BEIRUT: The orphanage looks and feels like a haunted house, suddenly robbed of life. Rocks and shards of concrete mark the entrance, the rooms inside darkening in the failing sunlight, and smiling, paperweight snowmen stare down from the ceiling, a faint shadow of the mirth that once filled these halls.
There are no children here anymore, just small backpacks, toys, coats and prams that they left behind, led out from their refuge hand in hand after a twin suicide bombing Wednesday screamed through the classrooms of Dar al-Aytam al-Islamiya.
Amid the wreckage, it appears miraculous that all the children survived. Alongside the ripe bananas, upturned water bottles, smiling bunnies on the board and tiny jackets are large window frames blown in by the force of the explosion, one piercing a nearby crib.
In the nursery, broken glass lies obscenely by an empty baby walker.
“The target is the people and the orphans who are gone,” says Hassan Choucair, a local resident standing outside an antique shop ravaged in the explosion.
“They think they are going to heaven,” he says. “They don’t know that they will burn here, and then burn there.”
Residents of this battle-scarred neighborhood slowly began piecing their lives together a day after the attack. Workmen piled the rubble from apartment buildings, broken glass still adorning the floor and broken cars still dotting the area as life gradually returned and some of the shock abated.
Khalil al-Hallaq and his daughter Samar have set up two chairs and a pot of Turkish coffee on the remains of their balcony, its railing blown away by the force of the explosion.
The damage to the 85-year-old Hallaq’s home looks apocalyptic. His wife is in hospital with a dislocated shoulder and shrapnel wounds. He found her lying on the floor with her eyes open in shock moments after the explosion.
His grandson left five minutes earlier – one extra snooze in bed and he could have been caught up in the explosion. His bed is now covered in glass, a testament to the “miracles” that saved the family.
“If you look at the house, you wouldn’t say that five people survived this,” Hallaq says. “It’s frightening.”
But the kindly, gentle smile still comes easy to Hallaq, even as he surveys his broken home. He is grateful for his children and grandchildren, who offer him refuge.
“We have put it behind us,” he says. “Alhamdulillah.”
But he and Samar have harsher words for the suicide bombers who nearly killed them.
“They are not humans,” his daughter says.
“No, they are not humans, no,” Hallaq agrees.
As Hallaq and his family endure with courage,Youssef al-Atat stands defiant in front of his antique shop.
“You cannot stay at home and weep, you have to show them you are stronger,” he says.
Atat’s shop is littered with debris, cracked vases and, again, shards of glass and broken mahogany tables. A painting of a man rowing on a boat in Venice in tranquil waters stands in sharp contrast to the anguish that gripped this neighborhood.
Most of Atat’s family lives here. One of his employees died in a bombing last November targeting the nearby Iranian Embassy.
“He was like my brother,” he said.
His friends were due to meet at the shop, which stood mere meters away from one of the car bombs, at 9:45 a.m. The explosion happened 20 minutes earlier.
Atat saw smoke rising from his shop on TV, and rushed to the scene.
“We are still alive, we have a new lease on life,” he says.
“This is Lebanon. ... It pays a tax for standing by the resistance.”
Atat says he will continue “to love Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and to provide martyrs for the resistance,” saying the movement is committed to fighting both Israel and the “takfiris.”
But Atat says he cannot comprehend why someone would attack civilians, let alone in such a mixed neighborhood. “This building and the buildings around us are Shiite, Sunni, Druze and Christians.”
“When they kill someone from Hezbollah or from the Army, you can at least explain it, that there is a war between them. But you are killing civilians.”
But Atat stands defiant, saying the aim of the terrorists was to sow the seeds of civil strife between Sunnis and Shiites.
“They carry out an explosion here so that we accuse the Sunnis,” he says. “And they carry out an explosion in Tripoli so that the Sunnis accuse us. But our only enemy in Israel, and these Abdullah Azzam Brigades and others are just tools.”
“We do not discriminate between Sunni, Shiite and Druze,” he says. “Particularly the Sunnis, we live in the same country, we both say there is no god but God and Mohammad is his Prophet.”
Nearby, a banner declares that a local business is “carrying on in spite of terrorism.”