Grieving and angry Lebanese mark year since horrific blast

Families of victims and other citizens gathered at the foot of the silos in Beirut’s port.

Grieving and angry Lebanese mark year since horrific blast

Families of the victims and several thousand Lebanese united in grief and anger to mark one year since the horrific explosion at Beirut’s port with a moment of silence and prayers at the foot of the silos that was shredded by the blast.

A group of stone-throwing protesters clashed with security forces near Parliament, which they accuse of blocking the investigation into the port blast by refusing to lift immunity of senior politicians implicated in negligence that led to the explosion.

The grim anniversary comes amid an unprecedented economic and financial meltdown, and a political stalemate that has kept the country without a functioning government for a full year.

A justice symbol monument in Beirut
A justice symbol monument is seen in front of towering grain silos that were gutted in the massive August 2020 explosion at the port that claimed the lives of more than 200 people, in Beirut, Lebanon (Hussein Malla/AP)

The explosion killed at least 214 people, according to official records, injured and maimed thousands and devastated entire neighbourhoods of the city.

It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history — the result of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate igniting after a fire broke out.

The explosion tore through the city with such force, it caused a tremor across the entire country that was heard and felt as far away as the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, more than 180 miles away.

It soon emerged in documents that the highly combustible nitrates had been haphazardly stored at a port warehouse alongside other flammable material since 2014, and that multiple high-level officials over the years knew of their presence and did nothing.

A year later, there has been no accountability, and the investigation has yet to answer questions such as who ordered the shipment of the chemicals and why officials ignored repeated internal warnings of their danger.

Several thousand people staged protests at various locations in Beirut on Wednesday, chanting slogans against the country’s political class, which is widely blamed for the port disaster and years of corruption and mismanagement that plunged Lebanon into bankruptcy.

Police hold flowers in Beirut
Police hold flowers to mark the first anniversary of Beirut’s massive 2020 seaport blast (Hussein Malla/AP)

“It’s important for foreign countries to know we are against this murderous ruling class,” Ms Jaafar added. A year on, she has not been able to go back to her home, which like so many remains in ruins.

Families of the victims walked down a road carrying posters with photographs of their loved ones, as crowds lined up on both sides of the street applauded their fight for accountability.

They then held a memorial and prayers inside the port, which still holds the ruins of the giant silos. Names of each of the killed were read out. A huge metal gavel with the words “Act for Justice” was placed on a wall opposite the port.

“We are all victims of this system,” said Paul Naggear, father of three-year-old Alexandra, who died in the blast. He spoke on a podium outside the port.

Flags flew at half-mast over government institutions and embassies, and even medical labs and Covid-19 vaccination centres were closed to mark the day. Reflecting the raw anger at the country’s ruling class, posters assailing authorities were hung on the facades of defaced buildings across from the port.

Giant posters on a building in Beirut
Workers set giant banners on a building that was damaged in the blast (Hussein Malla/AP)

“This is a day of pain and grief. It is the day we lost our loved ones and relatives and children. We hope all those coming down (to the streets) in solidarity with us to respect our pain,” said Ibrahim Hoteit, who lost his brother in the blast and is now a spokesman for the families fighting for accountability.

The blast, coupled with the devastating economic crisis, political stalemate and rising poverty, have posed the gravest threat to the small country’s stability since its 1975-90 civil war.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, the Lebanese army said it arrested a number of people who were on their way to take part in anniversary commemorations, saying they had a large number of weapons and ammunition in their possession.

In Beirut’s eastern neighbourhood of Gemayzeh, a fist fight broke out between supporters of the Lebanese Communist Party and others who support the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces.

Several people were lightly injured by the exchange of stone throwing, before security forces opened fire in the air and dispersed the two sides.

A priest kisses and comforts a relative of a Beirut port blast victim
A priest kisses and comforts a relative of a victim (Hussein Malla/AP)

In an extensive investigative report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday called for an international probe into the port blast, accusing Lebanese authorities of trying to thwart the investigation.

HRW said a lack of judicial independence, constitution-imposed immunity for high-level officials and a range of procedural and systemic flaws in the domestic investigation rendered it “incapable of credibly delivering justice.”

The explosion — which destroyed and damaged thousands of homes and businesses — and the lack of accountability, have added to the deep political and sectarian divisions, tensions and anguish in a country reeling from multiple crises, including an economic unravelling so severe it has been described by the World Bank as one of the worst in the past 150 years.

The crisis has led to a dramatic currency crash and hyperinflation, plunging more than half of the country’s population below the poverty line.

The international community has refused to help Lebanon financially before wide reforms are implemented to fight widespread corruption and mismanagement.

Meanwhile, an international conference co-hosted by France and the United Nations on Wednesday raised more than 357 million US dollars (£257 million) in aid required to meet the country’s growing humanitarian needs, including 118.6 million dollars (£85 million) pledged by France, the former colonial power in Lebanon.

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