August 5, 2021
From The Public Source (Lebanon)

At the Civil Defense station in Karantina, a motorcyclist offered them a ride. Elie hopped on behind, still cradling Chris. “I’m going to Mar Youssef Hospital,” he shouted. “Follow me!” 

“Go!” shouted Mirna. 

She took off running on bloody legs. A bone was sticking out of her right arm. People were pointing at her and saying: “Yi, poor thing, look at her eye!” But all she could think about was Chris.

When she saw a car with no doors — they had blown off in the blast — she got in without waiting to be asked. “All I want,” she said to the young man driving the car, “is for you to take me to Mar Youssef Hospital.” 

Inside the emergency room, she wouldn’t let anyone come near her. She circled and circled, frantically searching for Chris among all the injured bodies, for a grueling 25 minutes. 

“Please, cover your eye,” said a nurse, finally. “People are getting scared of you.” The nurse held her hand and helped her find Elie and her son

Later, she realized she had been walking right past them the whole time. “The funny and devastating thing about that was that Chris was on my right,” she said, “but I couldn’t see him.”

What Is This Big Lie We Are Living In Lebanon?

The Beirut Blast of August 4, 2020 was one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in history. It killed over 250 people, injured over 6,500, and left an unknown number of people — despite several information requests from The Public Source, the government failed to disclose any official number — disabled in some way.

Rona Dbeissi, project manager at the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities (LUPD), told The Public Source that the blast left several hundred people with permanent disabilities, and hundreds more — perhaps as many as 1,000 — with disabilities that may or may not turn out to be temporary. But Dbeissi cautioned that the LUPD had not been able to reach everyone. “There are between 300 and 400 people who have permanent disabilities that we are sure about,” said Dbeissi. “But there are some people for whom we don’t know what their condition will be in the future.”

Sylvana Lakkis, president of the LUPD, told The Public Source that based on field visits, communications with hospitals, and Red Cross data, the blast left at least 800 to 1000 people with disabilities of some kind. “Maybe the number is higher,” Lakkis said with a sigh. “But this is the number we have.”

The night of the blast, as Mirna lay on the operating table, caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan made an announcement: Lebanon’s Health Ministry would cover healthcare costs for anyone who went to the hospital that day.

But many of the people injured in the blast would need months, if not years, of follow-up treatment: hospital visits, surgeries, medical testing and physical rehabilitation. Over the next month, as pressure mounted from a furious public, the government promised to pay for it all.

Yet today, one year after the blast, Mirna and hundreds like her are still fighting to cover their medical costs. The Public Source talked to six people who were wounded or disabled by the blast, as well as to their friends and loved ones. We found that after paying for some initial treatments, Lebanon’s government has all but abandoned its commitment to the people with disabilities from the blast, forcing them to pay mounting medical bills amid one of the world’s worst economic meltdowns in 170 years.

Today, after the trauma of surviving the blast, they are still adjusting to the new reality of their altered bodies. Most of them lost their homes, livelihoods, and everything they own. At the same time, they are struggling to pay for desperately needed medical care — even as many of them have lost work as a result of the blast. 

“There are many people who are still struggling and facing near death because they couldn’t finish their treatment and/or surgery,” said Lakkis. “I’m not exaggerating: The situation is extremely bad — really, really bad.”

To add insult to injury, the government’s outdated and inconsistently enforced laws are excluding many of those disabled by the blast from being legally designated as disabled: in other words, forcing them to fight for the right to join a group of people whose rights that same government has neglected and denied for over two decades. “It’s not my fault that I was there, at the wrong place at the wrong time, getting milk for my son, when the explosion happened,” said Mirna Habbouche. “How is it my fault?

As Lebanon’s currency lost 90 percent of its value, and inflation skyrocketed, the people disabled by the blast have spent the past year scraping together money from various sources: paying out of pocket from their plummeting savings, borrowing from friends and relatives, and scrambling to find charities who will pick up the tab — relying on help from anyone, in fact, but the political leaders whose negligence and systemic corruption led to their injuries in the first place.

Under Law 196, passed in December 2020, people killed in the blast are designated “army martyrs,” which means that their families are entitled to monthly payments of a little over one million L.L. — not much, given the free fall of Lebanon’s national currency, but better than nothing. Lakkis and others believe that people with disabilities from the blast should be getting a similar monthly income. “The state needs to step in,” said Lakkis. “There needs to be equity. Not just to pay back what they lost, but also offer reparations.”

“What is this big lie we are living in Lebanon?” said Hassan Yassine, acting head of the Civil Defense station in Bachoura. The station was badly damaged during the blast, and one of Yassin’s colleagues was injured so badly his leg had to be amputated. “Our whole lives have been destroyed, and now they are even making us disabled. The least the state should do is to look at those who became injured due to the blast.”