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Lebanon seethes with grief and rage as it marks one year since Beirut blast

‘The security officials, the government, the customs, of course they all knew’ of the hazards, says a worker at the port’s grain silos who lost seven colleagues in the explosion

A gavel monument symbolizing justice is seen in front of the damaged grain silos at Beirut port on August 4, 2021, as Lebanon marks a year since a cataclysmic explosion ravaged the capital Beirut. (JOSEPH EID / AFP)
A gavel monument symbolizing justice is seen in front of the damaged grain silos at Beirut port on August 4, 2021, as Lebanon marks a year since a cataclysmic explosion ravaged the capital Beirut. (JOSEPH EID / AFP)

BEIRUT (AFP) — Lebanon on Wednesday marked a year since a cataclysmic explosion ravaged Beirut, with a mix of grief over lost lives and rage at the impunity for its worst peacetime disaster at a time when its economy was already in tatters.

Shortly after 6 p.m. on August 4, 2020, a stock of ammonium nitrate fertilizer haphazardly stored at the city’s port exploded and left swaths 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, leveled entire neighborhoods, irreparably scarred the nation’s psyche and deepened the country’s economic abyss.

With more than half the country living under the poverty line, former colonial power France aims to raise humanitarian aid at another international conference co-hosted by the UN on the anniversary.

President Emmanuel Macron, at the start of the event, pledged 100 million euros ($118 million) from France alone.

But as the probe into the disaster stalls, he warned that Lebanese leaders “owe their people the truth and transparency” over what happened.

Rescue workers and security officers work at the scene of an explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, August 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

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

In Beirut, security forces fanned out near the port ahead of families of the dead and survivors gathering to honor those who perished in a blast whose shockwave was felt as far away as Cyprus.

Port workers were buried under gutted grain silos, firefighters battling the fire that preceded the blast were pulverized, commuters were crushed to death and residents lacerated by supersonic shards of glass bled out in their homes.

Many will stay home on what was declared a national day of mourning, but last year’s shock soon gave way to an anger that has only grown with every day the crime stays unpunished.

Jeffry Chartouni, a worker at the port’s grain silos, is still boiling with indignation after seven of his colleagues died in the blast.

How, he asked, had authorities for years not told them about tons of explosive materials stored right next to their offices?

“They should have warned us. With just a phone call, I could have told the guys to flee” before the fertilizer exploded, the 32-year-old said. “The security officials, the government, the customs, of course they all knew,” he added. “They need to be held to account, from the very top of the ladder to the lowest rung.”

Banners reading “Here starts your end and our beginning” and “Hostages of a murderous state” hang on buildings damaged during last year’s port blast on August 4, 2021, as Lebanon marks a year since a cataclysmic explosion ravaged the capital Beirut. (JOSEPH EID / AFP)

One protest is due to wind up in front of parliament, where no move has been taken toward accepting accountability.

Amnesty International 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.

“We are done with routine and peaceful demonstrations… beware of our anger,” said Ibrahim Hoteit, a spokesperson for the families.

According to foreign and Lebanese intelligence reports seen by AFP, hundreds of tons of fertilizer were carelessly stored in the same warehouse as tons 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. However, more thorough investigations have yet to ascertain that fact and answer how the shipment got there in the first place, or why the deadly assortment of hazardous materials was left to fester in the same location for years.

Banners hang on a building damaged during last year’s port blast on August 4, 2021, as Lebanon marks a year since a cataclysmic explosion ravaged the capital Beirut. (JOSEPH EID / AFP)

Mervat Bakkour, 43, was among dozens of people holding candles at a vigil late Tuesday in the Gemayzeh neighborhood ravaged by the blast. “I still can’t believe so many lives were lost,” she said.

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.

A first donor conference for Lebanon in the immediate aftermath of the blast collected 280 million euros ($332 million at current rates).

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 compounding the post-blast trauma, crippling a health sector facing a new wave of COVID-19 infections and leading all of those who can to emigrate.

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