Beirut’s Story: A tale of two bombs

"Tell me mabruk," she said. "My husband is a hero."

“Tell me mabruk (congratulations),” she said. “My husband is a hero.” – Basima Atat (Photo courtesy of Kareem Shaheen)

Basima was in love with Adel for five years, engaged for another five, and married for seven. She lost her husband and their six year old daughter lost her father when he tackled an ISIS suicide bomber to the ground.

On Thursday, November 12, Beirut was struck by two bombings (a third suicide bomber died at the scene before he could detonate his vest) in Burj al-Barajneh, a heavily populated area in the southern part of the city with a high Shiite population.

The southern suburbs, or Dahiyeh, have often been victims of attack but this was the first bombing in the capital for over a year.

At least 43 people lost their lives. It could have been more.

ISIS employed a sadly all to common terror technique – a double tap bombing – which increases the death toll by targeting not just the first victims but those who rush to help.

It is an abhorrent technique. And was lessened by the brave actions of Adel, who had told his wife by phone that he was going to help after the first bomb.

He lost his life tackling the second bomber to the ground before he could reach the larger crowd.

The picture above was taken by my former colleague and now Guardian correspondent Kareem Shaheen. He interviewed Basima in a piece for the Guardian about the aftermath of the bombings.

"Yesterday it was Israel and today it's the takfiris. You will not frighten us, Dahiyeh will not bow." (Photo courtesy of Kareem Shaheen)

The scene outside the bakery four days after the bombings. The banner reads: “Yesterday it was Israel and today it’s the takfiris. You will not frighten us, Dahiyeh will not bow.” (Photo/translation courtesy of Kareem Shaheen)

“A witness from the area said the first bombing occurred near a bakery on the crowded street as people left a nearby mosque after sunset prayers, with the second attack taking places minutes later about 50 metres away.

“There were bodies on the ground, on cars, on motorcycles,” he told the Guardian. “On the floor there were bodies, flesh fragments, heads and feet.””

The above from Kareem’s initial report of the bombings is a visceral description of what happened.

From Scotland I was just as aware of what was unfolding in Beirut as my friends over there. I received a break on my phone from The Daily Star Lebanon app, alerting me to the initial bombing. I followed the story (and the rising death count) on the website throughout Thursday evening.

When ISIS claimed the attack I reacted on social media with anger. I watched my feed fill with similar statements (none PC enough for this blog) and the sense I got from this was that people were pissed both with the bombing and how it was being reported.

An initial story by The New York Times had referred to a blast in a “Hezbollah stronghold” – people were furious, including the reporter who penned the piece (it’s important to note here that by and large journalists aren’t responsible for the headlines their stories get).

In the end it had to change the headline.

Why did people get so upset? Let me put it in perspective. How would people react if the Paris attacks had ran with the headline “ISIS attacks NATO stronghold in France”?

There is no denying Hezbollah’s influence in Dahiyeh, but the media terming it a “stronghold” of the party makes it sound to the layman like a militarized zone rather than the busy market full of civilians that it is.

It is dehumanising.

When we hear about concert goers in Paris but not people buying bread in Beirut we are being told to sympathise with one and to contextualise the other.

That was bad enough – and not unexpected. I was happy on Friday to hear about the Beirut bombings from Malachy Browne, managing editor of reportedly. They had not just picked up the story, but also this debate going on in Lebanon about the media’s framing of it.

That night the Paris attacks unfolded. I have friends there, I was glued to the screen. I was all over social media. I was so happy when I got the notifications saying my friends had checked in safe (it was the first I had ever heard about Facebook’s safety check feature.)

The next day, as the fallout of Paris started to unfold I saw a lot of my friends in Lebanon, Lebanese and otherwise, start sharing a post by Elie Fares, a prominent Lebanese blogger. He began by explaining his initial horror over what happened in Paris. Like me he rushed to social media to see what was happening.

But then a thought wouldn’t leave his head. I’ll let him explain in his own words.

Amid the chaos and tragedy of it all, one nagging thought wouldn’t leave my head. It’s the same thought that echoes inside my skull at every single one of these events, which are becoming sadly very recurrent: we don’t really matter.

When my people were blown to pieces on the streets of Beirut on November 12th, the headlines read: explosion in Hezbollah stronghold, as if delineating the political background of a heavily urban area somehow placed the terrorism in context.

When my people died on the streets of Beirut on November 12th, world leaders did not rise in condemnation. There were no statements expressing sympathy with the Lebanese people. There was no global outrage that innocent people whose only fault was being somewhere at the wrong place and time should never have to go that way or that their families should never be broken that way or that someone’s sect or political background should never be a hyphen before feeling horrified at how their corpses burned on cement. Obama did not issue a statement about how their death was a crime against humanity; after all what is humanity but a subjective term delineating the worth of the human being meant by it?

What happened instead was an American senator wannabe proclaiming how happy he was that my people died, that my country’s capital was being shattered, that innocents were losing their lives and that the casualties included people of all kinds of kinds. (faiths)

When my people died, no country bothered to lit up its landmarks in the colors of their flag. Even Facebook didn’t bother with making sure my people were marked safe, trivial as it may be. So here’s your Facebook safety check: we’ve, as of now, survived all of Beirut’s terrorist attacks.

When my people died, they did not send the world in mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world.”

What started as a local thing soon ballooned as people around the world began asking: “What about Beirut?”

Op-ed after op-ed was written. Some puerile, some reasoned. All trying to place the disparate coverage in some kind of context.

There was the attack on “tragedy hipsters.”

There was the “the media did cover it you just weren’t paying attention” argument.

There was the “ok yes, we do care more about Paris here is why” argument.

There was Facebook’s justification for why it had initiated the safety check for Paris but not Beirut.

There was the “there are limitations” to what we can cover/care about argument.

None of them sat right with me.

I think because fundamentally when my Facebook was flooded with the question “Why Paris and not Beirut?” it wasn’t people who had never heard of bombings until after the attacks on Paris.

It was the same people who had been furious about the media framing it as an attack on a “Hezbollah stronghold.”

It was my friends living in Lebanon. It was the Lebanese asking why people care less about their suffering.

It wasn’t an abstract question of the various economic, political and cultural plays that affect the media’s handling of the event.

It was people I love saying ‘we are still bleeding. Why don’t you care?’

When I tell people I lived in Beirut they call me brave.

I’ve never understood why.

Perhaps like Jeb Bush they labour under the misconception that Lebanon is the kind of place where Christians run the risk of being beheaded… I lived in a Christian neighbourhood in Beirut and I can assure they did not fear for their heads.

Everyone repeat after me: Beirut is not a war zone.

On the eve of our government taking its ‘case’ to the House of Commons as to why the UK should start bombing ISIS in Syria, it is never more important to try to be more engaged, to understand the reality of what is happening in the Middle East and what impact decisions we make here will have on those powerless to stop them.

If you don’t have time to read through all those links, you can watch a good ten minute discussion of the Beirut/Paris disparity and media coverage of Paris here on Al-Jazeera.





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