How the port explosion rubbed raw Beirut’s psychological scars

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The destroyed silo in Beirut’s port stands as a symbol of the devastation across the Lebanese capital following the August explosion. (AFP)
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A Lebanese protester waves a national flag during a demonstration marking the one year anniversary of the beginning of a nationwide anti-government protest movement, in the capital Beirut on October 17, 2020. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)
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Aida Merhi, a resident of the badly-affected Karantina neighborhood of the Lebanese capital, shows her damaged house to the director of Medecins du Monde's (MDM) mental health program on August 11, 2020. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)
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Updated 08 November 2020

How the port explosion rubbed raw Beirut’s psychological scars

  • Months on from the port explosion, Lebanese struggle to deal with adversity and despair in the absence of accountability
  • Mental-health workers tell of explosion’s lasting impact, made worse by coronavirus restrictions and economic calamity

BEIRUT: Almost half a century since Lebanon became embroiled in civil war, bullet-scarred buildings stand throughout Beirut as reminders of the city’s darker times alongside glistening towers signifying hope and renewal. And yet, like some great historical leveling, the port blast of Aug. 4 has indiscriminately left its scars on the city’s skyline, paying little heed to a building’s age or appearance.

The situation at ground level is scarcely any different. Beirut’s battered streets are a veritable metaphor for the emotional wounds of its people as they pick over the ruins of their economy, enduring constant power cuts and a new wave of coronavirus infections. The government is widely seen as ineffective and apathetic to demands for change.

“The physical wounds heal but the emotional ones take much longer to heal — I am not sure how we will ever get over what happened without justice,” said Ibana Carapiperis, 24, a volunteer with the Lebanese Red Cross, recalling the summer’s day when nearly 3,000 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate caught fire. The resulting blast killed 204 and left around 6,500 injured. Public outcry forced the government of Hassan Diab to resign.

“My emotions are still very hard to process from that day. Every time I try and understand my emotions, I feel like I could break at any minute. The blast is still so fresh after three months. It feels like it was yesterday,” Carapiperis added.

Oct. 17 marked one year since the “thawra” — or “revolution” in Arabic — when thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to demand political and economic change, forcing Prime Minister Saad Hariri to stand down. Yet the mood was different when they returned this year — dimmed by months of grinding hardship and defeat.

Many thawra hard-liners did not even attend. “What thawra?” asked one.

“We need unity, we need a leader. We are lost now,” said another.




Volunteers of Medecins du Monde's (MDM) mental health program take a picture on August 11, 2020 of the clock that stopped due to the August 4 blast (18:08) in one of the damaged houses of the Lebanese capital's Karantina district. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

And just a few days after the revolution’s commemoration, when Mustapha Adib failed to win support for his non-partisan cabinet, Lebanon’s political class chose to return Hariri to office — compounding the revolutionaries’ sense of powerlessness. On Oct. 21, purported Hariri supporters even set fire to the “Revolution Fist” sculpture in Martyrs’ Square. It was quickly replaced the following morning by activists who refused to give up.

“What gives me hope is to know that people are still fighting every day, going to the streets to continue the revolution to try and change the system,” said Carapiperis. “This is not something we can just get over in a few days, weeks or months.”

Her diagnosis is corroborated by colleagues. “Not all wounds are visible, whether to a body or a beloved city,” said Marco Baldan, a Red Cross surgeon who helped coordinate the emergency response, in a statement. “On top of the horrific physical injuries that are being treated in hospitals, people risk developing huge, hidden scars unless they are supported through the psychological consequences of this catastrophe. Mental health support is a vital part of the medical response.”




Talal Merhi, a resident of the badly-affected Karantina neighborhood of the Lebanese capital, speaks to the director of Medecins du Monde's (MDM) mental health program on August 11, 2020 at his damaged home. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

The explosion occurred when Lebanon was already in a state of hopelessness, following months in the grip of the COVID-19 outbreak and economic turmoil. People had lost jobs, businesses and savings; the situation contributed to a rise in depression, suicidal thoughts and despair among the population.

“People are mentally not okay,” Rona Halabi, a Red Cross spokesperson in Beirut, told Arab News. “There were at least 300,000 people who lost their homes so you can only imagine the stress that this has caused. We believe mental health is as important as physical health.

“After being injured physically, wounds will start to heal eventually, but what you will remember of this terrible incident will never go away. People need to learn tools to cope with the trauma and move on with their lives.”

Mental health workers say survivors are still far from okay — made worse by the loneliness of coronavirus restrictions.

“Once the pandemic started, anti-coronavirus measures like lockdown and curfew hit people’s traditional coping mechanisms, such as gathering socially and seeing friends, sharing their worries and frustrations,” said Isabel Rivera Marmolejo, the mental health delegate for the Red Cross in Lebanon. “Now, the explosion is one more crushing blow.”

LEBANON IN NUMBERS

At 155%, Lebanon’s debt-GDP ratio is the world’s third highest.

Public debt projected to touch 167% in 2021.

Inflation was expected to average 20% in 2020.

A special hotline was established after the blast to help people dealing with trauma in place of face-to-face counselling. However, even Lebanese psychologists who experienced the blast say they have been affected.

“Lebanese psychologists are also struggling with the trauma,” Myrna Gannage, psychology department director at Beirut’s Saint Joseph University, told Arab News.

She suffered non-life threatening injuries in the blast, but remains troubled by her experience. “I never in my life saw anything like this,” she said. “We as Lebanese have lost our sense of mental equilibrium. We are still lost. There is a lack of hope and a constant fear of uncertainty in the Lebanese people.”

Gannage added: “The Beirut explosions reactivated psychological wounds from the civil war. We are very fragile right now.”

So, how do you help people who have lost hope? “We must guide them to use their own individualistic resources,” said Gannage. “Lebanese society does not offer anything for the people — people are left to rely on their own means of survival. It is not easy to help people today. As psychologists we can listen to people as much as possible, but even we don’t have the same hope that we once did.”




Noelle Jouane, director of Medecins du Monde's (MDM) mental health program in Beirut is pictured in the field in the Lebanese capital's Karantina district on August 11, 2020. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

Largely forced to fend for themselves, many Beirut residents simply need time to come to terms with what has happened and to find healthy ways to keep their minds occupied.

“I encouraged people to keep moving and to stick to routines and not to expect high levels of productivity from themselves,” said Gisele Chaine, a Lebanese psychologist with the Red Cross.

“People needed to go back slowly to everyday life. The people I am still speaking with over the phone are having less symptoms linked to trauma now, such as nightmares, lack of productivity and low concentration.”

It often depends on the level of individual resilience. “Sometimes, all they needed was someone to talk to. They needed to have a safe space over the phone,” Chaine said.

Perhaps a glimmer of hope lies in the numerous non-governmental organizations and support groups that were established in the wake of the blast. Many Lebanese, it seems, are finding a sense of purpose in helping to rebuild their community, even in the absence of government support. But then again, many others are choosing to leave the country to escape the trauma and the deepening economic malaise.




Clinical psychologist Mia Atwi, co-founder of Embrace, a suicide prevention helpline, reads emails in the Lebanese capital Beirut on July 13, 2018. (Photo by Anwar AMRO / AFP)

“Some families are still in the mountains and haven’t yet been able to go back to their houses in Beirut for fear of being in their damaged homes and being close to the site of the explosion,” said Mia Atwi, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Embrace, a suicide prevention helpline launched in 2013.

“There’s a lot of hopelessness, there’s a lot of despair. There are many people who have been working on leaving Lebanon. On the phone you hear people that are anxious, depressed, hopeless and feeling unsafe and feeling very confused.”

For many Lebanese, closure will only be found once some kind of justice and accountability is achieved.

“Part of the healing process for most of us is to have social justice,” said Atwi. “This is not an event you can heal from using only trauma therapy. The explosions were a political event as well. They are the result of the incompetence of the government that we are living under. We need to know who was responsible for this and hold them accountable.”

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor


Turkey, Qatar reached preliminary deal on Kabul airport security -Turkish sources

Updated 57 min 33 sec ago

Turkey, Qatar reached preliminary deal on Kabul airport security -Turkish sources

  • Kabul's international airport is landlocked Afghanistan's main air link to the world
  • Sources told reporters on Thursday that Ankara and Doha had agreed on a security framework for the airport mission

ANKARA: Turkey and Qatar have reached agreement on ensuring security at Kabul’s main airport should they be awarded the mission amid ongoing talks with the Taliban government, Turkish diplomatic sources said on Thursday.
Kabul’s international airport is landlocked Afghanistan’s main air link to the world. Following the August takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban, Turkey has said it would be open to operating it with Qatar but only if its security demands are met.
Reuters has reported that the United Arab Emirates also held talks with the Taliban to keep the airport operational.
The sources told reporters on Thursday that Ankara and Doha had agreed on a security framework for the airport mission, but added talks continued on other aspects such as financing.
“It is expected for the Taliban to ensure security outside, and for whoever runs the airport to ensure it inside,” one of the sources said. “The process is continuing constructively,” the person said on condition of anonymity.
They added that a delegation of Turkish and Qatari officials were holding talks on the issue in Kabul this week.
Qatar’s state news agency said the Taliban government will be in Doha next week to complete discussions with Qatar and Turkey over the operation and management of the airport.
It added that delegations from Qatar and Turkey have held two days of “intense negotiations” in Kabul this week over control of the airport.
Qatar — which helped run the airport along with Turkey after playing a major role in evacuation efforts following the chaotic US withdrawal in August — say that Ankara, Doha, and the Taliban have agreed that discussions are going to be completed next week.
Qatar’s role at the Kabul airport has ensured that flights have operated between Doha and Kabul since September, allowing Qatar to become a hub for countries to maintain links to Afghanistan and to meet the Taliban government. The United States, United Kingdom, Canada and several other countries have moved their Afghanistan embassies to Qatar.
On Wednesday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was sending 700 tons of emergency aid and supplies to Afghanistan, without providing a date.


Storm blankets Syrian tented camps in snow, at least one child dead

Updated 20 January 2022

Storm blankets Syrian tented camps in snow, at least one child dead

  • The child died and its mother was in intensive care after snow caused their tent to collapse in the Qastal Miqdad area

ZAITOUN CAMP, Syria: At least one child was killed in northern Syria this week when a storm blanketed tented camps in snow and brought freezing temperatures, compounding the misery of thousands of people displaced by the Mediterranean country’s decade-long war.
The child died and its mother was in intensive care after snow caused their tent to collapse in the Qastal Miqdad area, as a result of the storm that struck on Jan. 18, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
Two children were hospitalized due to the cold, it said.
“I was scared the tent would fall down on the kids,” Abu Anas said in Zaitoun camp in northern Syria, after his family fled from eastern Gouta, an area on the outskirts of Damascus that was devastated by the conflict.
“It is a miserable situation. No heating, a tent that is not suitable even for animals. Our situation is bad,” he said after Storm Hiba struck.
In his camp, people laid stones across puddles to create footpaths.
The United Nations, which warned about flooding once the snow started to melt, said 362 tents had been damaged in the region as of Jan. 19 and more than 400 families had been affected.
In the northern camp of Abraz, one of the worst affected places, families had to be evacuated, the United Nations said.
The storm also disrupted life elsewhere in Syria. In government-held areas, universities and other educational institutions postponed exams. Syria’s ports temporarily closed.
Syria’s civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people, forced millions to flee their homes, creating one of the worst refugee crises since World War Two.
With Russian backing, the Syrian government has regained control of most of the country, driving rebel opponents to pockets of territory in the north.


Biden weighs up returning Houthis to US terror list

Updated 20 January 2022

Biden weighs up returning Houthis to US terror list

  • US leader faces criticism over failure to address terrorist violence as he says it is 'not the time to give up' on nuclear talks with Iran

CHICAGO: US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that he is considering re-designating Yemen’s Houthi militia as an international terrorist organization days after the Iran-backed group killed three people in a drone strike in the UAE.
Marking his first full year in office with a two-hour press conference, Biden focused on his domestic efforts and the fight against COVID-19, but also touched on foreign policy issues, mostly addressing the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, and also taking questions on Iran and Yemen.
Weeks after taking office in 2021, Biden officially delisted the Houthi militia as a “foreign terrorist organization,” a designation put in place by his predecessor, Donald Trump.
The US leader has also worked to bring Iran back to the negotiating table over its nuclear weapons program.
Asked if he would redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist group, Biden replied: “It’s under consideration.”
Houthi rebels claimed credit for a cross-border drone strike on Monday that killed three migrant workers in the UAE.
Biden’s Special Envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking, was sent to the Gulf and London on Wednesday “to reinvigorate peace efforts in coordination with the UN, senior regional government officials and other international partners,” according to a statement from US State Department spokesman Ned Price.
“The special envoy and his team will press the parties to de-escalate militarily and participate fully in an inclusive UN-led peace process,” Price said.
Lenderking will also address “the urgent need to mitigate the dire humanitarian and economic crises facing Yemenis.”

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Price quoted UN data released last week that shows 16 million people in Yemen need aid totaling about $3.9 billion.
“It is imperative that donors, especially regional donors, provide additional funding, and that all parties to the conflict take steps to improve humanitarian access and address Yemen’s fuel crisis,” the UN said.
Biden was also asked if he was making progress with Iran in efforts to force the regime to adhere to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or nuclear deal.
“It is not time to give up. There is some progress to be made,” he replied.
However, the lengthy press conference was clearly intended to highlight Biden’s achievements since being sworn in as president one year ago on Jan. 20, 2021.
Political analyst Dalia Al-Aqidi said Biden’s press conference sounded more like a campaign speech, and appeared to be orchestrated to allow him to address his political talking points as Democrats and Republicans prepare for a midterm election battle for control for the House and Senate this year.
“Basically, we just saw the first draft of his presidential campaign pitch, and I expect that America will hear the same speech over and over while the country is suffering from a stalling economy and colossal inflation,” said Al-Aqidi, a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy.
She criticized Biden’s failure to address terrorist violence that resurfaced in Colleyville, Texas, this week when four members of a synagogue were held hostage until the gunman was killed by police.
The US leader confirmed he plans to run for re-election and will keep Kamala Harris as his vice presidential running mate. He also defended his role in the sudden US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Biden initially took questions from 11 reporters, who were on a list he held at the podium. Questions focused on the economy, mounting tensions with Russia over Ukraine, and growing polarization in the US. He acknowledged the need to get out of the White House and “speak directly” to the American people.
Halfway through the press conference, Biden accepted questions from other reporters who were sometimes openly critical of his performance.
The US leader insisted he has made significant progress easing the economic burden caused by the global pandemic, including creating 6 million jobs, reducing unemployment to 3.9 percent and getting 210 million Americans fully vaccinated.
Biden also claimed he is working to bring the country together, and blamed the failure to bridge the nation’s growing divide on Trump, citing private discussions he has had with several Republican senators who say they fear Trump will undermine their re-election if they support Biden’s agenda.


International apathy has emboldened Yemen’s Houthis, Saudi envoy tells UN

Updated 20 January 2022

International apathy has emboldened Yemen’s Houthis, Saudi envoy tells UN

  • Mohammed Abdulaziz Alateek also reaffirmed Kingdom’s support for people of Lebanon and urged authorities there to end ‘terrorist Hezbollah’s control of state’
  • He also pledged his country’s continuing support and commitment to the Palestinian cause, and to comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East

NEW YORK: The failure of the international community to take decisive action to address the terrorist activities of the Houthis in Yemen has emboldened the Iran-backed militia to attack the Yemeni people and threaten peace and security in the region and beyond, Saudi Arabia’s deputy permanent representative to the UN said on Wednesday.

Mohammed Abdulaziz Alateek told the Security Council that the Kingdom reserves the right to “take any necessary measure in line with international law” to respond to Houthi aggression. It came two days after a deadly attack on neighboring Abu Dhabi by the militia.

The envoy said authorities in the UAE have the full support of the Kingdom “as they address any threat to their stability and security,” and called on the international community “to confront the terrorist Houthi militias.”

The ministerial-level meeting was convened by Norway, which holds the presidency of the Security Council this month, to discuss the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question.

Saudi Arabia’s deputy permanent representative to the UN Mohammed Abdulaziz Alateek. (SPA)

Alateek said that Tehran provides support to the Houthis “day after day” and added: “These terrorist militias continue to disregard the aspirations of the Yemeni people and to threaten regional and international peace and security.

“A case in point is their violation and threats to international navigation and their use of civilian facilities and Yemeni ports to undermine regional security and attack civilians in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

On Monday this week, three people were killed and six injured by a drone strike on a key oil facility in the Emirati capital, and a separate fire was sparked at Abu Dhabi’s international airport. The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attacks, which immediately drew condemnation worldwide.

Last Friday the Security Council unanimously condemned another hostile Houthi act, the seizure on Jan. 3 of the UAE-flagged ship Rwabee in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen and the detention of its crew.

In a statement drafted by the UK, council members demanded the immediate release of the vessel and those on board, and urged the Houthis to guarantee the safety and well-being of the crew.

Civilian targets in Saudi Arabia have also repeatedly come under attack from Houthi-launched drone and missile strikes.

Highlighting the Saudi peace initiative to end the conflict in Yemen, Alateek called on the international community and the Security Council to “take all necessary measures against these terrorist militias that obstruct peace and any attempt to reach a political solution sponsored by the UN in line with resolution 2216, the Gulf Initiative and the outcome of the National Dialogue.”

Turning to the crisis in Lebanon, Alateek reaffirmed Saudi Arabia’s support for the people of the country and urged Lebanese authorities to prioritize “their people, to meet their aspirations for security, stability and well-being, and to end terrorist Hezbollah’s control of the state.”

Regarding the Palestinian question, Alateek said Riyadh remains committed to ending the occupation, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and ensuring Palestinian refugees can return home.

“We stress that comprehensive and lasting peace in the middle East is a strategic choice to end one of the most protracted conflicts in our modern history, based on the two-state solution and international terms of reference, as well as the Arab peace initiative of 2022,” he said.

“All these initiatives call for the establishment of the Palestinian state along the borders of June 4, 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital, the return of refugees, and an end to the Israeli occupation of all Arab territories, including the Syrian Golan and Lebanese territories.”

Alateek accused Israel of continuing “to violate international laws and norms in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, committing the most heinous forms of injustice and aggression against the Palestinian people.”

He called on the Security Council and the wider international community to assume their responsibilities toward Palestinians by “ensuring justice,

achieving the aspirations of the Palestinian people to establish their own independent state as guaranteed in international laws, and deal firmly with the Israeli violations of international law and relevant UN resolutions.”


European countries urge Israel to stop construction in East Jerusalem

Updated 20 January 2022

European countries urge Israel to stop construction in East Jerusalem

  • Earlier in the month, Israeli authorities approved plans for the construction of around 3,500 homes in occupied East Jerusalem

PARIS: The foreign ministries of France, Germany, Italy and Spain urged Israeli authorities on Wednesday evening to stop the construction of new housing units in East Jerusalem.
Earlier in the month, Israeli authorities approved plans for the construction of around 3,500 homes in occupied East Jerusalem, nearly half of which are to be built in the controversial areas of Givat Hamatos and Har Homa.
In a statement, the European countries said that the hundreds of new buildings would “constitute an additional obstacle to the two-state solution,” referring to international peace efforts to create a state for Palestinians.
They said that building in this area would further disconnect the West Bank from East Jerusalem and that these settlements are a violation of international law.
The Israeli ministry of foreign affairs did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Israel captured East Jerusalem including the Old City in a 1967 war and later annexed it, a move not recognized internationally.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem for the capital of a state they seek in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which abuts the city, and the Gaza Strip. Israel views the entire city as its indivisible capital.
Most world powers deem the Israeli settlements illegal for taking in territory where Palestinians seek statehood.
The four countries also expressed concern about the evictions and demolitions in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where residents say they are being displaced.
Earlier Wednesday, Israeli police evicted a Palestinian family from their East Jerusalem home — which they say they had lived in for decades — before a digger tore down the property, prompting criticism from rights activists and diplomats.