It wasn’t only humans who were hurt and terrified by the massive blast when a Beirut warehouse containing a highly explosive fertiliser went up in smoke, many animals ran for their lives. A concerted effort took place to reunite owners with their missing pets – but some, like Leila Molana-Allen, had to endure a long and heart-wrenching wait.
A white hot flash, and I was hurled into the corner of the room. My peripheral vision was a sea of flying glass and splintering wood. As I came to, ears ringing, and clambered over the debris of what had seconds before been my bedroom, my first thought was of my family. Not my birth family, safe across the Mediterranean, but my chosen Beirut family, with whom I had built a life within these whitewashed walls. A blur of black and gold streaking through the gaping hole of our exploded front door told me the furry members of our pack had made it out alive. I grabbed my flatmate Lizzie and we did our best to avoid the jagged piles of glass that formed a treacherous pathway out of the wreckage.
The next few hours are a blur of blood, phone calls, first aid and anxiety. The double explosion had reminded many of us of a missile strike, still such a vivid memory from the 2006 war. We feared a second hit, and tried to gather dazed and terrified neighbours under the most solid protective structure, a staircase. Suddenly, there was Fred, the elder of our two dogs, who had found his way back home. For the next few days he sat loyal and silent by my side, defending the ruins of our home after a kind upstairs neighbour took us in. But the puppy – named Bunduq (hazelnut in Arabic), for his habit of curling into a ball with his tail sticking up like the nut’s peak – was nowhere to be found.
It is a cliché of animal rescue that “I didn’t choose my pet, he chose me.” Fred found me one day after being rescued from the street by a friend and brought to a café I was working in. He pootled over and curled up in my lap, and suddenly I had a dog. Two years later, in March this year, a scared, sick puppy turned up on my doorstep; as coronavirus panic took hold, his owners feared germs and wanted rid of him. I agreed to take him in for a few days, but from the moment he rolled on to his back demanding a belly rub, it was clear this wouldn’t be a temporary arrangement.
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I have always been ready to pack up and move on at a moment’s notice. These loveable, mischievous fur balls are the most settled element I’ve allowed into my life since childhood. The feeling of opening the door after a long day, or a challenging work trip, to be greeted by squealing, nuzzling adoration is one of the greatest comforts I’ve ever known. And suddenly the home I had built and made a safe space for myself and these rescued animals had been shattered.
Dozens of dogs were lost in the blast, and in our “dog mum” WhatsApp group and social media feeds, one by one they were found. “They’re all hiding and need to hear your voices so they’ll come out,” people said. My feet were torn up in the blast and after they were stitched back together by exhausted, wonderful doctors at hospital, I couldn’t walk for several days. I felt helpless and prayed Bunduq would find his way home, rushing to the door every time I heard a bark.
The response from my community was overwhelming. Friends trawled the neighbourhood with photos of Bunduq, tracking down witnesses who had seen him sprinting through the city after the blast. I sent posters and photographs everywhere I think of, and they were shared around the world and sent back to Lebanon many times over. A local animal charity sent out teams of volunteers to scour the streets for hours, forming a dedicated “Bunduq search squad”. I watched and hoped, but there was no sign.
After a few days, with my Hazelnut one of the last still lost, I began to lose hope. Perhaps he had been hit by a car, or suffered such serious glass cuts that he had died, alone and afraid, on the street.
Several days later I was working on a story, writing about sniffer dogs searching for survivors in the rubble. Filming them had brought me to tears as I struggled to put Bunduq out of my mind. Suddenly, a message popped up on my phone. “Did you lose a dog?”
Thinking it was one of the dozens of people who’d contacted me asking for more pictures to help the search, I said yes.
“I think I have him,” the messager said.
It didn’t seem possible. Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, was 80km (50 miles) away.
“That couldn’t be him,” I responded. “We live in Beirut.”
A video popped up, downloading painfully slowly on the devastated city’s patchy internet. And there he was. Scared, a little bloodied, but alive.
His rescuer had found him, terrified and injured, alone in the streets, shortly after the explosion. He was leaving Beirut to return to his family in Tripoli, and with no other option he simply picked Bunduq up and put him in the car. In the following days he had posted pictures, just as I had, and finally someone had connected the dots. Bunduq was terrified, the rescuer said, and asked me to speak to him on the phone. Hearing my voice, his tail suddenly started wagging.
The relief was overwhelming, but with no car and limited mobility I had no way to get him home. Lebanon’s animal lovers sprang into action. Over the next few hours I received dozens of calls and messages as they hatched a plan to get him back to me. And then one more: he was in a car, with yet another person I had never met, and on his way home. By 2am he was back in my arms, saved by a network of human beings who had done everything they could to save him, while also dealing with the impact of this disaster on their own lives.
We’re separated again now, the dogs evacuated to the mountains with my flatmate, Lizzie, while I await surgery to reconnect tendons in my foot that were severed by the blast. The flat may never recover. We still don’t know whether the building is stable enough to move back in. But somewhere, we’ll build one again, and we’ll be home. Because home is where the hounds are.