United in grief and anger, families of the victims and other Lebanese came out into the streets of Beirut on Wednesday to demand accountability as banks, businesses and government offices shuttered to mark one year since the horrific explosion at the port of Beirut.
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. Prayers and protests were planned for later in the day, which has been declared a national day of mourning.
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 200 kilometres (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 its 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 outside the port, the justice palace, fire brigade and hard-hit neighbourhoods of Beirut on Wednesday, chanting slogans against the country’s political class, widely blamed for the port disaster and years of corruption and mismanagement that plunged Lebanon into bankruptcy.
“This is too big of a crime for it to be swept under the carpet,” said Sara Jaafar, an architect whose house opposite the port was totally destroyed, as she marched toward the rally there.
“It’s important for foreign countries to know we are against this murderous ruling class,” 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 were to hold a memorial and prayers at the still wrecked site of the blast at Beirut’s port later Wednesday. A huge metal gavel with the words “Act for Justice” was placed on a wall opposite the port with its shredded grain silos, near the words “My government did this” scrawled in black.
Flags flew at half-staff 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.
“Here starts your end and our beginning,” read one poster that took up the space of five floors of a high-rise. “Hostages of a murderous state,” read another.
“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 an extensive investigative report, Human Rights Watch 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 last 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, about 40 heads of states and government, diplomats and heads of international organizations were taking part in a conference co-hosted by France and the United Nations on Wednesday, hoping to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to meet Lebanon’s growing humanitarian needs.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the virtual event is meant to show support for the Lebanese people – not authorities – and pledged France would provide 100 millions euros in the coming months.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis recalled the suffering of the Lebanese people, as he held his first weekly audience with the public since surgery a month ago.
“A year after the terrible explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, that caused death and destruction, my thoughts go to that dear country, above all to the victims, to their families,” the pontiff said.
“And so many lost the illusion of living,” he added.
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