“We live on our nerves; we’ve been living on our nerves for so long.” Although physically uninjured, the trauma continues for Fatima (55). She wakes up at night in sweats, dreaming that her building collapsed.” Photo: Tamara Saade/Oxfam

Tamara Saade was born and raised in Lebanon. She started reporting and writing at the American University of Beirut to complement her photography and now works as a freelance journalist and photographer. One month after the explosion in Beirut, she tells us about her experience documenting the aftermath in the midst of a pandemic.

For a pandemic to become a second priority, you need to understand the extent of the blast and how it affected people.

My desk started to shake, a bright flash appeared in front of my eyes, and a loud explosion shattered the windows across my home in a thousand pieces: this is what the Beirut blast on August 4, 2020 felt like. A few minutes after I made sure my family was okay, I was outside documenting the aftermath.

Before the event, Beirut was already having trouble breathing. Victim of an economic collapse, hyperinflation, and a pandemic, the city was on its knees. Most people barely had enough to put food on their tables, while those who could emigrate tried to leave in any way they could, and the banks are not allowing Lebanese citizens to access their own bank accounts. And then came the blast.

The neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud hosts most of the Armenian community that fled to Beirut. One of the gas stations of the neighborhoods, next to the center of the region, was completely ravaged by the blast. Photo: Tamara Saade/Oxfam

I became very aware of how fragile Lebanon is. We always knew the country was floating in unsteady seas, but the ship couldn’t handle this storm. While working with Oxfam, I met the other people who were on this ship, living in Lebanon, and how they survived the aftermath.

We are all victims, of the economic collapse, the pandemic, and the explosion. But the people Fidele, my guide during the assignment who works for Oxfam, and I met, were particularly vulnerable and most affected. Not only because of their proximity to the location of the blast, but because they come from more complicated socio-economic backgrounds.

Some have been without work for two to three years; others were Syrian refugees who already faced hardships when they moved to Lebanon. Those people did not know where to start.

They needed doors, windows, walls, since their buildings had almost crumbled to pieces. But they also required food, medication, clothes, blankets.

I don’t think anyone was coping emotionally yet. Those who were physically affected slowly saw their wounds scar, but people were too preoccupied with fixing their homes, the only thing they have left in this country, to emotionally deal with the blast.

Most of the people we visited were not wearing masks. The first week after the explosion, Covid-19 unfortunately took the back seat. For a pandemic to become a second priority, you need to understand the extent of the blast and how it affected people. Whenever we remembered to wear masks we would, but sometimes, especially when volunteering the first few days, it was not a priority.

The priorities were to get everyone away from the wreckage, clean the sharp glass out of the homes and streets, and find shelters.

We would of course maintain social distances, even though we all needed to hug our friends, family, and anyone we met, to perhaps offer some comfort.

Hanaa has been living in her small house in Karantina for decades. Her husband has been in jail for 10 years, and she raises her three children, two daughters and one son, by herself. Photo: Tamara Saade/Oxfam

Of all the people we met, Hanaa’s story affected me the most. This mother of three didn’t know where to start. Was fixing her home a priority? But her kids are traumatized, her younger son still unable to sleep. And no governmental entity came to check up on her, nor assess the state of the building, or offer help in any way.

Only volunteers came forward, but unfortunately, it was still not enough. By the end of our visit, Hanaa asked me, even begged me, to find someone, some sort of sponsor to get her kids out of Lebanon.

Only a heartbroken mother with no hope would ask for her kids to be taken away just to have a better and safer future.

People like Hanaa are the reason why I still shoot on the ground. Despite the hardships and trauma photographing such intense scenes, I feel a responsibility and duty towards them to show their stories, always with dignity and respect. After photographing with Oxfam, I came home, and took a deep breath to start processing the stories I had just heard and seen.

On August 6, 2020 communities, young and old, started sweeping the streets, and cleaning up the wreckage caused by the explosion in Beirut. Photo: Tamara Saade

Whenever I edit the pictures, I try to be as technical as I can. But it’s only once I see them all together that I let them affect me. Photographing the aftermath of the blast in the midst of a pandemic, I had to be of course more careful than any other assignment, by staying far from people, not touching anything, wearing a mask during an extremely hot and humid day.

Photographer Tamara Saade on assignment in Beirut for Oxfam GB. Photo: Tamara Saade/Oxfam

It was heartwarming to see all the people who are helping and want to make a difference: Oxfam, volunteers, and even civilians who took matters into their own hands by knocking on doors asking who needs help. I hope that next time I meet the people I’ve photographed; it will be for a follow-up on how their life got better after they received the support they needed.

Oxfam's coronavirus emergency response appeal


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