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Letter to Lebanon: Nando’s House Is Not The House it Once Was

Wissam Assouad
April 30, 2021
A heartfelt eyewitness account of August 4, 2020. Wissam was with his friends in Karantina until an hour before the explosion. Moments later, he rushed back to a scene of utter devastation to see if any of them were still alive.

On any given day, me, and many of our friends, would be chilling at our friend’s, Ronald aka Nando, who lives in Karantina, just east of the port. August 4, 2020, was no different, except it was. It was very different, painfully and hauntingly different.

I had been driving around Beirut running errands and, as usual, found myself heading to Nando’s place to chill for a bit. It was Covid time, so he was working from home.

Nando had been renting this old apartment for more than 10 years. It was the apartment we painted together the first time he moved. A place many of us slept, drunk, after a party. A place where we chilled, drank, partied, played cards, ate, watched TV. A place where I brought my dates. A place where the neighbors loved us and we loved them. A place filled with all sorts of memories, smiles and cries.

On any given day, Nando’s place would host 5 to 10 friends. I guess that day we were lucky we were only three: Ronald aka Nando, Anthony aka Coco, and myself Aswad.

Nando is the friend that everyone wants in their life. A true giver and always there for others. Coco is the sarcastic friend that keeps you on edge. He plays the tough guy, but wears a big heart on his sleeve.

As for me, I’m the quiet guy sitting in the corner trying to find my place in this world, cherishing the relationships I have, and trying to do good in this world. I used to be a Red Cross paramedic volunteer and that helping instinct will forever live within me.

Time flew by and soon enough it was 4pm. I was supposed to go to my parents to have lunch with them, but as usual I postponed my drive home given the traffic, and probably because I was just lazy.

It was almost 5pm when Coco insisted that I stay and have a beer with him before I went to my parents. It would’ve been convenient since he also needed to go home to change and meet up with friends for a drink somewhere in Mar Mkhayel. His friend was getting engaged that day.

I didn’t feel like having a beer, I didn’t feel like delivery, and was looking forward to a home-cooked meal. So I pushed myself to get off the couch, got into my sister’s car and drove home. I told Coco that I’d be back soon. I’d eat, shower and be back, as usual, as always, as any other day.

“We got bombed. It’s war again.”

At home, I saw my family and heated my food. As I sat on the table, Nando was already sending WhatsApp messages:

“Fire and small explosions at the port. Planes flying above, and not the commercial ones. The fire sounds like weapons exploding. We got bombed! We are fucked!”

It felt like the war of 2006 started again. Back to the shit cycle. A weird and not so unusual feeling to have in Lebanon for those who survived wars. I mean, yes, of course, I got anxious and started texting back, but deep down I was disgusted of it all, of reliving those messages again: BOMBS. FIRES. WEAPONS. EXPLOSIONS.

I didn’t want to acknowledge it. I did not want to believe it. I refused to react even though I was worried. I wanted to eat my food and pretend that life is great and nothing was happening.

A few minutes later, all hell broke loose. WE ALL HEARD IT. WE ALL FELT IT. The house shook violently. The earth shook even more. We all shook.

I keep trying but I can never get myself to describe the sound, the shake, the feeling, the goose bumps, the moment when time stood still for what seems a lifetime. The moment when I thought I lost my friends. I still tear up and have goosebumps when I try to put my thoughts and feelings into words.

I was lost for a couple of minutes, a split second, a breath, a gasp, for an instant in-fini-ty. My mind, my heart, myself, my whole being couldn’t process what was happening. All the neighbors were looking towards Beirut, towards the port. I looked up and saw a large pink cloud rising above Beirut, above the port, above my friends, above us all.

My mom started yelling hysterically: “WE got bombed. It’s Israel. It’s war again.”

My father woke up from his nap, looking all pale. My mom’s face was filled with fear, my sister and her husband shivering. The look on their faces is forever engraved in my memory!

“I just ran” the first on the scene

Two months later, as I was leaving for Canada, my mom told me that all she saw from me was that I was calling my friends Nando, Coco and Sherouk, ran to my room to grab my first aid kit, my Red Cross dossard and rushed out of the house. I didn’t say a thing. I just ran. I just drove. I just went there, not knowing if there still was a there, not knowing if they were still there.

I don’t remember much of that part. The part I got out of my parents’ house and rushed towards the site of the explosion. I was calling Nando nonstop, but he wasn’t answering. The lines were cut.

Luckily, WhatsApp was still working. I called Sherouk but no one answered and I panicked even more. Sherouk always answers his phone in times like this.

“Sherouk or Ché or Oyx, as we call him, is Johnny. He has been a volunteer at the Red Cross for over 12 years. He dyes his hair white every December and becomes the real Santa to spread joy, smiles and warmth. That alone should tell you the kind of guy he is.

Halfway to Karantina, Sherouk’s fiancée finally picked up his phone, talking hysterically, yelling, screaming, crying, shaking over the phone, with so much noise behind her that I could barely hear anything.

BUT, that was enough I guess. A sign of life! They were alive, she and Sherouk, but still no answer from Nando nor Coco.

I reached Karantina, rushed to the parking lot and I saw them alive for the first time since I left the area. There they were, Nando, Sherouk and his fiancé all covered in dust and blood and tears. Yet, Coco was nowhere to be seen, his car wasn’t there either.

My phone was ringing nonstop. Everyone was asking me about Nando, Coco, Sherouk … but I had to be somewhere else. I threw my phone and car keys to Nando. I put on my Red Cross dossard and that’s when I felt like I turned into a magnet, maybe a beacon of hope for people who were screaming, yelling, bleeding, vomiting, passing out, lost, being disoriented etc. etc.

I realized then that I was the first “paramedic” to reach the area. I had no time to waste. I needed to act and act fast.

Back to Coco …

We had no idea about his whereabouts. Both Nando and Coco had walked towards the port when the fire started, but walk back again just minutes before the explosion.

As they walked back, Coco left Nando, got in his car and headed home, taking the route he usually takes, the one adjacent to the port. The road we all took many times a day. No one knows where he was or what happened to him. He wasn’t picking up his phone.

We feared the worst especially when friends at home saw his car all over the news. The car was all crumbled, airbags open, glass broken, metal twisted and filled with blood. His car was filmed at the highway close to the port, some 400 meters from the explosion with nothing in between except for some warehouses and containers.

Goosebumps, tears, definitely!

I still have regrets to this day. Should I have gone after him? Would it have changed anything? Should I have gone and looked for him on the streets? Did I do wrong? Could I have helped him better? Why do I feel like I let him down?

4 hours later Coco was found.

He survived. He lived. He breathed. He was in a hospital getting treatment. He managed to pull himself out of his car with the help of a stranger. He was bleeding from head to toe. From what he told us, barely able to see, he wrapped his T-shirt over his bloody head and walked to the nearest hospital, the St. Georges, not knowing that the hospital had been badly damaged.

When he got to the hospital, he came across another friend, “Jacks,” who had a huge cut over his head. He also wrapped his head with a T-shirt and was seeking help. Both managed to catch rides on motorcycles to another nearby hospital.

Coco survived while many in the cars behind him did not. He lost his right eye from all the glass and debris that flew through him when the port exploded. Coco is alive, thankfully, and lives to see another day, BUT with one eye. Six months later, Coco still feels the glass in his skin, in his body.

PTSD

To this day, Coco, like so many of us, lives in fear. Every time a door slams, a window slams, a “neighboring” plane passes over us, a car crashes, any loud noise …

It makes me wonder if we are traumatized? Do we have PTSD? Are we fucked-up beyond repair? Is this how to move forward? Edgy and anxious, startled by anything and everything? I can’t stop thinking about him. The survivor who showed great courage dealing with the loss of his eye. The survivor who showed me strength, love, hope and a ton of gratitude.

Back to the parking lot where I was. I looked around and all I saw was destruction, smoke, blood, glass, debris, metal, wood, wrecked cars, children who lost their parents, parents who lost their children, buildings falling apart. People stranded in their houses because the stairs collapsed.

The whole facade of a building fell down, and with it the people living there. People everywhere bleeding, aching, crying, disoriented, screaming …

And then there was me with my Red Cross dossard and my first aid kit. People came to me for help, one after the other, sometimes in groups. A bandage here. Stop the bleeding there. Wrap and stabilize a broken arm. Carry someone who passed out. Check pulse. Check breathing. Check LIFE … Help in any way possible.

I realized by then that the explosion was so massive that all of Beirut needed help. All I could hear is screams upon screams upon tears upon cries upon the sound of a broken Beirut upon the sound of sirens everywhere.

Shortly after, I teamed-up with another Red Cross paramedic “Paul.” We carried the wounded close to the highway since ambulances couldn’t go inside the area, given the large amount of debris blocking the roads. We would stop any passing ambulance, fill it up with wounded people, recharge on supplies and go back into Quarantina, back into devastation.

Help and repeat, stop a bleeding and repeat, carry a wounded and repeat, and repeat, and repeat … and it’s not ending, there are more people, there are more wounded, there are more dead.

I Said a Prayer

Then a group of people runs towards us yelling “she’s ALIVE, SHE’s alive.” They were carrying someone, a young woman wrapped in a plastic canvas. They put her in front of me, as I held my breath. I became numb and forced myself to check her pulse knowing that she wasn’t there. Knowing that I wanted to scream from the inside out because she was dead. Knowing that I can’t do anything about it. Not knowing who she was and why she had to die that day.

I said a little prayer for her and pushed myself to move on, blocking my tears and feelings. Meters away a father knelt on the ground, devastated, and in tears as he looked helplessly to the collapsed house where his family was; not knowing if he lost his wife and three kids.

Hours later they managed to save one of his daughters, while the others passed away under the collapsed building

It wasn’t until late at night when the majority of the wounded was evacuated and that I dared to leave. By then we couldn’t see each other because the electricity was down. Even then, I wanted to stay, to help, to save. It was only then and there that I took a good look around me.

And for the first time since I got there, I started crying. I cried nonstop as I was heading to my car. I cried as I answered my phone talking to my cousin calling from abroad to check up on me. I cried and I wanted to scream and yell and hit something … I felt suffocated by everything. I looked at my reflection in the car mirror and my face was smudged with tears, blood, dirt and glass glitter.

In the rush and chaos, our neighbor Izabelle, a 96-year-old woman had been thrown under piles of debris and passed away that night. I had tried but I couldn’t help her. I couldn’t find her an ambulance to transport her. Her sister Renée, our landlord, is still recovering from a broken hip at the age of 90 when the explosion threw her on the stairs.

Renée was standing next to Nando on the street discussing the fire at the port seconds before the explosion. Huge blocks of rock and debris landed around them, yet they miraculously survived with only cuts and broken limbs.

At Nando’s, I always used to sit on the couch facing the balcony door. That day, the couch was full of cuts and glass. Massive pieces of glass were stuck in wooden frames. Glass had turned into shrapnel. A large piece of metal had torn a huge hole in the drawer cabinet next to the couch, at about the same height as to where my head would have been.

Eight Months Have Passed …

Dear Lebanon, I am writing to let you know that I love you and I hate you. I am forever a part of you, and you a part of me. You have left a mark on me that I have to live with for the rest of my life.

The explosion that shook and changed our Beirut, did the same to me. We share but a small part of history, a mere 35 years of my existence in this world, and it feels heavy to live with.

I started writing this article as a way to unload my heavy thoughts and pain on paper, assuming that these words and thoughts would help me let go of some of my hate towards you. I wanted to let go of my resentment, my anger, my fear and whatever the 4th of August explosion created deep inside me. At the beginning I wrote two paragraphs and then resisted to even look at what I wrote.

Only months later I wrote you from Canada. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t take living in this fear anymore. Fear for myself, my family and friends. Our relationship became toxic, not because of you but because of the people who are in charge of taking care of you and us, the people.

I landed in Montreal and had to quarantine for 2 weeks. It was then and there that I felt the urge to go back to writing. It was then and there I realized that I had to face them all: the images of Beirut, the people, the rubble, the injured, the dead, the suffering, the cries, the blood, the tears. Because of you Lebanon, I had to face all my triggers, all my memories, my fears and tears, all what you created within me.

8 months have passed. And this is still the main thing we speak off: the explosion, the day when more than 200 people died, thousands of people got injured and hundreds of thousands of houses destroyed.

8 months have passed. The explosion has passed but the impact is there, fully present in the people living.

8 months have passed. We mourn the dead and we try helplessly to forget.

8 months have passed. And still no one is held accountable.

8 months have passed.

Sherouk is hard at work, living far from the neighborhood he grew up in. He keeps checking the repairs done on his house in Karantina. He often takes his mother there, so she connects with friends and neighbors.

Coco is renting a place in the mountains far away from the port, away from his family. He keeps himself busy learning. He has somewhat adjusted to working with only one eye. He still cringes at the sound of a plane or a slamming door.

Nando is still jumping from house to house waiting for the moment he can go back to Karantina, to some sort of stability, to the comfort of his house. He’s saving up to fix and buy back all the stuff that got crushed by the explosion. His house looks weird, not the house he used to live in. It’s lifeless. Soulless.

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