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A firsthand account from the hours after Beirut's explosion

Jackeline Atwi's niece was missing. As she desperately tried to find her, hope was running low.

UNICEF Lebanon Child Protection Officer Jackeline Atwi lost her home in Beirut's explosions on August 4. But she almost lost her niece. She writes about the hours immediately after the blasts, and the desperate search to find her.

I had only just left work and was visiting a friend who lives near the UNICEF office in Beirut. Shortly after 6pm we felt what the rest of our city felt: a tremor which shook Beirut so hard we thought it was an earthquake.

We soon realised this was something else. Gathering ourselves, we heard news of an explosion in Beirut’s port area. The port area is just half a kilometre from my home. My 18-year-old niece, Elissar, was spending the afternoon there alone.

I began to fit the pieces of this horrific jigsaw together and remembered that only minutes earlier she had shared with me a video of her view from my home. You could see a small fire in a port warehouse. I played the typical aunt role, calming her, reassuring her that it would be dealt with swiftly, and that she had nothing to worry about. Now, when I called Elissar, she didn’t answer.

Jackeline and Elissar
Jackeline and Elissar

Jackeline and her niece, Elissar.

I called my husband, but he was too far from home to get across the city to check on her. A friend and me set off by car towards the port and my home. We didn’t get far through the city’s streets – every road was now covered with debris and broken glass and blocked with traffic as others sought to find loved ones or to move to what they hoped would be safety.

Instead we made our way on foot closer to the port, becoming part of a slowly moving sea of humanity. People walked with us bloodied and injured. Others lay outside homes and businesses, crying out for help. It was chaos. And still I couldn't comprehend why, nor know the fate of my home and Elissar. My body was numb, and my mind racing.

My building was in sight at last. Where doors and windows once hung there were now gaping holes. The walls were stained in blood and there was shattered glass everywhere. I scaled five flights of stairs to reach my home. Every apartment I passed was laid to waste, twisted piles of metal, shards of glass, and spilled furniture. Any remaining hope was sucked from me.

Jackeline Atwi's home before the explosion
Jackeline Atwi's home before the explosion

Jackeline Atwi's home before the explosion.

Jackeline Atwi's home after the explosion.
Jackeline Atwi's home after the explosion.

Jackeline Atwi's home after the explosion.

The first sight of home was a bloody handprint on the wall. I knew it could only be Elissar’s hand. My home was unrecognisable. Broken completely, doors thrown across rooms. I checked Elissar's room. It was destroyed entirely. I found her broken phone. I called out to neighbours. They hadn't seen her.

My own phone was ringing constantly. But I was focused on searching for Elissar, I answered no one. My brother – Elissar’s father – was calling. How could I tell him I was fine but didn’t know what had happened to his daughter?

I called the team at UNICEF and also some friends. We put a plan in to action to visit hospitals to look for Elissar. My husband joined the search. No one called with the news that we wanted – needed – to hear.

I sat in increasing numbness, feeling weaker as the hours passed by. I started to process the magnitude of the explosion’s assault on Beirut.

UNI356239 - Beirut
UNI356239 - Beirut

Later that night, my phone rang with an unknown number. I answered to hear Elissar’s trembling voice. Injured by the blast, she had nonetheless had the presence of mind to make her way across the blast zone to the hospital. As she moved through the streets, she her own fear to one side as she collected injured children and took them along with her – to safety and to care.

I lost my home on that day. So did many people in Beirut. I'm grateful to be alive and have found Elissar alive too.

After the cruellest of events, many of Beirut’s citizens will live on with the mental trauma of the explosion. For us all, reestablishing normality is essential – especially through the reconstruction of buildings. Of even greater importance is the mental wellbeing of the city’s people. Counselling for children who have experienced severe shock and been displaced is urgent. The same applies for their caregivers.

In time, my life will return to normal. But for now my emotions swing from gratitude to anger, to fear, confusion and hope. I cry every time I visit my neighbourhood. I cry for the loss of so many. I cry also for the good fortune of my family who were able to survive. Only now, with the support of others, can the healing of Beirut begin.

Since the explosion UNICEF has delivered critical supplies

So far UNICEF has been able to deliver 18 shipments of critical supplies, totalling 67 tons. The shipments included vital personal protective equipment (PPE), medical, health and nutrition supplies.

But we need more than US$46.7 million to respond to the immediate needs of children and families over the next three months. These funds will help to keep children safe, restore basic essential services, limit the spread of Covid-19 and equip young people with skills they need to be part of the effort to rebuild their country.

We're racing critical supplies to support Lebanon’s children, but to do that we urgently need your help.

Please donate now and help save lives.