‘I don’t want to die’: Blast traumatises Beirut children

A girl stands at the window of her apartment overlooking the destroyed silo on at Beirut’s port, on August 11, 2020, following a huge chemical explosion that devastated large parts of the Lebanese capital. (Photo by ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

Agence France-Presse

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AFP) — “I don’t want to die.” Those were the first words Hiba’s six-year-old son screamed after the massive explosion at Beirut port sent shards of glass flying around their house.

The blast a week ago that injured around 1,000 children and temporarily displaced 100,000 according to the UN had the magnitude of an earthquake.

The mental shock it caused among Beirut’s youngest was just as powerful.

When the boy saw blood on his feet, “he started screaming: ‘Mom, I don’t want to die’,” Hiba recalled.

“What is this life? Coronavirus and an explosion!,” her son told her after the blast.

“Imagine that!” said the mother. “A child only six years old asking this question.”

Lebanese children clean debris in Beirut’s Gemmayzeh neighbourhood on August 8, 2020, four days after a monster explosion killed more than 150 people and disfigured the Lebanese capital. – A fire at Beirut port on August 4 ignited a stock of ammonium nitrate and triggered an explosion that was felt in neighbouring countries and destroyed entire neighbourhoods of the city. (Photo by – / AFP)

The 35-year-old mother of two, who asked to withhold the names of her children and their family name, said her entire building shook when the catastrophe struck on August 4.

Her son, who was sitting on a living room couch just across from her, was speckled with shards of glass from a blown-out window.

“The shattered glass whirled around us,” Hiba said, a scene described by countless survivors.

For a few seconds her son sat motionless and unscathed on the couch.

She then dragged him out of the room, they boy barefoot on a carpet of splintered glass that cut bloody gashes into his feet.

“My son now twitches in panic every time he hears a loud sound,” she said.

‘Bottling up emotions’

An aerial view taken on August 9, 2020, shows a general view of the port of Beirut, the damaged grain silo and the crater caused by the colossal explosion of a huge pile of ammonium nitrate that had languished for years in a port warehouse, leaving scores of people dead or injured and causing devastation in the Lebanese capital. – The huge chemical explosion that hit Beirut’s port, devastating large parts of the Lebanese capital and claiming over 150 lives, left a 43-metre (141 foot) deep crater, a security official said. The blast Tuesday, which was felt across the country and as far as the island of Cyprus, was recorded by the sensors of the American Institute of Geophysics (USGS) as having the power of a magnitude 3.3 earthquake. (Photo by – / AFP)

Hiba’s son was not the only one left traumatised. His infant sister, born just 16 days before the explosion, lost conciousness for 20 minutes.

“It took a lot of time before she began to wake up and start crying,” said Hiba, so shocked herself that she has struggled to breastfeed her since.

She said she now keeps her son in his room, surrounded by his toys, instead of in the living room where the television broadcasts scenes of grief and devastation all day long.

“I don’t know if he is bottling up his emotions,” Hiba said. “But I’m trying to spend a lot of time with him in case he needs to talk.”

The explosion that gutted swathes of the city killed at least 171 people and left 6,000 physically wounded.

Children are among the casualties and the UN children’s agency UNICEF has warned that “those who survived are traumatised and in shock”.

In a video widely shared on social media showing plumes of smoke rising from the harbourside, the almost playful voice of a child can initially be heard in the background, saying “explosion, explosion”.

When the impact from the massive blast hits him, the same child also screams, in English: “Mom, I don’t want to die.”

On Lebanese TV, the mother of a three-year-old girl killed in the blast gave an emotional testimony in which she shared her feeling of guilt about having tried to raise a child in a dysfunctional country.

“I want to apologise to Alexandra,” she said, “because I did not take her out of Lebanon.”

‘Anxiety, night terrors’

A picture taken on August 11, 2020, shows a view of destroyed traditional Lebanese houses due to the Beirut port explosion, in the devastated Gemmayzeh neighbourhood across from the harbour. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

The Save the Children charity has warned of a severe strain on children’s mental health as a result of the blast.

“Without proper support, children might face long-term consequences,” it said in a statement.

Anne-Sophie Dybdal, the charity’s senior child protection advisor, warned of “anxiety, trouble sleeping, attacks of night terror”.

“The impact on children can be very deep,” she said.

Child psychologist Sophia Maamari said traumatised children may also develop separation anxiety that could make them fear even going to the bathroom without one of their parents.

Loud bangs may trigger fears of another blast and some children could go temporarily mute or tend toward self-isolation, the psychologist explained.

A Lebanese man looks through a car’s broken windshield in Beirut on August 11, 2020, after a huge chemical explosion devastated large swathes of the capital. (Photo by – / AFP)

Maamari advised that parents should make their children feel like they are allowed to be scared by telling them that they too were frightened by the explosion.

This is one tip Noura picked up online when she was looking for information on how to handle her two traumatised children, aged three and four.

The 34-year-old mother said she had described to her kids in detail how she was gripped by fear and panic.

Her older son immediately responded to her admission by saying: “It was a big bam.”

Her youngest did not respond until the next day.

“I was very scared too,” she said the little boy whispered into her ear as soon as he woke up.