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People in Beirut reflect on what they've lost two years after port blasts: Reporter's notebook

Ibtissem Guenfoud/ABC News

(BEIRUT, Lebanon) — An explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in Lebanon’s biggest seaport in 2020 has left deep trauma in the Lebanese psyche.

Opera singer Michel Bou Rjeilly says Beirut will never be the same.

“It was all gone,” he said. “The café shops, the boutiques, the little scribbles on the walls, the old men fighting over who cheated while playing cards … Smashed, dead and unrecognizable.”

Bou Rjeilly who was injured in the explosion, said he remembers the immediate aftermath with clarity. “All my things were scattered on the floor, my brother was in front of me trying to remove the glass from my hair and head, telling me not to worry and that we will fix the house together … outside people screaming, ambulances going off, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing,” he recalled.

Nearly 200 people were reported dead after the blasts on Aug. 4, 2020, and over 7,000 were injured. The blasts destroyed 77,000 apartments and displaced over 300,000 people, the United Nations said.

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Four of the port’s silos collapsed on Thursday as a belated result of the blasts, two years to the day after the explosions. Beirut residents who had gathered near the port center for protests and in homage to victims watched their port once again engulfed in smoke on this national day of mourning.

On Wednesday, U.N. experts called on the Human Rights Council to launch an international investigation into the explosion, saying, “Victims must have justice and accountability.”

Yet two years after the blasts, no one has been arrested or faced consequences. “This tragedy marked one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in recent memory, yet the world has done nothing to find out why it happened,” U.N. experts said this week.

On the anniversary of the tragedy, some Beirut residents talk about it constantly, sharing where they were when it happened, and like Bou Rjeilly, sharing their survival stories.

Some of them say if the economic crisis had hit the Lebanese commercial area of Mar Mikhael; if COVID-19 restrictions had not drastically diminished the numbers on the streets that day. if children were still at school at the time of the explosion, perhaps the death toll would have been in the thousands rather than the hundreds.

The human toll is significant. My contact in Lebanon told me as I boarded the plane to head there to cover the explosion in September 2020 that I could call him anytime because he doesn’t “sleep since the blasts.”

Apparently, he is not alone in experiencing restless nights and anxiety since the blast. Local reports have also covered a shortage of antidepressants in Lebanon’s pharmacies — some believe due to the country’s financial crisis and the trauma from the explosions.

The explosions also led to an exacerbation of the food crisis in a country already hard-hit by a dire financial crisis. Lebanon imports up to 80% of its food and the blasts affected the country’s main entry point for food products, according to a local food bank.

Mona Keenan is vice president of the Lebanese Food Bank, a nongovernmental organization that distributed over 100,000 food boxes to people in need in the last year. More than 1.5 million people are currently suffering from food insecurity in Lebanon, she said.

“The food crisis since the explosions has doubled, tripled even, (so) the need is much more than before,” Keenan said. “The port was the main place where food came from.”

The blasts have become a symbol of the struggle of the Lebanese people. The shockwaves are still being felt, with nearly 80,000 people having fled the country in the last year alone, according to Sal, an independent consultancy firm based in Beirut.

During my September in Beirut, I spoke to those who were making plans to leave the country while claiming their love for Lebanon and pride in being from its capital.

A large number of Lebanese are fleeing country, according to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, so expatriation is far from a new phenomenon. What’s different this time, is that some told me they were not looking back once gone, and were planning on not returning.

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