Explosion in Beirut: ‘You put your own feelings on hold’

Just over a week ago former ambassador Hester Somsen flew to Beirut. An enormous explosion had turned the port area and everything surrounding it into rubble. The Dutch embassy was also hit. ‘There was glass everywhere.’

Hester Somsen (right) in the devasted port area of Beirut

First came the WhatsApp messages, then the pictures. On Tuesday 4 August, a pillar of fire devastated Beirut’s port area. The blast shattered windows many kilometres away. From that moment, Hester Somsen’s phone didn’t stop ringing. Ms Somsen is the Director of Security Policy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a former ambassador to Lebanon.

Ms Somsen soon heard the tragic news that her colleague, Hedwig Waltmans-Molier, had been severely injured. As well as a colleague, Hedwig was also the wife of the ambassador, Jan Waltmans. Ms Somsen understood what that meant.

‘From that moment you know that Jan is with Hedwig. All his attention will be focused on her. After a night of fitful sleep, I volunteered to run crisis management operations at the Dutch embassy. I had around 20 minutes to pack my bags. I flew to Beirut the same day, together with a team of four experienced colleagues.’ Lana Voinov, a colleague who had recently left Beirut, broke off her holiday in Croatia and arrived a day later.

The plane that took off from the military airfield at Eindhoven late on Wednesday evening was also carrying the 60 members of the Dutch urban search and rescue team, USAR. The team was flying out on the instructions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in response to Lebanon’s request for international assistance.

Last Wednesday you and the Dutch USAR search and rescue team arrived in a city in ruins. Can you describe what you saw?

‘We came straight from the airport and drove in the pitch dark through the city to our hotel. We had to watch where we were driving, so we didn’t hit anything. And the whole time we could hear the crunch of broken glass beneath our tyres.’

‘Normally speaking Beirut’s streets are brightly lit, with crowds of people, certainly in the part of the city hit by the explosion. The district that I know as Lebanon’s smart, cultural heart. Now we saw buildings whose glass façades had been completely destroyed by the blast. Car wrecks with rubble on the bonnet. And glass everywhere.’

For you, this was a return to a country where you were ambassador for many years. What effect does a disaster like this have on you?

‘Ever since my time as ambassador to Lebanon, I have been a member of several WhatsApp groups with Dutch and Lebanese friends, among them former Middle East correspondent, Sander van Hoorn. Two minutes after the explosion he sent a message to the WhatsApp group. I immediately phoned one of our people at the embassy in Beirut. “Is everything alright?” I asked. “No,” she said. “It’s terrible.” That’s when I knew that things were really bad. And I was ready to act.’

The Dutch embassy was hit by the explosion. What was the situation there?

‘The embassy is on the tenth floor of an office building. The building that I knew so well looked desolate. The lifts weren’t working, so we had to use the emergency stairs. The blast had twisted the roller shutter on the visitor’s desk. But the offices were the worst. They all face the street. The windows had all been blasted inwards, and the tables had been upended.’

‘We realised how lucky we’d been that the explosion had happened at the end of the day. The building was empty, and people were working at home because of Covid-19.’

Hester Somsen

What did you do first?

‘After a few hours’ sleep we held a crisis meeting at 10 a.m. in the embassy hallway, where we’d set up an office of sorts. We were briefed by the crisis management team that had been in action since Tuesday evening. Our first priorities were our staff and Hedwig’s condition. She was in a bad way. The partners of two other colleagues had been injured, and a third colleague had been injured together with his partner. Other colleagues couldn’t get into their flats and needed a place to stay.’

‘We also looked at the safety of the building. The façade was seriously damaged. We didn’t want falling rubble to cause any more injuries. So, together with the manager of the building we managed to get part of the street cordoned off.’

What was the situation for other Dutch people in the city?

‘Consular services were our other priority. We knew that there were several hundred Dutch people in Lebanon. In a crisis situation like this, you need to get a clear overview as soon as possible. Are there Dutch people among the injured? Are any missing, or worse? In a crisis, the embassy is often the link between Dutch people on the scene and their family at home. We immediately sent a message to all the people who had registered with the embassy: let us know if there’s something wrong.’

‘We finally discovered that four Dutch people had been injured, none of them seriously, I’m glad to say. We were told that three people were missing. One person didn’t contact their family until the Friday after the explosion. He had been knocked unconscious and taken to hospital, where he suffered from temporary memory loss. Fortunately, his family let us know that he was OK.’

Ground Zero in the port of Beirut

What did the Dutch USAR search and rescue team accomplish?

‘The 60 members of the USAR team are life savers. After consultations with the Lebanese authorities an area was designated to them. Less than 30 hours after the explosion they were searching through the rubble. With their specially trained dogs, they sifted through the entire area, seeking survivors. Fortunately, they could conclude that the area was clear.’

‘Working with the Lebanese authorities they could then turn their attention to other parts of the city, to check any buildings in danger of collapse.

‘The USAR people were a really big help to us too. Not only did they help to establish some kind of order in the embassy, but they also checked our people’s injuries. You can’t imagine how nice it is to have a carer talking to you in Dutch. The team’s trauma doctor was highly impressed at the quality of Lebanese sutures.’

‘After a few days, the search and rescue workers could go home. But they did a huge amount of work in that time.’

On Saturday we heard that Hedwig Waltmans-Molier, our colleague and the wife of ambassador Jan Waltmans had died. How do you deal with that?

‘What happens then is quite unreal. We knew that Hedwig was seriously injured and that it could go wrong. So in some way you’re prepared for bad news. Yet it still comes as a shock. For a while you feel like you’re nailed to the spot.

‘But at the same time there’s a lot to arrange. We explicitly wanted Hedwig to be flown back to the Netherlands as soon as possible, So we immediately started working in overdrive. For us, that was the best way to help Jan. You put your own feelings on hold.’

‘The response we received from the Lebanese was heart-warming. Then you can see how much they appreciate the Netherlands’ and Jan’s work. People were so grateful. The authorities gave us their full cooperation in repatriating her body. Normally speaking, repatriation of a body is a difficult, bureaucratic procedure. Now we were given every assistance, and Hedwig could be flown home with the USAR team. This was a welcome ray of light amid all the grief and sorrow.’

Today is the national day of action for Beirut, organised by the Dutch aid agencies coalition. How important is Dutch support for Lebanon?

‘Beirut is now short of everything. From my hotel room, I have a view of one of the city’s major hospitals. All the windows are shattered. I can see curtains flapping in the breeze. Inside, the damage is enormous.’

‘Hundreds of people in the city were killed or injured. Many people are homeless. There is a great shortage of food, clean drinking water and medical supplies. So yes, aid is now essential.’

‘What makes this campaign even more significant for the Lebanese is that the money is raised by the Dutch people. So it’s not just something between governments. People here have very little faith in the establishment. They don’t want to go back to the situation before the blast. The Lebanese people see Dutch aid as an incentive. They tell each other that the disaster must lead to a better future.’