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One thing the victims of the August explosion in Beirut all said in recounting their stories: They could tell where to go by following the trails of blood. As evening fell in the hour after the blast, they struggled to leave buildings blocked by debris and broken glass, only to make it to streets filled with rubble and pancaked cars.
Wilma Saloum, one of those I profiled, said only motorcycles could make it through the blast zone that night. She and her friend George, like many I spoke to, followed other injured to one, two, three hospitals before finding care. Some of the injured I contacted did not want their stories published or their photos taken. Glass shrapnel isn’t pretty. One woman I hoped to visit had 68 stitches, another 250.
I arrived in Beirut four days after that dark night and spent 48 hours in a quarantine hotel awaiting results of a COVID-19 test, my second of the trip. By the time I could walk the devastated streets, most international journalists had gone home. The story of what’s being called one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history faded from headlines in the face of lesser news.
This sort of homegrown relief effort came out of no one’s plenty. It came from their want.
For days in Beirut good and evil did battle in visceral and visible ways. At the American University of Beirut Medical Center, 500 injured arrived the night of the explosion—to a hospital without power and with walls of broken glass, its ICU beds full of COVID-19 patients.
Further, Lebanon’s financial crisis had forced the medical center to lay off 850 medical workers in recent months. Yet off-duty nurses and regular folks rushed there to help, holding their phones aloft to shine light over the shoulders of doctors who tied off sutures in the dark.
Some of the injured showed up in the streets the next day to begin cleanup. Hicham Nassif was shopping with his wife near the port and barely escaped serious injury. With six stitches in his swollen forehead, he bought buckets and broom and cleared gutted apartments for strangers. He, too, said he followed the trails of blood.
What you have to understand about the aftermath in Beirut, the outpouring of help that most reporters missed, is that this sort of homegrown relief effort came out of no one’s plenty. It came from their want.
Through years of government corruption and loan defaults, Lebanon’s currency over the past 10 months has lost 90 percent of its value. A salary of $500 a month now is worth $75. Only weeks before the blast, economists warned of a Venezuela-style collapse with hunger, food, and medicine shortages in what had been an oasis of stability in the Middle East.
“There used to be a middle class in Lebanon, but now the rich are rich, the middle class has become poor, and the poor have become destitute,” said Lebanese celebrity chef Antoine El Hajj.
COVID-19 too is taking a toll. A surge in cases by late August meant nearly 600 health workers have been diagnosed with the disease. The government announced new lockdown measures, including a curfew and closures of restaurants for at least two weeks.
There are protests and unrest, to be sure, in such times of crisis. But there are also people who know their call is to follow the blood and the hurt, the way Jesus would do, without letting up.
“Addressing the outer needs with aid and care is a transaction, but when you can address people’s inner wants too, that’s transformation,” said Tom Atema, co-founder of Heart for Lebanon, an evangelical ministry. “The explosion is bad, but Lebanese already are living in unprecedented troubling times. These unprecedented times give us unprecedented privilege and opportunities.”