Where were you on the fourth of August?

The Port of Beirut (Photo: Melissa Ajamian)

“Where were you on the fourth of August” has become our new “Hello, how are you?” The difference is that, unlike its predecessor, we wait for the answer to this question with bated breath. The difference is that we don’t provide cookie cutter answers to this question. Instead, we provide minute details, going through our memories of that day with a fine comb. Now that the yellow and orange dust has settled quite literally, we are nowhere closer to healing. Our streets that were once bustling with noise, people and laughter and once filled with heritage buildings and memories of our youth, are now eerily quiet and are stark reminders of the collective tragedy we underwent as a people. Our streets are open wounds. They are sores that ooze their way into our daily lives, and we know full well that these lives will never be the same again.

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To this day, I have to remind myself that August 4 was not a nightmare. Scratch that. It was a nightmare, but it actually happened. You have to forget and keep moving on, they tell me. Why aren’t you working on healing? These statements bewilder me.

It’s hard to forget when exactly a month later, we find out that there’s a little heart still beating under the rubble. News reported 18 beats per minute, others reported 15 beats per minute. The heartbeat is gradually slowing down—a heartbeat that has been stuck under the wreckage of a building for 30 days, possibly laying next to another body whose heartbeat has gone still. The fact that the heartbeat can be that of a child is unimaginable. A child who will have to carry the weight of this trauma for the rest of their lives… if they survive the trauma of being trapped for days and nights, faceless, voiceless and helpless.

Survivor’s guilt has tripled in the last two days: why did I not suffer as much? I should have suffered more. To add absurdity to absurdity, we also find out that there are still unexploded bags of ammonium nitrate in the port.

How do I allow myself to heal when people are still suffering? The biggest act of treachery would be for me to carry on as if our home were not blown to smithereens around us. How do I allow myself to heal when my friends leave everyday to pursue other things, anything, anywhere else. How do I heal when more of us leave? When one of us leaves? When one like me leaves? How do I heal when I’m digging out shards of glass from my legs with tweezers? How do I heal when my legs are bruised the ugliest yellow, green and purple? When I attempt to rest my tired bones, I cannot. I have to excavate for glass. Mind you, I didn’t get physically hurt on the day of the explosion. This glass I’ve inherited by relocating back into my apartment.

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How do I heal? How do I rest when there is a beating heart under the rubble left unattended by a criminal government? 

On the fourth of August, a month ago, I am turning around in circles in place. I look towards Gemmayze and all I see is a large, ominous cloud. A young woman from the Philippines holds my arm and shakes me awake. I look at her; her eyelid is heavily cut, blood streaming into her eye and down her face. She begs me to help her get to Bourj Hammoud so she can go home. I grab her by the shoulder, and I start waving cars down. Any car. Please stop. Please help. No one stops. Everyone is scared, scattering back home. Finally, a car stops: a young man says, “Anything you want, anywhere you want.” Please take her to Bourj Hammoud, I plead. Thank you. I love you so much. I felt love in that moment. I stand in my place again, aimless.

I run back and forth with no purpose. I am shocked beyond words. I scream at the top of my lungs until my throat hurts. It was not a scream of fear. It was a primal scream, like that of a wounded animal. A man, who had more injuries than I could count, heavily bloodied, approaches me and asks me if I am okay. Again, I run my fingers and my hands over my body and my face. I am not injured. He smiles. “Not a scratch,” he says. He walks away. I stare at him as he looks back at me.

I think of these people every day.

There are so many ambulances parked in front of the Forum of Beirut. The arena where I excitedly watched Elton John sing “Tiny Dancer” has been gutted. Gutted. I blindly drive home. I don’t know when and how I get there. 

A view from the author’s apartment window in Mar Mikhael

A day after, my cat has still not budged. He is hiding in a difficult place. I cannot reach him. His food, water and litter box remain untouched. I coax him out. His heart is beating so fast that I let him hide again. I close off the door of the decrepit living room. If I can’t see it, then it didn’t happen. I slide back into bed. I stink. I want to shower, but I am too scared of another explosion happening when I am in there. I want to sleep, but I can’t because all I can hear is shattered glass being thrown into the large garbage containers in front of my building. These containers are filled to the brim and overflowing. 

I shut my bedroom door. I don’t want to hear the despair and the ambulances outside. I shut my balcony door. I cocoon. I can’t sleep. I just can’t. And now I can’t cry either. I get up. I open one door, and the other door blasts open because it came unhinged in the explosion. I am startled. I start sobbing. I am pretty sure they are going to finish off what they started. I am too scared to stay. Every little sound unnerves me. Again, I pack my most essential belongings into a big black plastic bag, and I drive to my parents’ house. This time, I cry all the way home. 

A month after, the Lebanese army shows up to my apartment, attempting to assess the damage. They look around my place, look back at me, smile and say, “Hamdella (thank God) everything is replaceable.” I respond, “How will you replace my broken brain and my broken heart?” They laugh at my absurd question and leave. A couple of days later, we know of a heart beating under the rubble, and the pain of August 4 re-emerges, as fresh and as dark.

A view of the Port of Beirut (Photo: Melissa Ajamian)
Melissa Ajamian

Melissa Ajamian

Melissa Ajamian is the Assistant Director for the Middle East Partnership Initiative Tomorrow's Leaders (MEPI-TL) Undergraduate Program at the American University of Beirut (AUB). She is also a part-time instructor in the Department of Political Studies and Public Administration at AUB.
Melissa Ajamian

@MelissaAjamian

Instructor @aub_lebanon and Assistant Director @aubmepi /Opinions expressed are purely personal / Will occasionally tweet about cats and/or Bob Dylan
When you realize one country rejects you and makes your life unbearable and the other, the soil you never got to ki… https://t.co/d4mEMIa5CT - 2 hours ago
Melissa Ajamian

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6 Comments

  1. I’m so sorry to hear that you have received such insensitive responses like “You have to forget and keep moving on”… Why aren’t you working on healing?”
    These are comments from people who dont understand trauma and who very likely are dissociated from their own traumas and their own bodies.
    I hope you can find time to look at info about PTSD to help ease your way forward.
    Wishing you all the love and compassion you need…there is no hurry. Your reactions are so normal for such an awful experience. Be gentle with yourself. ♡

  2. Heart wrenching! You must be very strong Melissa and courageous for you to be able to write this article. Terrible experience. I was in Lebanon in 2016 in the month of August and I remember that I use to use the port road from the city center to travel to Bourj Hammood and Naccach. I can’t take my mind from the thought of that daily travel by car every day for a month. I would like to second Poppy’s words of “LOVE” and “COMPASSION” and be blessed. I also want to encourage you as a Psychotherapist from a very far place, to write. Write as much as possible, sometime a few words other time a page, but please write. It will help you immensely. I wish you all the best and be blessed. God bless everyone in Lebanon. My heart goes to everyone.

  3. This is beautiful and moving, Mel. Thank you for sharing your experience and pain, which is shared by so many. I love you.

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