My Camera and Moments of Helplessness on August 4
Date: 
August 3, 2021
Author: 
blog Series: 
Commemorating the Beirut Port Explosion

It was a peaceful day. I returned home after a long summer day at work and prepared a plate of macaroni and cold yogurt. My wife and daughter were spending time with family in Tripoli. I was about to put the spoon in my mouth when I felt an ascending vibration in the house. I stopped and ran towards the table when I felt a strong shaking in the ground, I thought it was an earthquake. The house seemed like it was swaying and I didn't understand what was happening so I laid on the floor hoping to protect myself. All of a sudden, I felt a few seconds of absolute silence.. and then I heard the sound of a massive explosion, the ground erupted and some kitchen utensils flew across the room.

I immediately went onto the balcony to see what was going on and whether the explosion was near.. My building and those nearby were filled with screams, getting louder out of fear. I looked towards the parking lot and found that a building window smashed onto my car.  

I instinctively grabbed my camera, went down to the parking lot and took my bike as it was the fastest way to go around Beirut’s narrow streets. Glass was everywhere; buildings nearby were made of glass that shattered instantly. I tried to find out what had happened but the only conclusion I arrived to was that an assassination attempt had taken place. I looked towards the sky hoping to find the direction of the explosion, I saw heavy pink smoke, the color, while beautiful, frightened me. I took a route through Ras El-Nabe’ towards downtown Beirut as it is the location most likely to experience an assassination attempt or the like.

As I approached the intersection of Bechara El Khoury, the amount of destruction and shattered glass increased. I heard someone say: at Ashrafiye! And another say: at Mar Mikhayel. I got closer to Falafel Sahyoun barely able to drive my bike due to the glass and rubble on the ground. I saw a police office and asked him about the location, introducing myself as a journalist. He told me: go to the Port.

I continued my way towards the port and arrived to the An-nahar newspaper building; its [front] was completely destroyed. I couldn’t comprehend the extent of the explosion. What kind of explosion led to all this damage that reached so far. I realized that this wasn’t a natural disaster or an assassination attempt, otherwise, how can such damage be made?

I turned round and headed to Al Saifi, and there was the real surprise. I thought for a second that I was a Hollywood movie: destruction, blood, smashed cars, devastated buildings.. I raised my camera and saw images of the wounded emerging slowly from behind the dust. Some were carrying the injured on motorbikes, others were laying on the ground after losing their ability to see. I couldn't take a picture. I was in a state of shock, daze, and helplessness. What should I do? Do I document the images of the wounded and victims or do I help them?! I decided to head towards the location of the explosion, perhaps I would find out what had happened and make calls to explain the situation to the public.

I arrived at the port. At the entrance, there were some army and intelligence members preventing civilians from entering to keep them safe after receiving information that there were dangerous chemical material inside that could cause a second explosion. They checked my camera and verified my journalism ID. I was worried they would as for my identification card since I was Palestinian. That could have prevented me from entering but they ignored the fact and allowed me to enter without my bike since it would have been difficult to ride while shrapnel from buildings was still falling and there was metal on the ground.

I ran quickly into the port and began taking pictures. There was nothing inside but an ambulance and four cars belonging to the civil defense and fire brigade. I could not comprehend the size of the damage at the port; the silos were destroyed, the warehouses were in pieces, and everything was on fire. I began shooting images of members of the civil defense and fire brigade while they worked. I approached one of them and asked him, is this is a good number? Referring to how many members were there. He looked at me with a burnt-out, suffocating look, one not caused by the fires but by a feeling of helplessness. He answered: “I hope they bring [brigades] from all areas to help us.”

Moments later, one a wounded man emerged screaming: "My friend! Where is he? What happened? We flew off the ground and none of the men who were with me are here!" I took my phone out and began filming what I was witnessing. I began receiving calls from Arab and foreign news outlets to comment on what had happened. I sounded  nervous and emotional in my interviews due to the severity of the crime.

I then decided to retreat home out of exhaustion and I didn't realize that I had hurt my foot with shards of glass while running inside the port. I decided to take a different route back so I can see the extent of the damage around the port, but the dark atmosphere prevented me from witnessing all details. What I saw, however, was difficult and terrorizing.

I arrived home exhausted and unable to move. I lied on the couch replaying the day, it seemed as if it had been an entire year of events, I held my tears on the city that I loved, I felt as if Beirut was dying. having a flash-back of the day. It felt like a year of events, I kept my tears from falling for the city I loved. I felt like Beirut was dying.

The memory of August 4 returns to us bearing a painful reality in Lebanon economically, socially, and politically. The memory returns bearing moments of sadness at the camps and the active participation of the Palestinian civil defense in rescue missions. Memories return to us and we are hopeful that they will be the last of Beirut’s grief.

About The Author: 

Ahmad Laila is a photojournalist.

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