• Wednesday, Aug 10, 2022
  • Last Update : 04:24 pm

Lebanese protest impunity one year on from deadly blast

  • Published at 10:02 pm August 4th, 2021
Lebanon Beirut Explosion one year on
A demonstrator marches with a sign in the Gemmayze neighbourhood, Beirut on August 4, 2021 AFP

On August 4, 2020, one of the world's biggest-ever, non-nuclear explosions destroy much of Beirut's port and killed at least 214 people

Thousands of grief-stricken Lebanese marched on Wednesday to mark a year since a cataclysmic explosion ravaged Beirut, protesting impunity over the country's worst peacetime disaster at a time when its economy was already in tatters.

Shortly after 6:00pm, local time, on August 4, 2020, a stock of ammonium nitrate fertiliser haphazardly stored at the city's port exploded and left swathes of the Lebanese capital looking like a war zone.

What went down as one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history killed at least 214 people, levelled entire neighbourhoods, irreparably scarred the nation's psyche and deepened the country's economic abyss.

Demonstrators gather near the damaged grain silos outside the port of Lebanon's capital Beirut on August 4, 2021 | AFP

Mournful tunes rang out above central Beirut on Wednesday evening, as outraged Lebanese held up angry posters demanding accountability over the disaster.

Sandra Abras, 43, said she had come to pay respect to the victims after she was lucky to survive the explosion, but her home was ravaged in the blast.

"We weren't able to return home for a month and half... We fixed it with our own money," she said, adding she suffered terrible headaches for months after the traumatic event.

Lawyers, doctors in long white coats, engineers and retired army officers also joined in to pay tribute to those who perished in the blast, whose shockwave was felt as far away as Cyprus.

Port workers were buried under gutted grain silos in the explosion, commuters crushed to death and residents lacerated by supersonic shards of glass bled out in their homes.

'My government killed my people'

At the march a year later, protesters clad in dark hooded robes paraded a mock guillotine.

"My 'government' killed my people, took our homes and turned our city to dust," read a sign, held up by a woman in a black surgical mask.

Also Read: Lebanon timeline: One year since Beirut blast

"No way can those who blew us up stay in their posts," read another.

Wafaa Karam, 37, mourned her brother, a nephew and a cousin, all firefighters killed last summer after they rushed to extinguish what they thought was an ordinary fire in a port warehouse.

"We want the truth," she said.

The country's already reviled political class has hidden behind its proclaimed immunity to avoid prosecution, stalling the lead investigating judge's work at every turn.

Initial shock at the disaster has evolved into anger that has only grown as the crime stays unpunished.

Jeffry Chartouni, a worker at the port's grain silos, said he wanted justice for his seven colleagues killed.

"The security officials, the government, the customs, of course they all knew," the 32-year-old said.

"They need to be held to account, from the very top of the ladder to the lowest rung."

Since the blast, the country has sunk deeper into economic crisis.

With more than half the population now living under the poverty line, former colonial power France Wednesday pledged $118 million, and the United States promised $100 million, at the latest conference to drum up humanitarian aid.

'Nitrate deputies'

Amnesty International has accused the Lebanese authorities of "shamelessly obstructing" justice, while Human Rights Watch accused them of "criminal negligence.”

On Monday, relatives of blast victims called on authorities to lift immunity within three days, warning they were willing to "break bones" in upcoming protests.

According to foreign and Lebanese intelligence reports seen by AFP, hundreds of tonnes of fertiliser were carelessly stored in the same warehouse as tonnes of fireworks and rolls of detonating cord, among other dangerous materials.

The reports, all dating back to last year, suggest welding work caused the original fire.

But more thorough investigations have yet to ascertain that fact and answer how the shipment got there in the first place, or why the hazardous materials were left to fester in the same location for years.

Lebanon's parliamentarians -- some of whom have been nicknamed the "nitrate deputies" on social media -- are ignoring intense international pressure and threats of sanctions.

They have yet to agree on a government line-up despite being given a mid-September deadline last year by Paris, which has spearheaded an aid drive conditioned on reform.

Lebanon's descent into chaos had already started before the port blast, with a bankrupt state trapping people's savings in banks and the national currency nosediving on the black market.

The country is now facing medicine, fuel and clean water shortages that are crippling a health sector facing a new wave of Covid infections and leading all of those who can to emigrate.