By Laila Bassam
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Curtains flutter through broken windows, piles of debris block the streets and top-floor apartments with their roofs blown off are exposed to the sky.
As the residents of Beirut try to pick up their lives after an explosion that shook the country to its core, they are doing so with their surroundings utterly transformed.
They have tales of terror, loss - and lucky escapes.
Elsa Saade was at work in a pharmacy in the famous night life district of Mar Mikhael at the moment of the blast, which was caused by explosives stored at the port a few hundred metres away.
"At first we heard a deep sound then a roar, as if it were a tsunami for a few seconds ... It was like an earthquake that would destroy the whole universe. Truly the end of the world.
"There were two people inside (the pharmacy) at the time and the ceiling caved in, the medicine and the countertops fell on top of us but we weren't hurt, thank God. It was like divine protection."
Tuesday's blast, the biggest ever to hit Beirut, injured more than 6,000 people and left an estimated 300,000 Lebanese effectively homeless as shockwaves ripped miles inland.
Joseph al-Jebeily, 60, says he lost consciousness after he was flung back from his sixth-floor balcony. When he came to, he shouted desperately for his wife, only to find she had fallen to a neighbour's balcony two floors below.
"She was badly injured, but her condition is stable and she's still alive," he said. "It's a miracle, really."
Most homes in this officially designated "disaster city", with its memories of civil war, no longer have windows. The cracks and scars will last for years.
A walk through Beirut's central neighbourhoods revealed mangled buildings and heaps of debris sometimes piled so high that they blocked the narrow streets, hampering cleanup operations.
Some areas are virtually unrecognizable. Streets are littered with books, medicines, clothes, furniture and the remains of antique tiled ceilings.
'I CRIED OVER MY CAT'
Volunteers equipped with shovels help as best they can as people pick through the rubble, trying to salvage belongings from the remains of their shops and homes.
Those in the historic district of Gemmayze, which received a visit from French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday, have their own harrowing tales.
"I lost my house and my store and I was injured, but I cried over my cat which died between the glass and steel," said Laura, who owns a vintage clothing store.
"It's sad that people died in their homes, the place where they're meant to feel safe."
Following Macron's visit, Lebanese celebrities and public figures flocked to Gemmayze to support the cleanup efforts taking place under the watchful eye of Rose, a 90-year-old resident who has become a local symbol of resilience.
Sitting on a white plastic chair on a veranda at risk of collapsing, Rose is adamant about not leaving her home and uttered what some residents and media consider a slogan for the ravished neighbourhood: "Can you believe this?"
Officials have said the blast was caused by 2,750 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a substance used in manufacturing fertilizers and bombs, which had been stored for six years in a port warehouse without adequate safety measures.
The government has promised to hold those responsible to account, but residents are seething with anger.
"We lived through all of the periods of civil war and other conflicts between parties, and the Israeli war, and never did we reach this level of catastrophe," said Nasib al-Dana, as he worked to clean up what was left of his small store in Mar Mikhael.
"Every time we used to flee to one area from the other, or from one district in Beirut to the other. But this time, it's over. We've reached a dead end. The sea is in front of us and the destruction is behind us."
(Reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Nadine Awadalla in Cairo; Editing by Aidan Lewis and Nick Macfie)