Twin explosions in the capital kill at least 43 people with ISIL claiming responsibility.
Dahiyeh, Beirut – What if Leila Taleb and her husband, Hussein Mostapha, had decided not to visit Leila’s sister on that Thursday evening? What if they hadn’t stopped en route to buy their three-year-old son Haidar his favourite cake? And what if Hussein had parked the car a little further down the street, so that it wasn’t beside the motorbike laden with explosives?
It is these hypothetical questions that have been running through the minds of Leila and Hussein’s family since the twin bombings struck the Burj el-Barajneh neighbourhood in Beirut’s southern suburbs on Thursday, November 12.
Leila, 27, and Hussein were two of the 43 people killed that day.
The attacks, claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), targeted a busy, working-class residential and commercial area when the street was full of families out shopping and people heading home from work.
There is another “what if” to this story. What if Leila had put her son, Haidar, in the back seat – as she usually did – instead of placing him on her lap?
When emergency services arrived at the scene, they saw the bodies of two young adults in the car and declared them dead.
It was only on closer inspection that they noticed two tiny hands on Leila’s lap. Someone grabbed the badly injured toddler and rushed him to the hospital, shielding his body from the second explosion as it struck.
Haidar’s rescuer survived but was badly injured by the shrapnel.
In the space of a few moments, the child had twice been protected by the body of an adult.
“In the last moments of her life, she [Leila] shielded Haidar from the impact of the explosion, saving him,” says Hadi, one of Leila’s older brothers who flew back to Lebanon from Dearborn, Michigan, in the United States, to be with his nephew.
“She was completely devoted to him. She would be the first one to drop him off at nursery, and the first one waiting for him at the gates when he finished. She lived for Haidar and Hussein.”
The youngest of 14 children, Leila, who graduated with a degree in accounting, was seen as the most conscientious member of the family. With most of her siblings living abroad or in the capital, she took responsibility for looking after her parents, visiting them twice a week in the Burj el-Barajneh area.
“When we heard of the explosions, we first thought of our parents because they’re in the area,” says Hadi. “But when we found out from our other sister [who also lives in the area] that Leila was supposed to be visiting her, that’s when we tried to reach her.”
Leila and Hussein, who had celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary the day before they were killed, had first met because their families were from the same village in south Lebanon.
Leila’s love and dedication to her family was apparent to those around her. “Leila wanted a big family, but in the meantime everything was for Haidar,” says Hadi.
Financially it was a difficult time for the couple. Hussein was struggling to keep a hold of work, meanwhile, Leila saved all the money she could for Haidar.
“She would put whatever she could [set] aside for savings,” Hadi remembers. “She would sacrifice herself for him, to buy him something, to take care of him.”
“What can I say,” he continues, “she was an exceptional mother.”
Thousands of mourners attended the funerals of Leila and Hussein.
Although no longer in a critical condition, with scars from the shrapnel and burns to his body, Haidar is still in hospital but not without visitors. Hundreds of people have come to see him and his room is filled with gifts, from family and strangers alike.
He holds on tightly to his aunt as his eyes dart around the room, assessing the unfamiliar faces that keep passing through the door. He’s wearing his favourite outfit – a Real Madrid football kit.
A social media campaign was started by a local reporter over Twitter urging the Real Madrid footballer Cristiano Ronaldo to visit Haidar. The Portuguese footballer responded saying that a meeting will be arranged.
‘Where is Leila?’
Now able to leave his hospital bed, Haidar talks animatedly with his cousins and aunts, only occasionally complaining about the pain from the burns on his arms.
His face is still bruised, but he is slowly recovering from the injuries he sustained in the two explosions.
But there is one wound that remains.
“He still doesn’t know his parents are dead,” says one of his aunts. “But he is aware of what happened.”
“He can clearly describe how his mother was on fire and that his father had blood pouring out of him,” Hadi adds.
“But he says they are coming back.”
Every day, he asks after his parents, calling for them by their first names, just as he addressed them when they were alive.
“He’s always asking: Where is Leila? Why is she taking so long to come back? She’s been gone for too long,” says Hadi.
Haidar’s extended family hope the stream of visitors will keep his mind occupied, a small distraction until he is able to grasp the meaning of what has happened to him.
Many others are also adjusting to life without their loved ones following the attack.
“Those cowards came in to kill innocent people in a poor neighbourhood. They were not on the front line of a battlefield, they were just going about their lives,” Hadi reflects. “What these killers don’t know and don’t understand is these people here love life but they don’t fear death.”