'They have to be held accountable': Three years on, survivors left disabled by Beirut blast still seek compensation
The clock on Mirna Habbouche’s wall is stuck at 6:07.
The clock’s hands were paralysed three years earlier when the Beirut port exploded just a little over a kilometre away from Mirna's house in the Karantina neighbourhood. The blast killed at least 250, wounded over 7,000 people, and ripped apart half of the capital city.
Mirna does not want to replace the clock. She says that it would not make sense; that was the exact moment that time stopped moving for her.
Mirna was driving with her then one-and-a-half-year-old son Chris on the highway directly in front of the port when it exploded. The explosion sent shards of glass into her right eye and right hand and peppered Chris’s face with little cuts.
Chris, now four years old, does not remember that day and suffered no lasting damage, save a faint scar on his right cheek.
"It’s not me who did this to myself. There’s someone that caused this explosion and they have to be held accountable, not me. I don’t want anyone to look at me as if I’m a victim"
Mirna is unable to forget August 4, the glass and debris caused her to entirely lose her vision in her right eye and impair the mobility of her right hand. She suffers chronic pain, sleeping issues and trauma from the blast and the resulting injuries.
“I have had to learn to write with my left hand. Now I avoid driving. What used to take me an afternoon at work takes me two days, because I’m afraid that I’m not seeing the numbers correctly,” Mirna, the 39-year-old accountant, told The New Arab.
She is one of the hundreds of people who were left disabled or chronically injured by the Beirut blast. They say that they have received almost no financial support from the Lebanese state and that three years after the man-made disaster, international funding for rehabilitation programs is drying up.
Mirna has applied for assistance from the Ministry of Health, the National Security Fund (NSSF) and the Ministry of Social Affairs, but has received next to nothing to help her with her medical treatment.
She has had to get seven surgeries since the blast, physiotherapy, and psychological treatment and goes to the doctor every month for continual care. She spends sixty percent of her monthly salary on medical treatment.
“Instead of the money I’m spending [on medical treatment], I could use it to pay for my son. The doctors, the schools, they are a burden on us,” Mirna said.
Where is the state?
Mikhail Younan, a 52-year-old father, was left with lasting damage to his knee from the blast. He struggles to walk more than 50 metres at a time and has to take a combination of cortisol shots and painkillers to get through the day.
Mikhail works as a gas-canister delivery man, requiring him to lug heavy metal cylinders from his van to customers’ homes. His injury has deeply impacted his work, as he can no longer walk up the stairs to bring gas canisters to his customers.
In Lebanon’s crisis-stricken economy, most of Beirut has been left without consistent electricity as the state power grid provides only around 3 hours a day, often at variable times. Those Lebanese with the means subscribe to private generator services for electricity, but these are the lucky few.
As a result, Mikhail has only 100 customers, down from 1,500 pre-blast. He is only able to serve those who live in buildings with consistent electricity and elevator service.
Still, even carrying the gas canister the ten metres or so to the elevator is worsening his injuries. His injured knee is now infected and constantly swollen, and his other leg is beginning to suffer from bearing the weight of his entire body.
“I was making much before the crisis, now I don’t make more than $300 a month,” Mikhail told The New Arab. He added that he needs an operation for a prosthetic knee, but it would cost $8,000 – far more than he would be able to repay.
According to Sylvana Lakkis, the president of the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities (LUPD), Mikhail’s situation is not uncommon. Despite promises from Lebanese institutions like the Ministry of Health (MoH) and NSSF that the medical costs of port blast survivors would be covered, this has not occurred in reality.
“The MoH gave direct operations at the moment of the blast. But they then considered that they did their role and the case was closed, so when people needed to go to the hospital and continue to receive medical care, they were asked to pay in advance or the difference in coverage costs,” Sylvana told The New Arab
She explained that the NSSF only pays at the official exchange rate, which is 83 percent less than the real exchange rate used in Lebanon. Patients, like Younan, then would have to pay at least 83 percent of the cost of their treatments out of pocket.
"According to Sylvana Lakkis, the president of the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities (LUPD), Mikhail’s situation is not uncommon. Despite promises from Lebanese institutions like the Ministry of Health (MoH) and and NSSF that medical costs of port blast survivors would be covered, this has not occurred in reality"
There is also a cash assistance program, AMAN, financed by the World Bank for vulnerable Lebanese households. However, according to Slyvana, there are several cases of individuals with disabilities from the blast that have either been rejected from the AMAN program or dropped without explanation.
Both Mikhail and Mirna were rejected from the AMAN cash assistance program, despite their financial situations and disabilities.
LUPD and a group of activists injured in the blast have pushed for a bill in the Lebanese parliament that would allocate a percentage of revenue from the Beirut port to compensate those injured in the blast.
“But unfortunately, we are talking about [the bill] in a time that the country is collapsing. So, it will take time and it needs long-term work,” Slyvana said.
Above all, justice
The impacts of the blast on Mirna manifest in subtle ways. She avoids her reflection, she no longer likes having her picture taken, unless she is wearing sunglasses.
More than anything else, she does not want to be seen as a victim.
“I hate the idea of someone looking at me with pity. They might say ‘Yi, haram’ [an Arabic word meaning sinful or to express regret],” Mirna said.
Instead, Mirna wants those who are responsible for the blast to be identified and punished.
“It’s not me who did this to myself. There’s someone that caused this explosion and they have to be held accountable, not me. I don’t want anyone to look at me as if I’m a victim,” she added.
Despite all the obstruction, Mirna and others who were left with lasting injuries from the blast started an activist group about a year ago, advocating for their rights and for justice.
Their demands are simple: They want compensation for the injuries caused by the blast and they want accessible spaces for the disabled as Beirut rebuilds itself.
And above all, they want to know who caused the Beirut blast and they want justice for what happened to them and their city.
Three years on, no one has been prosecuted in relation to the blast. International and Lebanese rights groups accuse the Lebanese political class of using “every tool at their disposal” to block the domestic investigation into the man-made disaster.
Victims and Lebanese civil society have called for an international investigation into the blast, but so far no state has put forth the necessary resolution at the UN Human Rights Council to make that happen.
Others with foreign passports have opened court cases in foreign jurisdictions, like Germany and the UK. Lawyers say if the cases are successful, compensation won could be given to victims of the blast.
Though justice and compensation would ease some of the pain, physical and mental, caused by the blast, they will not erase the suffering inflicted on survivors.
“Even if they win those cases outside of Lebanon and get money. Will that give me my eye back? If they win, will it give me those two months where my son was so traumatised he would scream when I got close? Will it give me my life back as it was before?” Mirna said.
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou