A year on from the Beirut explosion: victims still ask questions

    07 Aug 2021

    When his workplace blew to pieces, dockworker Yusuf Shehadi was waiting to hear back from colleagues who had scrambled to help firefighters extinguish a blaze in the port of Beirut. The fire was terrible and getting worse, they told him in their last conversation before a giant explosion killed them, and 210 others, a year ago today.

    Lebanese capital remains a city’s shell; they,, as efforts to find who is to blame for the tragedy, have made little progress, The Guardian states.

    The catastrophic blast laid to ruin the place Shehadi had worked for a decade. And he immediately knew its cause. “I had taken the nitrate from the dock to the hangar six years earlier,” he said of the massive stockpile of military-grade fertilizer that he had helped move from a freighter to a nearby hangar in 2014.

    Six years later, it had caught fire and pulverized Lebanon’s main port. “Their phones were dead,” Shehadi said of his eight colleagues, four of whom were also dockworkers who had helped unload the nitrate from a Russian freighter.

    He soon learned their fate and that of his hometown through the Armageddon-like images that reverberated around the world. Even in a city inured to trauma and loss, the shocking scenes of Beirut’s devastated waterfront broke new ground for the horror it caused at the time and in the miserable year since when answers have been few.

    A year after the Beirut blast, Lebanon sinks deep into a mire of corruption

    One year on, the Lebanese capital remains a shell of a city; At the same time, most of the physical damage has been repaired, the scar on Beirut’s psyche remains raw and festering, its impact intensified by the anger of a people denied justice.

    “Once, just once – especially now – this country could have delivered an outcome for its people,” said Fadia Doumit, as she stared at the tangled mess of metal and masonry strewn across what used to be the port, near where she works. The enormous debris field is in almost the same state as it was a year ago, a memorial to a day that has come to define the dysfunction of Lebanon and the complicity of its leaders.

    Attempts at judicial inquiries over the past year have led to several dozen bureaucrats being detained. Still, leaders have refused to be questioned or to vote in favor of lifting immunity that protects them from prosecution. “The Lebanese state cannot and will not investigate itself,” said Shadi Haddid, from the town of Broumana, 30 minutes from Beirut. “No one here is competent to sit in judgment of the other.”

    Questions about the ultimate beneficiary of the nitrate, how much of it detonated, how it caught fire and whether any of the stockpiles were removed remain unanswered. “Everyone knows they don’t want to get to the bottom of this,” said Haddid. “It would implicate the whole political class, one way or another.”

    In the absence of any effective local probe, it has fallen to local lawyers, journalists, and civil society actors to explore the circumstances around the arrival of the Russian freighter, the Rhosus, which later sunk at its moorings at the port, and what then happened to the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate unloaded from it.

    “They never told us how much we were moving, but it was a lot,” said Shehadi. “And some of it was in bad condition, with water in the bottom of the bags. It was so caustic it eroded the front of the forklifts.”

    Over the past year, the Guardian has been told by international investigators, Lebanese police sources, and one dockworker that some of the nitrates were moved from the hangar soon after it was delivered.

    Lebanese investigators suggest that it may have been moved to Syria to be used in crude explosives, known as barrel bombs, that were dropped from Syrian military helicopters on to opposition-held parts of the country during the peak years of the civil war there.

     “There were several trucks that were intercepted and turned back by [Lebanon’s] internal security forces circa 2015-16,” said one senior official. “They could never work out where the nitrate was coming from.”

    However, this claim has been contradicted by European investigators, who say an extensive investigation of the port and its activities has shown that large-scale smuggling of nitrate from the site in question – hangar 12 – was unlikely.

    Asked about an FBI report that suggested closer to 600 tonnes than 2,750 exploded, the report’s authors concurred but said the remainder probably burned in the subsequent fire. A European investigator added a caveat that security cameras showing the hangar’s main doors had not been working for up to several years.

    Shehadi, too doubts that nitrate was smuggled out of the port either when it was delivered or subsequently. “There were six doors, and they were monitored,” he said. “They would have needed forklifts to move it, and we would have known.”

    Central to investigations has been the sudden diversion in 2013 of the Rhosus to Beirut, where it was tasked with picking up 160 tonnes of agricultural machinery to take to the Jordanian port of Aqaba.

    The ship, however, was already at full capacity and not equipped to take on such heavy pieces. Its deck buckled after the first loading attempts, and the Rhosus was impounded in lieu of paying port fees.

    For the next ten months, the crew was not allowed to leave the ship as port authorities tried to trace the ship’s owners. “I used to take them food,” said Shehadi. “They had no idea where they were going at any point in the journey. “There was something strange about all this.”

    Of further interest has been the shell company used to buy the nitrate. Savaro Limited – whose ultimate ownership remains unknown one year on – was used only once to facilitate a deal between a now defunct company in Georgia and a mine in Mozambique, where the nitrate could have been used for explosives for mining.

    Lawyers see the use of a so-called sole purpose vehicle in the UK and in the region as irregular. The London address of the company was also used to register companies linked to two Syrian businessmen sanctioned by the US for allegedly procuring nitrate for the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.

    Unpicking the opaque mess of the Rhosus’s journey, the nitrate purchase, whether Mozambique was ever the intended destination, and what happened to its cargo once it reached Beirut have led to cautious responses from most stakeholders.

    Asked about a potential link to Syria at the launch of a landmark Human Rights Watch report into the explosion, the organization’s crisis and conflict director, Lama Fakih said: “The investigation raises questions, but we don’t have anything definitive.”

    The HRW report delivered a scathing summary of the Lebanese leadership, which was repeatedly warned of the dangers at the port.

    “The evidence currently available indicates that multiple Lebanese authorities were, at a minimum, criminally negligent under Lebanese law in their handling of the Rhosus’s cargo,” the report said. “The actions and omissions of Lebanese authorities created an unreasonable risk to life. Under international human rights law, a state’s failure to act to prevent foreseeable risks to life violates the right to life.

    “In addition, evidence strongly suggests that some government officials foresaw the death that the ammonium nitrate’s presence in the port could result in and tacitly accepted the risk of the deaths occurring. Under domestic law, this could amount to the crime of homicide with probable intent, and/or unintentional homicide.”

    The report was seen as validation by many Lebanese. “This is what a competent inquiry should do, and it needs to be replicated by an international team,” said Yusra Ahmad, at a Beirut cafe. “Finally, something for the leaders to fear.”

    Toby Cadman from lawyers Guernica 37 chambers said a credible international probe was vital. The special tribunal for Lebanon was “a costly and ineffectual academic exercise that delivered little,” he said of a 15-year probe into the killers of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

    “The international community needs to look to a more inclusive, efficient mechanism, such as those pursued to great effect in the western Balkans. We are exploring such an initiative currently, bringing together Lebanese and international legal experts in an independent commission.”

    At a verge overlooking the port at sunset on Tuesday, Dana Salha stood viewing the carnage. “It should stay here for ever as a testament to what happened. Where else in the world could this remain unchallenged?”

    Tears and anger as crowds mark Beirut monster blast

    As thousands of Lebanese stood solemnly facing Beirut port yesterday to honor lost relatives and friends, their minute of silence was soon followed by wailing sirens and revolutionary slogans, Gulf-Times reports.

    Even as candles were being lit and the names of those killed by last year’s monster blast readout, protesters a few hundred yards away tried to force a barrier leading to parliament.

    Marches, concerts, prayers, protests, flags, vigils, and statues: the cacophony that gripped central Beirut reflected how torn many were on the anniversary of Lebanon’s worst peacetime tragedy.

    While some remained haunted by the unfathomable loss and destruction that the August 4 port explosion wreaked last year, others saw their revolutionary fervor reignited.

    The chants of “thawra, thawra” (revolution, revolution) had not been shared by such a large crowd on the streets in months despite Lebanon’s spectacular financial and social collapse.

    The sun setting on the Mediterranean, a bright red shipwreck, and the gutted grain silos whose gloomy silhouette has become an emblem of the wounded city provided a striking background for the official ceremony.

    Victims’ families sat on neat white plastic chairs, cradling pictures of their slain relatives, as Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch conducted a mass shortly after 18:07 – the exact time at which the explosion ripped through the city.

    Sari Majdalani was busy in the kitchen of a nearby restaurant when disaster struck at that time last year.

    He escaped unharmed and has found a new job as a cook but morale is low. “I try to lie to myself and pretend that everything will be all right. But right now, I don’t believe there’s any hope,” the young man said.

    A far cry from the state funeral mood that cloaked the blast site and its surroundings, scenes reminiscent of an October 2019 protest movement that had kindled nationwide hope was playing out.

    Bare-chested young men tried to scale a razor-wire-topped barrier blocking access to parliament, for many the seat of the blame for the blast and the rest of the country’s woes.

    Baton-wielding security forces responded to stone-throwing with tear gas and pushed back dozens of protesters even as the Maronite patriarch, wearing his tall white mitre, continued his homily.

    Meanwhile, hundreds gathered on Martyrs’ Square, which is located between the two sites and was the central hub for weeks of protests that rattled Lebanon’s reviled leadership nearly two years ago.

    For many Lebanese, almost as traumatizing as the deadly explosion itself has been the lack of justice that followed and the political elite’s attempts to dodge it.

    Several victims’ organizations had warned that their anger had only grown more intense over the past year and signaled the anniversary should send a clear message they would not let the blast go unpunished.

    As the praying and rioting continued into dusk, it was hard to tell which current would win the day, leaving those in the middle wondering where to go.

    But for Nour, a 19-year-old high school girl, the only way is to abandon Lebanon.

    “There is no hope in sight. I don’t want to leave this country, but if nothing changes, I will leave when I finish my studies.”

    Why the trauma does not end for Beirut blast survivors

    Twelve months on from the blast, Lebanese officials are accused of deliberately obstructing justice. Civil society was forced to step in to address widespread mental trauma caused by Aug. 4, 2020, explosion, Arab News states.

    A year after narrowly avoiding death, Hadi’s heart still races when he hears sudden loud noises. The 27-year-old was lucky to survive when, on Aug. 4, 2020, a massive cache of ammonium nitrate ignited inside a warehouse at the Port of Beirut, close to his home in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood.

    At least 217 people were killed, more than 6,500 injured, and at least 300,000 were left homeless by the resultant blast, which devastated Lebanon’s main port. It was equivalent to the force of 1.1 kilotons of TNT and caused damage to buildings up to 20 kilometers away.

    Despite promising the victims and their families that justice would be swift, Lebanese authorities are yet to hold anyone accountable.

    Thousands of Beirut residents have similarly bitter memories of a day that proved to be the bloodiest and arguably most painful since the end of the civil war. The explosion, which was so powerful it was felt in Cyprus, more than 200km away, was one of the most giant non-nuclear blasts in history.

    The world was horrified by images and video footage on social media and news broadcasts that showed the scale of the damage caused by the shock wave that rocked the city, the destruction in the streets, and the dirty-pink mushroom cloud hanging over the city.

    Among the youngest victims were two-year-old Isaac Oehlers and three-year-old Alexandra Naggear. But equally tragic is the number of lives the explosion continues to claim indirectly.

    “We continue to hear about people losing their lives to suicide every day, and we continue to be overwhelmed with requests for psychological support, with an ongoing waiting list of 70 to 100 patients in our clinics every month,” Mia Atoui, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Embrace, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mental health, told Arab News.

    The aftermath of the Beirut explosion is just one of many overlapping crises blighting a country wracked by an ongoing economic crisis, mass unemployment, a fresh wave of coronavirus infections, and shortages of fuel and electricity — all of which is made worse by seemingly endless political paralysis.

    Lebanon has been experiencing a socio-economic implosion since 2019. In the autumn of that year, nationwide protests erupted over rampant corruption among the political class that has ruled the country since the end of the civil war under a sectarian banner.

    Public anger grew when an economic meltdown caused the nation’s currency to lose 90 percent of its value, and the banks held depositors’ money hostage. Thousands of young people have fled abroad. Those who remain struggle to get by often turning for help to a flourishing black market.

    But the trauma caused by the port explosion and its aftermath has been compounded by the failure of the government to move forward with its investigation into the disaster.

    In February, Lebanese authorities dismissed the first judge appointed to lead the investigation after he summoned political figures for questioning. So far, they have rejected requests by his replacement to lift the immunity granted to officials and question senior security forces members.

    Leaked official documents indicate that Lebanese customs officials, military and security chiefs, and members of the judiciary warned successive governments about the danger posed by the stockpile of explosive chemicals at the port on at least ten occasions during the six years it was stored at the port, yet no action was taken.

    MPs and officials are clinging to their right to immunity, effectively shielding suspects whose actions are blamed for causing the explosion and denying thousands of victims the justice they demand.

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