and [charity] associations, to obtain any kind of handout. They responded that their lists are full and there is no room for her name, even though all the organizations claim to help people affected in “the explosion’s geographical surroundings”.


Nada is Left to Face Her Fate Alone

On August 4, Nada al-Awar, 63, accompanied her daughter, son-in-law, and four-year-old grandson to the hospital in Karantina for the child’s surgery. Barely five minutes after the surgery began, the explosion occurred, causing serious damage inside the hospital. The doctors quickly stitched the child’s incision and woke him from the anesthesia. Outside the operating theatre, Nada’s injuries were severe. She had fractures in her head, face, and ribs and had severe hemorrhaging in her lungs. Her son-in-law managed to drive his wrecked car to Saint Charles Hospital, where she was admitted to intensive care. Meanwhile, the child was taken to the operating theater to finish his surgery at the expense of the Ministry of Health.

 Nada remained in care for 18 days. After she returned home, her condition deteriorated as her wounds became infected and ulcerated. She was admitted to the hospital in Qarnayel, which is near her home. There, doctors inserted a device to drain the wounds, whose high cost (LL2 million) the family paid.

 Today, the paralysis in Nada’s leg has forced her to stop working. She constantly thinks of her coming days and how she will be able to fulfill her health needs. Her need for ongoing medical exams for the fractures and long-term treatments has placed a financial burden on her and her family. Nada says that the Legal Agenda is the first party to contact her since the explosion. She bemoans that she is not in a foreign country where old age security is guaranteed: “I’m now 63 years old. I constantly have to think, how will I live and where will I get money for my treatment? When will we rest in this country?”


Adib Stands on One Leg Watching Aid Pass By

 A picture of Adib Kaaki, a 45-year-old Syrian, appears on the screen of the phone when we call him via WhatsApp. He leans against a wall, his crutch in hand and his left leg wrapped in white. After he was wounded in the explosion, his leg was left paralyzed. He now faces many difficulties in daily life, especially when it comes to moving about.

 Adib has lived with his 8-year-old son since separating from his wife and obtaining custody. They reside in a room in the carpentry store where he works. At the moment of the explosion, he was, as usual, in the store. The store’s windows shattered, and the cooler fell on the head of his visiting friend, who lost consciousness. Adib’s leg was injured, but he only felt the injury several hours later. He lifted his friend on his back and headed to hospital. On the way, a motorcyclist picked the pair up and took them to Makassed Hospital. Adib’s leg was further damaged because he walked after the injury, and its condition consequently deteriorated to the point of paralysis. He was treated at the expense of the Ministry of Health, but he paid the cost of the splint himself.

 The day after the explosion, the hospital’s administration asked him to leave, but he refused lest he need surgery and the administration refuse to admit him as a casualty of the explosion. The administration insisted, so he filed a complaint against it at the police station in Tareek el-Jadeedah: “This way I secure my rights, especially as I’m not Lebanese. I’ll have evidence that I was wounded in the explosion if any party needs proof”.

 Today, Adib has returned to his son and his residence in the store in Gemmayzeh. However, he has lost his capacity to work in carpentry, so the employer hired another worker. Adib now lives off “tips” and the financial assistance that the employer occasionally grants him.

 Adib’s suffering extends beyond his physical injury to include his fear for his son. The explosion compounded the psychological pressures and problems that his son was already suffering because of his parent’s separation. Today, Adib is trying to enroll him in a boarding school that would spare him from the difficulties of living in a cramped workplace pervaded by lacquer fumes.

 Adib says that no association or organization has offered him any kind of assistance. After leaving hospital, he resorted to his friends in South Lebanon. Hence, he did not register for aid during the first week following the explosion. Although he suffers poverty, destitution, and sometimes hunger, personnel from associations bearing food rations pass by him. When he asks for a ration for himself and his son, they respond that the rations are limited and, “Your name isn’t written”.

Abbas’ Family Was Split and He Remains in Shock

 Abbas Mazlum, 35, was in the restaurant in Monot where he works as head chef. During the port fire, he stood outside watching the smoke. When the second explosion rang out, glass rained down upon him, and he fell to the ground. Hours passed and nobody came to his rescue. “Everyone was distracted with their own situation”, he says, justifying the lack of immediate aid. When he regained consciousness, he found himself unable to move. His friends tried to help him, placing him in a pickup truck and taking him to St. Joseph Hospital, where he underwent two surgeries at the expense of the Ministry of Health. The explosion rendered Abbas paraplegic and bound to a wheelchair. He now requires ongoing medical care.

 Abbas had to make several changes to adapt to his new disability and body. He and his wife, Wala, moved from their home, which is on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator, to an office owned by his employer. Their five children, on the other hand, now live in a village with his sister. Thus, the family split up. Wala has only seen her children once in three months as she is trying to spare them any psychological shock caused by the sight of their father in his current condition. Moreover, Abbas needs special care that she cannot provide in the children’s presence. Abbas’ employer asked two caretakers of neighboring buildings to help him fulfil his needs and move him between bed and wheelchair: “Whenever I need something, I have to call them. When I have to go to the bathroom or the doctor, I call them”.

 Abbas laments his condition: “I was responsible for five children. Now I sit on a wheelchair as a charity case? Isn’t it wrong, what they did to us? I didn’t need anyone, I was taking care of myself and my family, and now I’m waiting for a state that doesn’t check on me”. Currently, he is still in denial about his disability. He is afraid that his health condition will remain unchanged: “Honestly, if I remain immobile, it would be a disaster. I’d rather die – it would be easier”.

No Official Mechanism Exists for Assisting the Explosion’s Disabled

 The cases that the Legal Agenda followed confirm that there is no official mechanism for assisting people with disabilities caused by the explosion. The losses of those we interviewed transcend their physical injuries to include their jobs and homes. Yet no official bodies have contacted any of them to assess their needs. After the hospitals refused to continue treating them, they did not know to which governmental body they should turn. So far, they are pursuing treatment at their own expense, and most belong to low-income groups. No party has followed-up on those who lost their jobs to provide any compensation or alternative, and the High Relief Committee is waiting for those whose homes were destroyed to provide paperwork before paying compensation even though it knows about the destruction and their limited options. Moreover, their poor mental state also requires serious follow-up.

 Sylvana Lakkis, president of the LUPD, says that today this segment of society faces much humiliation and indignity. Its members are treated in a manner that disregards their specific situation. For example, she mentions that when the Army distributes aid to them, it asks them to gather in places unsuited to their physical capacities. They usually wait for hours in the sun without any chairs: “All this constitutes humiliation and indignity”.

 From another angle, Lakkis explains that people with disabilities need various prosthetic devices and essential equipment like urine bags and diapers. In the absence of state assistance, the lack of such items subjects them to indignity. “The state has a duty to perform – fulfilling a person’s basic needs doesn’t have to turn into a humiliation”, she says. Currently, they are assisted only by associations, if at all. She adds that for many of them, their disability is compounded by the loss of their jobs, loved ones, and homes, all of which renders them in need of much care and rehabilitation.

 Describing the treatment of this segment as “criminal”, Lakkis calls for the establishment of a unit combining the Ministry of Social Affairs, Ministry of Health, and Army Command and the development of a clear action strategy pertaining specifically to this group.


The Explosion Compounds Charbel’s Disabilities

 The birth of Charbel Baridi, 3, was complicated. His mother delivered him and his twin brother prematurely in her seventh month. Consequently, he suffered from oxygen deprivation, which caused several problems including paralysis, immobility, deafness, and mutism. As Charbel cannot chew or move his mouth, he eats via a permanent gastric tube. Despite financial difficulties, his mother has always strived to provide him and his siblings with the best care.

 On August 4, Charbel was accompanying his mother on a visit to her friend’s house in Achrafieh. When the explosion rang out, Charbel slipped from her grasp and fell onto the stairs. He broke his hip and now suffers from epilepsy. His health condition precludes surgery for his broken hip. His mother says that he needs nutritional foods to grow, but the tight economy prevents her from purchasing them: “I grind rice and lentils for my children. I can’t bring meat and chicken home because I go bust buying Charbel’s medications”. Charbel’s medicines and medical aids cost her more than LL1 million each month – his father’s entire salary – and the latter have become rare and expensive because of Lebanon’s economic deterioration. Consequently, Charbel goes without various essential supplies. Today, he is considered a casualty of the explosion, yet instead of the state or associations contacting and embracing his family, his mother is appealing to the associations for help via the Legal Agenda.


Saad is Older than Lebanon Itself

 Saad Barid did not suffer from any health issues despite being 91 years old. Now, fractures to her back, shoulder, and pelvis that she sustained in the explosion have rendered her bedridden. She laments her health condition, but she is even sadder about her home, which was destroyed. She married and had children in that house and paid attention to its every detail. Today, it is a pile of stones.

 “I’m sorry, I can’t speak a lot – I get tired”, Saad says, fleeing a discussion that cannot capture the extent of her pain. She passes the phone to her granddaughter to answer the routine questions about her experience at the moment of the explosion. The important thing is that contrary to how Saad imagined her twilight years, she is residing in someone else’s home, is sleeping on someone else’s bed, and can no longer stand on her feet. Saad, who was born before Lebanon’s independence was declared and never needed anybody’s help even after turning 90, escaped the country’s wars and the occupation of its territory in good health only for the explosion to render her incapacitated and in need of assistance to stand or go to the bathroom.


The Explosion Engulfs Reynalda’s Face, Hands, and “Safety”

 Reynalda Moudawar, 63, arrived at her home in Achrafieh minutes before the explosion. She took off her shoes, fetched a plate of fruit, and was unwinding on her favorite couch when the explosion rang out: “I heard the sound of bullets. I looked outside, and the air and glass all came into my face”. When she recovered from the enormous shock, she tried to call her children but could not find her mobile. She crawled to the landline and called her sister, and her children then came to her rescue. “My son arrived, lifted me onto his back, and descended 11 flights of stairs,” she explains. He then walked the streets until a car appeared and took them to the American University Hospital, where she was treated at the ministry’s expense. 

Reynalda sustained severe wounds to her face and tears to the tendons of both hands and her fingers, which have forced her to use a prosthetic to perform her daily activities. As for the physiotherapy sessions, she has to pay for those at her own expense

 “Why did they do this to us?”, Reynalda asks, breaking into tears. She continues, “We build houses and upgrade them so that we feel safe. Now they’ve come to us inside our homes”. She relates that her experience during the civil war was easier than the explosion: “In the war, we knew where to go – down into the shelters. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you no longer have a safe place, not even your home”.


Will the Mistakes of the 2006 July War Be Repeated in the City’s Reconstruction?

 The explosion destroyed the neighborhoods and areas adjacent to the port. Hence, their reconstruction is now being planned. Lakkis stresses the need to consider standards of inclusion. The LUPD has given the Army Command and the governor of Beirut a roadmap including the main steps and outlines of a policy of inclusion: “We won’t accept something like what happened after the July War, when the reconstruction did not observe standards of inclusion. Even the clinics and hospitals at the time did not meet requirements”. She says that the World Bank and United Nations included the LUPD’s demands regarding standards of inclusion in their explosion evaluation report, which will be used to secure the funding needed for reconstruction.

The Legal Agenda contacted Joe Rahal, advisor to the governor of Beirut on social affairs and founder of the Joe Rahal Foundation, which addresses the affairs of people with special needs. He said that Governor Marwan Abboud is coordinating with the Army to develop a plan to rebuild the city, and a company has been commissioned with producing the master plan, which will take all standards of inclusion into account. The governor will also issue a circular compelling anyone involved in construction, such as engineers, contractors, merchants, and builders, to observe the standards and laws on inclusion in all buildings and homes to be reconstructed.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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Beirut port blast, Investigations, Lebanon, Marginalized groups, Parliament, Right to Health, Right to Health and Education, Right to Life, Social Movements, Transitional Justice

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