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First Person: A mother’s ‘indescribable’ pain six months after the Beirut explosion

A UN staff member, Sarah Copland was posted to Beirut to work in the Centre for Women at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). 
She was three weeks away from leaving Lebanon to return to her native Australia in order to give birth to her second child, when the explosion ripped through her home and killed her son, Isaac.

This is her story as told to the Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications at the UN, Melissa Fleming, as part of the podcast series, Awake at Night. 

Sarah Copland
Isaac was two years old when he was killed in the explosion in Beirut.

“We had been in Beirut for a year; we were at home in our apartment. And I was giving Isaac his dinner and singing him singing nursery rhymes. He was sitting in his high-chair and my husband Craig was in the bathroom when, when I heard this bang.

I went to the window, but I couldn’t see anything. And within that time, just walking up to the window and walking back, a second huge explosion hit and I was thrown to the ground and Isaac was hit in the chest with a piece of glass. 

My husband Craig came running out of the bathroom screaming our names. And we went to Isaac. And at that stage, I didn’t realize quite how injured he was. I didn’t know what it was, whether it was a terrorist attack, whether the city was being bombed, or what, so I grabbed Isaac and I ran to the bathroom because I thought that might be the safest place if there was another explosion.

And once I got to the bathroom, I realized how much he was bleeding. I wrapped him in a towel and I just took him and ran and Craig was right behind me.

We ran outside and we saw the whole street was just destroyed. There were people lying on the ground covered in blood. For me, it was like a movie, it was so surreal. And I didn’t realize at the time, because I was just running on adrenaline, but I had a massive shard of glass in my face. I didn’t even feel it because I was just so focused on Isaac.

I was screaming. I remember this. I was screaming, “my baby, my baby, somebody help my baby.” Craig took Isaac and I went and flagged down a car. This guy, he had his wife and his kids in the car, but he let us jump in and he drove us to the hospital.

Isaac had been crying initially. And that’s something that has stayed with me. As a mother, you learn the different cries of your children, you know, when they’re hungry,  when they’re just tired. But this cry wasn’t one that I’d heard before. He was scared and confused and in pain. Then when on the way to the hospital, he became quiet. I was in the front seat and he was in the backseat with Craig. Craig was just trying to keep him awake, but he was fading already by then.

The rush to hospital

The driver was going like 100 kilometres an hour down the wrong side of the road dodging traffic, just to get us there as fast as possible.  He had two little girls in the car, and I think of them all the time and think about how traumatic it must have been for them to see Isaac so injured and to see me with glass in my face and covered in blood. 

The driver inadvertently took us to the coronavirus wing of the hospital. I think we were one of the first to arrive who’d been impacted by the blast.

They didn’t want to let us in, because it was the coronavirus wing. But we were just so desperate. We just started screaming at these security guards to let us in and just literally ended up pushing past them. At that point in time, coronavirus was the last thing on our minds. 

And then when we got in, they saw immediately that Isaac was injured and they took him, and because I was injured and pregnant at the time, they took me to another area to be treated. That was the last time I saw Isaac. So, Craig stayed with him. But I didn’t see him again.

Scenes of destruction at the port area due to the massive explosion that took place in Beirut, Lebanon.

‘Intelligent, cheeky and affectionate’

Isaac was very, very outgoing, the opposite of me in that regard. He just loved to talk to people. He was incredibly intelligent and had a very analytical mind. Whenever we got a new toy, he would want to examine how it worked before he used it. He was very good at puzzles, putting things together. And he was very cheeky. He loved to make people laugh.

And my favorite thing is, he was very, very affectionate. He just loved cuddles, particularly for me, but he would also cuddle his teachers at daycare.

Being pregnant with my second child Ethan gave me strength to sort of hold it together a little bit more. I’ve had two desires; one was to really just collapse and fall apart and scream, and then the other was knowing that I needed to stay calm as stress could be bad for a baby. 

The pain I feel about the loss of Isaac is indescribable. It’s like a physical pain. I almost say it’s like that phenomenon of phantom limb, where you know, people when they lose a limb, they can still kind of feel it but it’s not there. I feel like I’ve lost a part of me and I can still feel it but it’s not there”.

Listen to the audio interview here.

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