We all remember where we were the minute we heard the devastating news of August 4, 2020. While the rest of the world was coming to terms with the pandemic, in Lebanon the Beirut Blast and its aftermath was unfolding. Within minutes, videos of the seemingly ‘end of days’ mushroom cloud emanating from the capital city’s port were circulating across the globe. Just over a year on, the long-term effects are still being totted up, though the Rising Giants Network has announced the launch of a new podcast, Beirut Blast, to try and make sense of the situation. This Docuseries looks to shed light on the cause, effect, and aftermath of the explosion– speaking with victims, survivors, and mourners. The shows have been released in both Arabic and English with Linda Tamim, a journalist and radio broadcaster based in Beirut, taking the English-speaking duties and radio and TV presenter Nada Itani, the Arabic. We spoke to both about the programme and their personal experiences of that fateful day.
One year has passed since the blast, aside from the podcast, how as Beirut citizens do you personally reflect on what has happened and what are your thoughts on the future?
Nada: After witnessing such a traumatic event, things will never be the same for sure. My mental health and the Lebanese mental health were affected. You just feel like a walking zombie. Nothing makes you happy anymore and nothing makes sense - I feel empty somehow, you can even sense this huge wave of sadness that doesn’t seem to have an end. We can all feel it and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’ve witnessed continuous panic attacks, insomnia, and serious mood swings ever since. I even lost hope in any coming change for the country. There’s a very slight amount of people who still have hope, but the majority just left or stayed here involuntarily. And the fact of going across the port every day is never easy. You suddenly have teary eyes, feeling this pain deep down. A feeling of helplessness and despair.
Linda: The trauma of August 4 is still with us a year on; some of us carry physical scars which may never heal, but whether or not we were injured, we are all emotionally and mentally affected to a certain degree. We each deal with pain and trauma in different ways, and it may be something we can learn to live with over time, but I doubt it’s something we can ever get over – especially if one has lost a loved one. It’s impossible to get closure and move on until the truth is revealed about what caused the blast, and those responsible for it are held accountable. I know it won’t be an easy battle and we have a long way to go until we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially given the series of never-ending crises we’ve been going through. The near future doesn’t look bright, but in the long term we’re hoping that the tragedy was a turning point in achieving change and in building a better Lebanon.
Where were you when the incident occurred and how did it immediately affect you?
Nada: I was one minute away from the port five minutes before the blast took place. I had just arrived at my friend’s house. And the minute I got into her kitchen I heard the explosion. I was in danger. I thank God I wasn’t driving at that moment.
Linda: We were all in danger, no one in Beirut was safe. Everyone I know who survived this blast - including myself - had a narrow escape, and us being alive or unharmed was just a matter of luck. Personally, I was on my way home from work when it happened – home being literally across from the port where the explosion happened. My view was the grain silo. I happened to work late that day, and that’s what saved me. Had I been home as per usual I wouldn’t be here today, judging by the state I found my room in. I don’t think I could’ve possibly survived. When the explosion happened, I was in a cab only five minutes away from the port. I was confused and terrified like everyone else, but I was OK. I was very lucky.
What made you decide on a podcast to tell this story? What tone would you say the series is going for?
Nada: The podcast is a way to keep the memories of victims alive, and not to take the parents and survivors’ pain for granted. It’s a way to share this suffering to the world. It’s speaking our voice to heal and to accept what happened. This podcast is so many things at the same time.
Linda: When I was contacted by Rising Giants Network to work on the podcast, I immediately accepted. Having been on the ground on the day of the blast onwards, I’ve witnessed so much, and I’ve met many inspiring people whose stories deserve to be shared. The good thing about listening to a podcast is it allows you to be fully immersed in the experience, and live (or relive) the story through the voices of those who are speaking. Watching documentaries doesn’t allow you to live those experiences as fully, it doesn’t allow you to use your imagination and picture scenes in your mind; and news reports are way too short to give you a real sense of what characters have been through. So I’m really glad I produced a podcast series, and although listeners will only hear a part of what was shared with me (it’s hard to include everything!) I’m really hoping I did the characters justice and got the essence of their stories across.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learnt from the interviews conducted while making the podcast?
Nada: I’ve learned from this experience so many things: how to detach emotionally from people that I love while I can still love them. Because once you lose this person this should not be the end of your life. And I’ve seen this during the interviews. I’ve learned how to deal with others’ pain and how to control my feelings. The surprising parts were the amount of pain parents still feel after one year and the hope some people still have for the country.
Linda: The strength of people. Parents who lost their child for instance and decided to fight for justice on her behalf, spending their days talking to the media and spreading awareness on the crime of August 4 and the lack of accountability; activists fighting for change, refusing to give up just yet despite all the hardships; people who are still struggling with emotional trauma, yet who still find the strength to get on with their lives and brave their inner demons. People who gave their all when they had nothing left; volunteers, young and old, who dedicated their time and efforts to helping others without expecting anything in return. Each and every single person in this podcast is an inspiration to me, and I’m so grateful they shared their experiences with me. Their stories deserve to be heard and shared.
Does the podcast make conclusions or offer commentary or was it a conscious decision to simply record peoples’ testaments? What do you hope the podcast achieves?
Nada: The podcast may be a closure to me and others. We listened to people’s testimonials, and this will differently impact listeners. We don’t know how exactly. There’s always ways to help these people. A girl called Hayat’s birthday is this month and I promised to do her make up and take her for lunch by the sea. Another called Rima also is awaiting my visit, she said I make her laugh so hard and she hasn’t laughed along with her daughter Hanan since last year. So, to me there’s always a way to help. The podcast feedback is great so far. Everyone was deeply touched and involved emotionally. They felt this pain through words without an image and that’s harder to show.
Linda: There are no conclusions, no. Not definite ones at least. I mean if you look at the situation here now, everything is uncertain, and no one knows what tomorrow will bring. I definitely hope our stories will be heard and shared as widely as possible. The authorities are betting on the whole story to die down with time, and people’s cries for justice along with it. But we won’t let this happen, and I took it upon myself to keep sharing those stories not only to raise awareness, but also to pay tribute to all the victims of the blast, dead or alive. People can definitely help by sharing not only the podcast, but also posts on social media from reliable sources which shed light on all that’s happening in Lebanon. We are facing a massive economic crisis at the moment, and there are many ways to help; send medications, donate to trustworthy NGOs, hire Lebanese talents – we have so many talented people, and it breaks my heart to see them leaving because they don’t have the opportunity to grow in their own country. I’ve poured my heart, soul, and tears into this podcast and the feedback I’ve been getting so far has been amazing. It’s a huge responsibility, yet it’s an honour and the biggest praise I could ever receive not only as a journalist, but also as a Lebanese citizen fighting for change.
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