Beirut is a survivor.
She survived the Civil War (1975-1990), the Israeli invasion (1982), multiple crises, assassinations and battles. But what shook Beirut on August 4, 2020, was something it never experienced before. And the city is still groaning under the weight of the disaster. The shock wave following the ammonium nitrate explosion traveled huge distances and swept away everything in its way.
A year has passed since and the official number of victims, 214 or 218, has still not been agreed upon. There is no specific authority to ask about those who perished in the ruins of the port to determine their identity. Some of the 8,000 wounded are still in hospital. And some of the 300,000 homes and buildings are still struggling to be fully restored.
One year has passed.
No one escaped the crime. And no one was held accountable.
Feelings of sadness, pain and anger in Beirut are still strong. Many of those who died were simply trying to survive. Some died in their workplace, others in cars, in restaurants, at home. Children were killed in their bedrooms.
One year has passed, during which life in Beirut has been heavy, exhausting, and filled with humiliation. President Michel Aoun once said that the country is heading to hell. It appears hell is a bottomless pit. With every new crisis the Lebanese must face, be it the collapsing currency or the lack of medicine or fuel, an even deeper level of misery is revealed.
The explosion is not in the past. It is part of the present. It is a bleeding wound that has not healed.
August 4 was not only a tragic day. It is an ongoing crime.
One year has passed.
The results of the judicial investigation have not been announced. Not a single official has been prosecuted. Meanwhile, the families of the victims and survivors remain stuck in the memory of the moment of that terrifying storm of red dust that destroyed their lives forever.
In the months following the explosion, the course of justice was hampered due to political and sectarian interventions. The slogan of “immunities” was raised whenever someone dared raise the possible accountability of a president, minister, deputy, official or party leader, who knew about the ammonium nitrate that was stored in the Beirut port since 2013 … and did nothing.
The families of the victims found themselves chasing a forbidden justice.
On a busy street near the Beirut Municipal Stadium stands an abandoned car covered by a black cloth. It used to belong to 30-year-old Ahmed Al-Qaadan who was working on it before being killed in the port explosion. The family refuses to remove the cover or even move the car.
Ahmed worked for a long time to be able to pay for the car in installments. He ended up being a victim inside of it.
“This is my son,” said his mother, Hiyam Al-Baq’i, looking at the car with tears in her eyes. “He poured his heart’s blood, until he was finally able to buy that car. He helped his father and saved every penny until he bought it.”
Grief still overwhelms the Qaadan family home, as if the explosion happened only yesterday.
“There is not a day without tears falling on my face,” Hiyam said. “They deprived me of my son. What was he doing? He was working.”
On the day of the explosion, Ahmed called his mother, asking her to make food without meat. As the country was in such economic distress, he did not want to burden his mother, and so he asked for a plate of lentils known as mudadara. Hiyam was actually standing in the kitchen preparing her son’s food when the explosion shook her.
“When the explosion happened and I heard the sound, I felt something very strange,” she said. “I felt my heart come out of me.”
Hiam can barely stop crying. Many months have passed, yet her pain is still as in those first few moments. She, her husband Ibrahim and three daughters live in a simple home. They suffered many hardships, but Ahmed’s tragic death was a blow that the family still has not been able to deal with.
Hiam recounts how her son suffered from the financial crisis. He lost his job in early 2020 and was without work for months when he decided to buy a taxi and prepare for emigration.
“Ahmed wanted to emigrate, and Canada had accepted his request and given him approval to travel to Canada,” she said. “But he traveled to a world from which he didn’t return and will never return.”
A great bitterness has engulfed the families of the victims and those who survived. From the moment of the crime they started their monthly marches to demand accountability. Yet, from the start it seemed clear that the investigation would be blurred by political and sectarian interventions.
“The criminals all knew there was ammonium nitrate in the port,” said Hiyam, who participates in all protests. “Why did they keep quiet? Why the silence? We only want justice, nothing more.”
The areas devastated by the explosion are numerous. A lot has been repaired thanks to NGOs and private initiatives – not the absent state. But some buildings still look like they were destroyed only yesterday.
But this is just the material damage. The most profound impact of what happened a year ago is often invisible.
On the balcony of his house on the fifth floor in the Mar Mikhael, a neighborhood that faces the Beirut port, Leon Karabidian (62) spends the afternoon contemplating and observing the building opposite his. Leon narrowly escaped death in the port explosion.
The house he has lived in since he got married 35 years ago was destroyed. His leg was injured, but the most horrific moment he lived was when he rushed to the opposite building to help, only to learn that Alice, his 80-year-old neighbor, who often invited him to taste her food, had died under the rubble. Jaco, one of his children’s oldest friends, and his wife had died too.
Leon’s children live outside Lebanon. And his wife refuses to return to the building even after it gets restored. And so Leon sits alone on his balcony, trying to ease the loneliness and bitterness with a glass of whiskey.
The building opposite Leon’s house has been restored, but the windows remain closed. The balconies are empty, except for some pictures of the victims.
“The first time I came back, I suffered a lot,” Leon said. “I cried at night. Some of the people dearest to me had died. During the war Jaco was raised in the shelter with my children and all of our neighbors. May God have mercy on you, Jaco, may God have mercy on you.”
The Path of Collapse
The Beirut port explosion is part of a tragic path the country has embarked on. In the fall of 2019, Lebanon witnessed what is arguably the largest financial collapse in history. The banks, with behind them the ruling political class, robbed the Lebanese of their deposits.
The national currency, the lira, has depreciated insanely. The Lebanese are living under the most severe economic crisis, with over 60% of the people living under the poverty line.
And then there were the some 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port since 2013, which was known to most of the security officials, ministers, and even the President. But no one moved a finger.
“The crime in the port was a major turning point that occurred within a larger turning point, which is the financial collapse,” said lawyer Nizar Saghieh, executive director of the Legal Agenda. “To us, the explosion is the second face of the collapse. Everyone knew the economy would collapse and depositors’ money would be withheld, but no one did anything. The same with the explosion. Everyone knew there was ammonium nitrate that could explode and destroy the entire capital, but no one did anything.”
Reuters recently announced it read the report of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, which participated in the investigations in the first days after the explosion. It concluded that only a fifth of the materials stored in the port had exploded, so what happened to the rest of it?
That is a big question, which investigators did not address and officials avoided. Previous reports had indicated that the thousands of tons that exploded might have been a shipment destined for Syria. The Lebanese authorities maintain the shipment’s destination was Mozambique.
An investigation broadcast by Al-Jadeed established a link between the shipment and three Syrian businessmen who support President Bashar al-Assad. Al-Jadeed journalist Riad Qubeisi worked for years on corruption files related to the port before the explosion, and, after the explosion, revealed many details about how senior officials knew about the ammonium nitrate.
“The ruling powers cannot evade their responsibility by saying that an employee is responsible for negligence,” he said. “These people (in the port administration) were known as the bunch. They were not appointed because of their competence or actual efficiency. They are only efficient in turning the state’s treasury into a hollow bowl.”
According to Kobeissi, the pattern reflected in the correspondence of the various agencies and concerned ministers about the existence of the ammonium nitrate suggests there was something that should have been kept quiet about.
“The pattern will lead you to the conclusion that someone is telling them to forget about it,” he said.
Instead of pressing for truth and accountability, Lebanon’s deeply corrupt ruling class has acted to protect itself, impeding the ongoing judicial investigation by refusing to lift the immunity of the officials the judiciary wants to interrogate.
Politicians and their associates cooperated in removing the first judge investigating the case after he dared to indict several ministers and the prime minister, asking them to appear as suspects. The scenario was repeated with the second judge. The investigation was further restricted.
Killing the Country
For the Lebanese, the explosion is the most serious manifestation of their suffering under a dysfunctional leadership. The oligarchy has mismanaged the state so badly that it has pushed Lebanon into what the World Bank has described as an “intentional depression,” a crisis that has ranked Lebanon “in the top ten, and possibly the top three, in terms of severe global crises since the mid-19th century.”
It was a nightmare year for a rapidly collapsing country. Lebanon has been rudderless since the resignation of the prime minister and his government shortly after the explosion. Due to political infighting and petty personal disputes, a new government has yet to be formed.
The currency has lost over 90% of its value, plunging over half the Lebanese into poverty. Banks have imposed strict monthly withdrawal limits, as depositors watched the value of their trapped money vanish. People have lost their life savings. Hyperinflation has spread. The price of bread, set by the Ministry of Economy, has risen at least six times this year. UNICEF claims a third of Lebanese children go to bed hungry.
Long, winding lines at gas stations have become a common sight due to fuel shortages, exacerbated by smuggling across the border into sanctioned Syria. Blackouts have become the norm, as state electricity rarely comes for more than an hour or two a day. Generators cannot keep up. In some areas, there is no power at all. People do without electricity simply because they cannot afford the exorbitantly high prices generator operators are asking for.
Recently, the Ministry of Health canceled the COVID-19 vaccination campaign due to a lack of electricity and internet. Pharmacies are running out of such essentials as baby formula and Panadol. Thousands of doctors, nurses and other professionals have left while others are looking for a way out. The state of desperation has led to an increase in petty crime. Even the Lebanese army had to reach out to the international community to help feed its soldiers.
From Civil War to Port Blast
The scene of the victims’ families’ monthly marches and demonstrations to demand justice and accountability have vigorously revived the scene of the families of the people gone missing during the Civil War. In 1982 they started their sit-ins to demand to know the fate of their loved ones.
The Lebanese warlords had avoided responsibility thanks to the 1990 political settlement that resulted in an amnesty law and prevented anyone from being held accountable. Justice has rarely been met in Lebanon.
For decades, countless crimes, fights and tragedies, including bombings and political assassinations, have gone unresolved. No one gets punished in the land of impunity. It is therefore not surprising that many Lebanese fear that the investigation into the Beirut explosion will fail to identify the perpetrators and achieve justice.
Still in Pain
Wadad Halawani, head of the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon has been working since 1982 to find out the fate of her husband and some 17,000 others who went missing during the Civil war.
According to her, the crime of the port explosion resembles elements of the Civil War. It is as if nothing has changed. The tragedy of the families of the missing, many of whom died without ever knowing the truth, is now repeated with the families of the victims of the port blast.
“During the war, it was argued that all people fought and were kidnapped,” said Halawani. “We want to end the war and look forward to peace, ” they said. Well, now a crime of this magnitude took place 30 years after the war, and is treated with the same level of intimidation, marginalization, tampering, and flimsy investigation.”
The irony of the port blast is that the political leaders and officials who either knew about the ammonium nitrate or appointed the concerned authorities are the same leaders who avoided standing trial for war crimes after passing the amnesty law.
“We entered into a process of amnesty after the war, which caused the characteristics of war to continue to this day,” said Saghieh. “Instead of armed forces, there are civilian authorities. But all institutions are controlled. The employees’ job is to obey orders. An employee cannot say no to a minister. Every ministry has been turned into a kind of feudal fief. This is what happened over the course of 30 years.”
According to Saghieh, the issue of immunity is the consecration of the principle of impunity that has governed life in post-war Lebanon.
“The Lebanese are discovering every day a new lesson in the mechanisms and art of impunity,” he said. “We saw how the issue of immunity, when several ministers were summoned, turned the process into the demonization of the judge. How dare he, when the first thing a judge should do is to listen to the minister, who brought nitrate into the country.”
In front of Ibrahim Amin’s house in Bourj Al-Barajneh in Beirut’s southern suburbs, hang two pictures of the young man who was one of the day laborers who perished in the ruins of the port. He was not even 19 and the youngest in the family.
Ibrahim was called to work that day and died in the explosion. His older brother Hassan, a delivery driver, was among the ones who searched for Ibrahim’s body. It remained under the rubble for 4 days.
The brothers are two of a family of 7 children who work simple jobs to help provide for a limited income. Hassan left school as a child trying to help his family. He wanted to emigrate and travel. But today, he has no goal but to find out who killed his brother. In the house, Ibrahim’s loss still has a heavy presence.
“My mother wanted to put up a photo of my brother on the wall,” said Hassan. “I told her, Mother, don’t put it up, in case you lose one of your other children because in this country you are completely exposed to something like that happening.”
Ibrahim’s mother, Yusra, will never forget the moment her son left the house after they called him “to work and die hard.”
Yusra and her family regularly demonstrate with the victims’ families against the attempts to obstruct the investigation and impose immunity. To her it is clear who bears responsibility for what happened to her son and the other victims.
“They are all criminals, by God, they are all criminals,” she said. “I have no confidence in the state. Because the state knew the ship, knew who missed it and received it. But they didn’t die. No official died. Our children died.”
Non-Lebanese: Double Victims
The port explosion was not a crime that only took Lebanese. The victims belonged to eight different nationalities, which makes the path of justice and the prosecution of those responsible more complicated.
No accurate or official census has been issued regarding the exact number of victims among non-Lebanese workers and residents. And, according to the testimonies published by human rights organizations, many suffered afterwards, as they were deprived from assistance, compensation or medical care.
The second highest number of victims were Syrian, workers, employees and residents in the vicinity of the port. These faced a complex situation in terms of rights and justice.
Rawan Mesto, a young Syrian woman who worked as a waitress in Gemmayzeh, was killed while at work. Rawan and her siblings were living with her mother, who has been separated from her father, since the 1990s. Rawan wanted to help her family, so she worked in the café, as she was trying to complete her studies.
“The color is black,” said her mother Mona.
Paradoxically, Rawan being Syrian has made her death in the explosion more complicated and costly, both because of the difficulty of burying her and the inability to achieve any real accountability. Rima, Rawan’s sister, who has suffered from depression since her sister’s death, recalled how much the family has suffered because of nationality.
“Because she is Syrian and we do not have cemeteries in our name, here we are,” she said. “The cemetery first wanted $19,000. Then they came back and lowered the price to $11,000. But it was not us who paid. A friend of Rawan’s did, and if he hadn’t she would’ve probably stayed in the hospital and we would’ve just stood around, lost.”
The meager compensation that was distributed among some of those affected by the Beirut explosion did not go to non-Lebanese victims, who stem mostly from marginalized groups.
“The Syrian state will tell you that we have nothing to do with the Lebanese state, they did this” Rawan’s mother said.
“Then if I say this to the Lebanese state, they’ll tell me your daughter has Syrian documents. What do I do in this situation? Where do I find the legal rights of my daughter? The Syrian state would say well you live there so you demand her rights from the Lebanese state. The Lebanese state then responds, well she’s Syrian, I mean, who do I go to? Where do I pursue her rights from?
Surviving the explosion does not mean life has returned its normal course. Many alive today carry with them the burden of August 4, through the loss of loved ones or physical pain. For some, survival even comes with a feeling of guilt.
Do we stay or leave?
Many people have answered that question by actually leaving Lebanon. As for those who remained, they are trying to leave. And for those who are helpless, they are trying to find reasons to stay.
“I don’t want my daughter to stay in Lebanon because this country, to me, has become a hopeless case,” said Mireille Khoury, who is always worried about her daughter Nour, a university student.
“I mean, look at our history. Every how many years a war? How many years is a tragedy? I don’t want my daughter to stay.”
For her, emigration is a chance to escape after losing her son, Elias, who was only 16 at the time of the explosion. His room faced the port. For two weeks, Elias balanced between life and death, but in the end his body could not overcome the seriousness of his injuries.
“I thought that he would be conscious, I spent two weeks in the hospital thinking he would wake up. Even when I was in the ambulance to see him, I would tell the nurses, you’ll see Elias is going to wake up at night. Don’t leave him because he’s going to wake up, it’s going to be a miracle. Elias would never leave me …”
Nour survived with severe injuries. Her mother Mireille suffered a broken back. The family home is destroyed. Their life was completely turned upside down.
“Concealing the danger from the public is the major crime that took place,” said Mireille. “And this is a political responsibility first, in the sense that this regime can’t possibly continue existing in this way. Lebanese people must know that any regime like this that continues to exist in this way will ultimately produce another collapse and an explosion of even worse consequences. It is impossible to compromise with this regime or seriously think about its possibility to continue surviving.”