Beirut explosion a year later: no justice, no hope

Bernadette Daw Gamayel shows a photo on her mobile phone taken from her balcony on August 4, 2020, shortly after 6 p.m. Plumes of black smoke rise above the Port of Beirut in the distance.

At that point, everything changed.

Thousands of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s main civilian port exploded, causing massive devastation and loss of life. A year later, the families of the victims are still waiting for answers.

All of Gamayel’s family were gathered that day in their apartment facing the port. Her husband had come home early to meet with a carpenter to install their children’s new bedroom set. Gamayel also plans to install a small inflatable pool for his two children on the balcony.

“We wanted it to be a special day,” Gamayel said. “We planned it to be … the happiest day for the kids.”

Her husband went to the balcony to see the smoke. He told the children not to worry. “He told them ‘don’t be afraid’,” Gamayel said. Her husband went back inside to help the carpenter.

Seconds later, an explosion ravaged the city and their apartment.

Gamayel has lost almost everything, including her husband.

A year later, Gamayel and other families of the 200 victims still have no answers and are no closer to justice.

“The whole government is responsible. … They all knew the [ammonium] nitrate. They all knew.

Bernadette Daw Gamayel, Beirut, Lebanon

“All of government is responsible,” Gamayel said. “They all knew the [ammonium] nitrate. They all knew.

Related: Soldiers cannot feed their families amid Lebanon’s financial crisis

Many Lebanese political elites – including the Prime Minister and the President – knew that the Port of Beirut was stocking thousands of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, but did nothing about it.

Over the past year, the families of the victims have staged protests outside the homes of ministers, government buildings and judicial offices. They march with photos of their deceased loved ones and demand justice.

Unanswered questions persist about how and why the chemicals were stored in the civilian port, next to a densely populated residential area – and what exactly triggered the explosion.

Related: After the explosion, Lebanese doctors leave en masse

“It is very clear to us that the ruling political parties in Lebanon are attempting to sabotage the investigation and derail efforts to bring justice to the victims of the explosion.

Ghida Frangieh, lawyer, Legal Agenda, Beirut, Lebanon

“It is very clear to us that the ruling political parties in Lebanon are trying to sabotage the investigation and derail efforts to bring justice to the victims of the explosion,” said Ghida Frangieh, lawyer for Legal Agenda, a Lebanese rights organization.

Ministers, parliamentarians and government employees enjoy exceptional levels of immunity, making it difficult for judges to call key witnesses and suspects.

Frangieh stressed that the Lebanese leadership has faced little responsibility on all fronts, from war crimes in the 1980s, “to widespread corruption and the financial and economic collapse we are currently facing”.

Related: Lebanese take to sea – risking their lives to reach Europe

“Everyone is in need now”

Last year the financial crisis worsened.

In a church about a mile from the Port of Beirut, a priest leads Sunday Mass with only a few dozen worshipers in the huge hall.

The scars of the explosion that destroyed this neighborhood a year ago are still visible: broken marble slabs on the walls, cracked stone columns and the church is still windowless.

More than 20 members of that ward died that day.

Father Elia was giving a sermon as the explosion tore his church apart. In the days that followed, he organized a funeral after the funeral.

“Every day for two weeks, I had… three or four,” he recalls.

Many graves in the cemetery next to the church were also blown up. A thick smell permeated the air as the bones of long-dead bodies were exposed.

Father Elia had to bury the victims of the explosion next to these open graves. Most of the graves have now been repaired, or at least closed, but the graves and headstones remain cracked.

As inflation skyrocketed and poverty within Father Elia’s congregation increased dramatically, he had to make some tough choices. Broken tombstones and empty windows gave way to food for his devotees and help with medical bills.

The cost of basic foodstuffs has tripled, if not quadrupled, since fall 2019, but wages have not kept pace. And many people lost their jobs during the pandemic.

In a food bank in the basement of the church, volunteers distribute 100 meals a day. But half of the Lebanese population now lives below the poverty line, according to some analysts.

“Everyone is in need now. … We can not [receive] more people and demand increases.

Raja Hadwane, church volunteer, Beirut, Lebanon

“Everyone is in need now,” said Raja Hadwane, a church volunteer. ” We can not [receive] more people and demand increases.

She said that without the program, families would be hungry.

A block away, a dozen women gather with their children in front of a free clinic. Medical costs have also risen, and pharmacies are running out of basic medicines like pain relievers.

Even those who can afford to fill their prescriptions often cannot find the medications they need.

A few streets further on, up to four flights of stairs, lives Norma Irani. In the days following the explosion, she refused to leave her home without a window or door. Most of Beirut only receives three or four hours of electricity a day, and generators cannot keep up with demand. In the sweltering summer heat in Beirut, Irani worries about spoiling food in the freezer.

The doors and windows of Irani’s apartment are back, but she said the government had offered no financial assistance. Instead, non-governmental organizations helped, while keeping her refrigerator fully stocked.

She stressed that the Lebanese people need the help of the international community, not the government.

Many here don’t want to see more money going into the hands of Lebanon’s ruling elite, who are accused of embezzling and mismanaging tens of billions of dollars – part of the country’s $ 90 billion debt. Lebanon.

“There is no justice”

Aid does not come anyway, because Lebanon has been without a government for almost a year.

Saad Hariri resigned as prime minister-designate last month after eight months of failure to form a cabinet. A new government is needed to meet the conditions of the international community and unlock billions in aid and loans.

Related: Riots in Lebanon as West calls for rapid cabinet formation

Irani said the most important thing now is justice. “All I want is justice,” she said.

But Gamayel, who lost her husband, scoffs at the idea.

“Here in Lebanon? There is no justice, ”she said.

Related: Migrant workers stranded in Beirut after explosion

But Frangieh, the lawyer, said she hoped the moment could be a turning point “towards building a more democratic and fair system where rulers are held accountable for their crimes.”

Gamayel fails to see how this is possible when the government – whose alleged negligence caused the explosion – is also in charge of the investigation.

“So can someone guilty find the truth?” she asked. “Can someone guilty do justice to people?” “

Many have called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to intervene and open an international investigation.

A year ago, as families like Gamayel’s watched the fire and smoke, so did the Lebanese rulers. The fire burned for 40 minutes. Many executives knew there were thousands of tons of highly explosive chemicals in the port. But no one told the families in the area.

“My husband’s last sentence was, ‘Do not be afraid, my children. There is rice and wheat, ”Gamayel said. “We thought we were living near a rice and wheat storage – no nitrate.”

Additional reporting by Hassan Harfoush.

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