A year ago today, Beirut was rocked by a catastrophic explosion that would claim the lives of at least 215 people, injure more than 7,500 and leave hundreds of thousands homeless and displaced.
Twelve months on, “ground zero of Lebanon’s apocalypse” is haunted by the “stench of dead rats” that “seeps from hulking piles of rotting grain”, says The Guardian’s Middle East editor Martin Chulov. “Broken silos teeter above, their sides ripped apart by the catastrophic blast that also broke the soul of Beirut.”
The explosion in the city – which has rebuilt itself after so many crises, from its emergence out of French colonial rule in the early 1940s to the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 – served to “shatter a city that was already at a tipping point”.
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“The seismic force of the shock wave” was “carried around the world in high-definition horror”, Chulov adds. “Even amid the chaos of a country that had allowed this to happen to its people, this was surely a moment of reckoning.”
‘The year from hell’
One year on from the blast, families of the dead remain trapped in “the ugly loop of that day”, writes The Independent’s Middle East editor Bel Trew, “because so little has changed and there has been so little progress”.
In a country racked by political stasis, corruption and an imploding economy, “no one has been held responsible for what is believed to be one of the single largest non-nuclear explosions in modern history”, she adds, creating a “year from hell” for Beirut’s citizens.
“This is despite a damning paper trail showing that senior officials from the port authorities to the president knew about the deadly stockpile of ammonium nitrate behind the explosion, but did nothing about it.”
Officials “have spent the past year shamelessly obstructing victims’ quest for truth and justice”, an Amnesty International report says, making “relentless efforts to shield officials from scrutiny” while “repeatedly hampering the course of the investigation”.
The first judge overseeing the investigation was dismissed after he “summoned political figures for questioning”, the human rights organisation explains, while authorities have “so far rejected the new investigative judge’s requests to lift MPs’ immunity and to question senior members of the security forces in connection with the tragedy”.
“Lebanese authorities promised a swift investigation; instead they have brazenly blocked and stalled justice at every turn, despite a tireless campaign for justice and criminal accountability by survivors and families of victims,” says Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“The Lebanese government tragically failed to protect the lives of its people, just as it has failed for so long to protect basic socio-economic rights… Given the scale of this tragedy, it is astounding to see how far the Lebanese authorities are prepared to go to shield themselves from scrutiny.”
Writing in The Economist, Margaret Kadifa, whose grandmother survived the blast despite being thrown to the ground by the force of the explosion, notes that “Lebanon was already on its knees when the blast happened”.
“The financial system had collapsed, causing spiralling inflation and shortages of basic goods”, she says, and “things have got even worse in the past year”. While “rebuilding is something the Lebanese are good at… this time is different”.
“The port explosion and financial crisis were not chance events”, she adds. “They were catastrophes caused by decades of government incompetence and corruption.”
Adding to the widespread sense of betrayal is the “fact that thousands of the estimated 77,000 residences damaged or destroyed in the explosion have yet to be fully rebuilt”, The Independent’s Trew says.
“The waterfront closest to the port, once an impressive skyline of apartment blocks, businesses and bars, is still a jagged-tooth wasteland”, while “families have begun looking outside for help, urging the international community not to intervene but to cut diplomatic ties with those implicated in the explosion”.
That diplomatic help has so far not arrived, with Al Jazeera reporting that the position of the international community remains that the country’s leaders are “to blame for the political and economic crisis”, meaning reform must come before a bailout.
“We have no truth, no justice, no one has been held accountable. And we have no space to grieve,” says Paul Naggear, whose three-year-old daughter Alexandra was one of the youngest victims of the blast.
“Even the same day of the funeral when she was buried, my wife and I knew we needed to fight, we needed to be vocal,” he told The Independent. “It is criminal to ask the same people that killed us…to form a government and to rule us again. This is intolerable.”
‘Dysfunction of a state’
If little has changed in the notoriously divided political culture of Lebanon’s ruling elite, the blast has served to drive its residents “from street protests to political action”, says France 24.
Within days of the blast, “a tent city – dubbed ‘the Basecamp’ – had sprung up” to aid the victims, “comprised of NGOs and volunteer groups offering a range of emergency services in the absence of a comprehensive state response”.
Much of the response was organised by lawyer Hussein El Achi, who was “convinced him to join the fight for change from the inside” following his growing frustration with “interference in the investigation” and “Lebanon’s sectarian kleptocracy”, the broadcast adds.
El Achi is not alone, with protests breaking out that saw demonstrators “blocking major roads and clashing with security forces in Beirut” after “a months-long effort to form a new government by the prime minister-designate” failed, Sky News reports. The formation of a new government is a precursor to any reform that would unlock aid.
“Instead of giving birth to an era of redemption, the explosion has come to define the utter dysfunction of a state that has failed for all intents and purposes”, says The Guardian’s Chulov. The political class remains “unable to form a government” and is instead “bickering over the allocation of ministries as prizes to bolster their fiefdoms”.
Last week, Lebanon named its richest man, Najib Mikati, a two-time prime minister and resident of its poorest city, Tripoli, as its designated leader. He will now be tasked with forming a government where his predecessor Saad Hariri, another former leader, failed.
But as the “sheer scale of Lebanon’s meltdown continues to be absorbed by its people”, others “are starting to confront an unpalatable view that the state’s very foundations were flawed at each of its incarnations”, Chulov adds.
“If now isn’t the moment to change, then when is?”, asks Yarr Hadid, a 24-year-old student with plans to leave the country. “Are we to accept that this is how it is in Lebanon?”
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