A chemical explosion in Beirut last August was the latest in a series of turbulent events for the Lebanese people. Plastic surgeon, Dr Joe Baroud, offered his services to those affected by the blast. (Image source: Bernard Khalil)
By Cameron Jones
On Tuesday, August 4, Lebanon’s capital Beirut experienced an enormous chemical explosion, originating from a warehouse in the city’s port.
A total of 204 people died and 6,500 more were injured, as the blast damaged areas as far as 10 kilometres away. The estimated property damage is over $20 billion AUD to date, with roughly 300,000 people becoming homeless.
However, in the explosion’s aftermath, many of Beirut’s residents have volunteered in any way they can.
Plastic surgeon Dr Joe Baroud is one of those residents, offering reconstructive services to injured victims free of charge. Since August 6, Dr Baroud has performed surgery on those who received facial wounds or injuries incurred by the port blast.
Dr Baroud told Harper’s Bazaar, “I started offering my services on the third day after the explosion, as on the first day I was in the emergency room helping other doctors”.
“The second day everybody was in shock,” he said.
“It was on the third day that I realised I could offer this service.”
Speaking to Vogue Arabia, Dr Baroud said, “I decided I have to help in some sort of way, and the only way I found to be able to make a change is by what I know how to do best”.
Many of Beirut’s hospitals, already under strain due to increasing cases of COVID-19, were unable to operate due to damage caused by the explosion.
Dr Carmen Reaiche is based in Adelaide, where she is an Associate Head of the University of Adelaide’s Business School. Dr Reaiche is also chair of the South Australian Lebanese Women’s Association, and whilst being thousands of kilometres from her homeland, she has remained in touch with the situation affecting her friends and family in Beirut.
“Three main hospitals in the area are non-functional, [and] another three are significantly damaged,” she said.
“Approximately 500 beds are lost, and many primary health care facilities, like private hospitals and doctor’s rooms, are damaged.”
Injured victims were simply turned away from hospitals, or received medical treatment on the street during the aftermath of the explosion.
Fortunately, Dr Baroud’s clinic – where he operated on 20-25 people each day in the week following the blast – remained intact.
One of Dr Baroud’s patients, Romy Zakhour Lauret, was driving near the port when the explosion happened, and received significant injuries to the left side of her face.
“[After the explosion] I was touching my face and feeling blood all over my face,” Mrs Lauret told the BBC.
“When we arrived at the Hotel Dieu Hospital it was like a movie,” she said.
“I had more chance than others because I saw that people on the road, people [had] lost their eyes.”
Mrs Lauret expressed her gratitude toward Dr Baroud.
“I’m thankful that he will save my face,” she said.
“The main traumas that I’ve experienced by the explosion are mostly glass injuries.
“The only reason I don’t want to see that [my injuries] anymore is so I don’t remember that day.
“When I see the Lebanese people helping each other in that way, without asking anything in return, that’s what makes me proud of being Lebanese.”
“The people that experienced the explosion explain it as a tsunami of glass shattering from the buildings,” Dr Baroud said, again speaking to Vogue Arabia.
“The glass exploded and shattered and injured everybody, so the majority of the trauma is cuts, deep cuts to the face, to the hands, and to the body. Shattered glass randomly cutting people.”
Dr Baroud was motivated to not only repair the physical appearance of the victims, but to also boost their morale.
“Having someone support the people and fix their scars in the best way possible, especially on the face, will have a big mental effect, [and] a positive influence on their feelings in this hard period,” he said.
“The degree of relief they are getting from the ‘fine-tuning’ of their wounds, so they don’t have to look in the mirror every day and be reminding of that terrible day, is important,” Dr Baroud said, in his interview with Harper’s Bazaar.
As reported by the BBC, the blast was caused by the explosion of 2,750 tonnes of the chemical ammonium nitrate, which was unsafely stored in a warehouse located on Beirut’s port. The chemical is frequently used to create explosives for the mining and construction industries, and was stored in the warehouse after being removed from an abandoned cargo ship in 2014.
When the stockpile of chemicals exploded it created a 3.3-magnitude earthquake, and could be felt in neighbouring countries. It could also be heard 200km across the Mediterranean Sea in Cyprus.
The explosion was the equivalent of 1,000 to 1,500 tonnes of TNT, a 10th of the size of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, a team from the University of Sheffield estimated.
“The recovery is going slow,” Dr Reaiche said.
“Lots of organisations are working together to help out, but there is still approximately 80 per cent of infrastructure left to recover.”
“For the economy, trust and morale, it will take [a] long time.
“In addition, essential food, including damage to grain silos were left to ruins.
“While the blast occurred, destruction of 17 containers of medical supplies and a shipment of personal protective equipment to address COVID-19 were also lost.”
The port explosion was the latest in a series of turbulent events for the Lebanese people. An increase in taxes to combat government debt triggered wide-spread protests in October 2019, and protesters then focused on issues such as political corruption, a stagnant economy and high unemployment.
In March 2020, the Lebanese government enforced a lockdown to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. This resulted in high unemployment, salary cuts and shortages of basic amenities such as power and clean water.
The lockdown did lead to a drop in the infection rate of COVID-19, and Prime Minister Hassan Diab describing the country’s response to the virus as “excellent”.
Prime Minister Diab accused the public of “negligence and lack of responsibility”, by ignoring social distancing guidelines when the restrictions were loosened.
The Lebanese government enforced a tougher lockdown on May 13, yet the country subsequently recorded the highest increase in cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, with 63 new cases recorded on May 21.
Case numbers have sharply increased since the port explosion, with the highest recorded daily number being 2,142 on November 6.
“We have been living in harsh times in Lebanon,” Dr Baroud told Vogue Arabia.
“We are in a revolution against our political and government systems.
“We feel that even despite all the efforts we are making we don’t have a say and the system is not changing,”
“This is why I started to offer free care.
“I’m frustrated by the lack of change in my country and I really want to make a difference.
“This is how I felt I can make a difference right now.”
Dr Baroud has stated he will continue to volunteer his reconstructive services free of charge.
“I will be offering my service for as long as there are people that have been hit by the accident and need help with plastic surgery.”
Dr Baroud expressed his admiration for those wanting to help Lebanon in the aftermath of the port explosion, saying that: “The global community should be aware that the best way to donate is via NGOs”.
“Our banking system is now not trustworthy so they are better to contact the people directly to know the best way to send help whether it’s financial or medical supplies,” he said.
Despite this turbulent period in Lebanon’s history, Dr Reaiche remains optimistic about the country’s future.
“There is always hope,” she said.
“The Lebanese people’s heart is strong and humanitarian.
“We’ll always dream of a land filled with peace and united with one purpose: seeing our children stay in the promise land of prosperity and protect our heritage.”
“Our country has always proven to stand strong in times of hardship and we will stay standing strong,” Dr Baroud told Vogue Arabia.
“We will keep on fighting for our country to become a better place and we will not give up on it.”
Originally published in The Junction.