Beirut Blast Anniversary: The Dust has yet to Settle
Residents of Beirut are still traumatized by the Beirut port blast. The shocking scenes of the devastated waterfront set a new standard for the horror the blast caused at the time with no answers provided so far.
On August 4, 2020, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in the history of mankind ground Beirut’s Port and damaged more than half of the city. Tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a combustible chemical compound commonly used in agriculture as a high nitrate fertilizer, caused the explosion.
A year full of scars
Ahead of the one-year anniversary of the blast, the marks of the explosion, which led to the martyrdom of around 217 people, injury of more than 7,000, and the displacement of over 300,000 remain engraved in the city, as the Lebanese people still await the truth.
Dr. Sam Rigby, Senior Lecturer in Blast and Impact Engineering at the University of Sheffield, said, “The disaster that hit Beirut was devastating and we hope that nothing like that ever happens again. This was an unprecedented event because never before has such a large explosion been so well documented.”
Official investigation: No answers yet
In a country that has witnessed assassinations and bombings over the last two decades, none of which have been solved, except in rare cases, and with none of the perpetrators being held accountable, the Lebanese are still waiting for answers to determine who is to blame and what caused the tragedy.
Today, the Lebanese capital remains a ghost town, with little progress made in determining who is to blame for the disaster. Furthermore, the official investigation is battling to hold those responsible accountable as a result of decades of inefficiency, corruption, and political influence.
The investigation has been referred to Lebanon's judicial council. So far, it has ordered the arrest of 25 people, including the Port's Director and the Head of Lebanon's Customs Authority, and has taken more than 50 witness statements.
Beirut blast probe targets officials
Reviewed government documents showed that many Lebanese officials were well aware of the dangers posed by the large chemical stockpile long before last year, as reported by The Washington Post.
According to the documents, responsibility for the ammonium nitrate was passed around for years among various public and private entities, including the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, the judiciary, the army, and even a private explosives company.
On December 10, 2020, Lebanese Judge Fadi Sawan, the first investigative judge appointed, charged some former Lebanese MPs with “criminal negligence”, according to Amnesty International.
Simultaneously, Judge Sawan halted the investigation for nearly two months on December 17, 2020. Soon after, on February 18, 2021, Lebanon's Court of Cassation dismissed Judge Sawan.
On July 2, 2021, the new judge assigned to the case, Judge Tarek Bitar, submitted a request to the parliament to lift the parliamentary immunity of three MPs who once held ministerial positions. Bitar also requested permission to prosecute security service leaders, including the former Army Chief, Jean Kahwagi.
According to the state-run National News Agency, Bitar decided to summon a number of powerful politicians and security officials for questioning as suspects, which could result in charges against them related to the blast.
“In July 2021, investigative judge Tarek Bitar demanded permission to investigate MPs and high-level security officials, including MP and former Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, MP and former Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter, and MP and former Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, as well as the Head of General Security Directorate Major General Abbas Ibrahim, and the Head of State Security Major General Tony Saliba, over the explosion,” according to Amnesty International.
In an interview for Al Mayadeen, former minister Ali Hassan Khalil said that the charges and criticism leveled against him were not justified, even though he was aware of the presence of hazardous material in the port, arguing that this was only aimed at diverting the course of the investigations.
Moreover, a recent investigation published by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that the investigation is hindered and has been marked by “obstruction, evasion, and delay”, including “flagrant political interference”.
“Official conduct, in a context of longstanding corruption and mismanagement at the Port, allowed for tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a potentially explosive chemical compound, to be haphazardly and unsafely stored there for nearly six years,” the same report added.
Furthermore, official documentation strongly suggests that some government officials anticipated and “accepted the risks of death posed by the presence of ammonium nitrate in the port”, according to the same report.
Public rage: Justice shall be served
A year after the Beirut blast, public anger in Lebanon is mounting, owing to a stalled investigation, a devastating economic crisis, and political paralysis.
The victims' families have called for marches at 3:30 (12:30 GMT) toward the port, where prayers will be made. The names of the victims of the explosion will be read between six and seven minutes after the explosion.
During a press conference on Monday, the victims' families set a 30-hour deadline for officials to lift the immunity of officials summoned to appear before the judiciary by the investigative judge.
The families of the victims of the port explosion and activists call for accountability, launching viral campaigns on social media with the hashtags “#Justice for the victims of Beirut Port explosion,” or urging demonstrations, with various hashtags such as #we are all victims, and “#we Will Not Forget”.