This Friday will mark three years since the August 4 Beirut Port explosion which claimed the lives of over 200 people and injured thousands more.
1,095 days since what was arguably the biggest crime ever committed against the Lebanese people occurred; changing the face of the Lebanese capital and affecting generations of people to come.
In the year since the last anniversary, both a lot and nothing has happened.
Life goes on in Lebanon, even as people are still picking up the pieces of their lives that were shattered when Hanger 12 at Beirut’s port exploded at 6:08 PM.
For those who have lost loved ones in the explosion, their lives have been frozen since August 4, 2020.
The families have continued to call for justice for their loved ones, but these calls have mostly fallen upon deaf ears as Lebanon’s politicians have done little more than talk about the need for an investigation, all the while obstructing the one that has been taking place.
After the explosion, then-Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi made bold claims about the investigation into the explosion.
“The investigation of the port explosion will be transparent, take 5 days, and any officials involved will be held accountable,” he stated.
Three years later, no one has been held accountable for what happened.
There has been no justice.
This is unsurprising, as even other, smaller investigations – such as those into the killings of Lokman Slim, an activist and writer killed in South Lebanon on February 4, 2021, and Joesph Bejjani, an employee at the Alfa telecoms company and freelance photographer who supposedly had photographs of Beirut’s port who was killed on December 21, 2020 – have gone nowhere.
Before we look back at the past year, we would be remised if we did not at least mention what has been happening in the Ain el-Hilweh Camp.
Today saw clashes in the Ain el-Hilweh Camp between members of Fatah and Islamist militants. At least five people were killed and seven others injured – including one Lebanese soldier and two children. #لبنان #عين_الحلوة
— Nicholas Frakes | نيكولاس فريكس (@nicfrakesjourno) July 30, 2023
On Saturday, an unknown gunman attempted to kill Islamic militant Mahmoud Khalil, but failed to do so and killed his companion instead. In retaliation, Fatah military commander Abu Ahmad al-Armoushi and several of his escorts were killed.
This led to two days of fighting inside the camp that left nine people dead and an estimated 50 people injured, including a Lebanese soldier and two children.
While there have been several moments of quiet, giving a false sense that the fighting had finally subsided, the clashes have been quick to start up once more.
— Nicholas Frakes | نيكولاس فريكس (@nicfrakesjourno) July 30, 2023
The Palestinian Joint Action Organization was able to broker a ceasefire Monday afternoon with the Islamic militants confirming the ceasefire. The militants also confirmed that they would be withdrawing their forces and that an investigative committee would be formed to discover what happened exactly, adding that those involved would be handed over to the proper authorities “under the auspices of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement.”
The ceasefire quickly failed once again, as there were reports of gunfire and explosions soon after it was announced.
A look back
The silos: Following the August 4 explosion, the grain silos in the port quickly became a symbol for the blast. Then, on August 4, 2022, as a crowd marched toward the port as part of their commemoration of the two-year anniversary, they began to collapse.
This collapse had long been anticipated since a fire had broken out there and the government refused to allow the fire services to try and extinguish the flames. But the fact that part of the northern section of the silos came crumbling down on the two-year anniversary of its destruction became yet another metaphor for what has happened in the aftermath of the explosion.
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In the days and weeks following the two-year anniversary, further sections of the silos continued to collapse until only a small section remained.
The remaining silos stand to this day, and remain a major symbol for those demanding justice. However, their slow decay is also a symbol for many people’s hopes that anyone will be held accountable.
Reopening: As the years have gone by since the 2020 explosion, there has been a continued effort to rebuild the capital city.
While parts of it remain in ruin, much of Beirut has since been restored.
One such example of this was on August 9 when the Phoenicia Hotel, an icon of the city, finally reopened after just over two years of reconstruction.
Another major landmark that has since been restored was the Sursock Museum which finally opened its doors once more on May 27, 2023 after it was left destroyed following the explosion.
Seized: On August 10, Lebanese judicial authorities ordered the seizure of property belonging to former ministers Ali Hassan Khalil and Ghazi Zeaiter, members of the Amal Movement and allies of Hezbollah who have been directly implicated in the Beirut Blast.
The ruling came after a complaint had been filed by the Beirut Bar Association which argued that they two had been abusing their rights to obstruct the investigation into the Beirut Port explosion.
Khalil and Zeaiter have filed countless complaints against Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the explosion, in the hopes that he would be removed like his predecessor Fadi Sawan.
Both Khalil and Zeaiter remain free men.
Keeping the memory alive: With the investigation into the explosion remaining stalled, it is easy for people to begin forgetting what exactly happened – especially given the ongoing economic crisis which has largely diverted many people’s attention as they try to survive in the constantly worsening situation.
This makes initiatives like Beirut 607 that much more important.
The book and website aim at keeping the memory of the victims and what happened alive and to prevent them from getting lost in time.
Filled with testimonies by the victims of the explosion, it stands as a testament that despite the passing of time and the lack of justice, the memory of what happened will remain.
Detained: On January 13, 2023, William Noun, brother of firefighter Joe Noun who was killed in the explosion, was detained by security forces following comments that he made calling for justice.
The comments in question indicate that the Justice Ministry would “blow up” if justice was not served for the victims of the Beirut Blast. His family home was also searched.
Noun was released the following day after immense public pressure demanding his release.
On a more positive note, Noun is set to marry Maria Fares, who lost her sister Sahar Fares in the explosion, in September, with the two saying that they are going to continue the fight so that they and so many others can finally receive justice.
Back on the case: When Bitar’s investigation into the August 4 explosion was put on hold in December 2021 and silence followed for around a year, many believed that the politicians in question had finally won in their efforts to bring about an end to the independent investigation.
Then, out of nowhere, Bitar announced on January 23 that he would be resuming the investigation despite the fact that no judge has yet ruled on the complaints filed against him. Bitar moved quickly, charging public prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat, Lebanon’s former top intelligence official Major General Abbas Ibrahim (ret.), judgers Ghassan Khoury and Jad Maalouf, State Security head Major General Tony Saliba, Higher Customs Council head Asaad Toufaili, Higher Customs Council member Gracia al-Qazzi and former Prime Minister Hassan Diab for their roles in allowing the explosion to happen.
However, Bitar’s return was short-lived as Oueidat, despite having a clear conflict of interest given that he was charged in the investigation, ruled that Bitar could not, in fact, continue the investigation. On top of that, Oueidat issued charges against Bitar for “rebelling against the judiciary” and was ordered to appear for questioning.
Bitar refused and argued that Oueidat had no authority to charge him.
Since then, the investigation has, once again, been on pause as Bitar awaits the rulings on his cases. The problem is that the Court of Cassations, Lebanon’s highest court, has been unable to rule on former minister Youssef Fenianos’s complaint against Bitar as the court has not been able to have a quorum since January 2022.
In the case brought forward by Oueidat, a judge was not assigned to the case until June with the judge, Habib Rizkallah, who serves as the First President of the Beirut Court of Appeals, has neither called Bitar in for questioning nor has he made a ruling.
Because of this, the investigation remains frozen in place with those charged still walking free.
Out of detention: Oueidat did more than just bring charges against Bitar and succeed in freezing the investigation once more.
He also ordered the release of all the suspects in the investigation who had been sitting in detention since the aftermath of the explosion.
The 17 people were soon released.
While Oueidat may have helped to obstruct the investigation, he did slap travel bans on the released detainees.
However, that did not stop Ziad al-Ouf, a port official, from getting on a plane out of the country soon after he was released.
Al-Ouf, a dual Lebanese-American national, is supported by the US government which considers his more than two years in detention unlawful, and even went as far as to threaten sanctions if he was not released.
It was eventually confirmed that al-Ouf had successfully traveled to the US and “will not return to Lebanon,” making him one individual who has successfully fled the country to escape justice.
The Hezbollah connection: On February 5, French broadcaster France 5 aired a three-part investigative documentary that looked into Hezbollah’s ties to the Beirut Port.
In the documentary, the journalists looked at Hezbollah’s use of the port to smuggle drugs and weapons, and how it all tied into the port explosion.
It also aimed to highlight how the international community, despite consistently taking action against the Iran-backed party, has ultimately failed to curb its activities.
While not yet directly linked to the explosion, Hezbollah has been one of the staunchest critics of the independent investigation and has actively fought Bitar and his predecessor Sawan in their efforts to hold people accountable. Many in Lebanon also blame them for having some sort of involvement.
Erasure: On April 18, it was announced that Lebanon was preparing to receive international tenders to reconstruct Beirut’s port.
The port, which, besides a basic clean-up operation, has sat in ruin since the day of the explosion, has remained a symbol for many.
While the port is in desperate need of repairs so that it can once again operate at full capacity, some have worried that its reconstruction will erase the scene of the crime.
Many from the families of the victims have called on aspects of the port, specifically the silos, to be preserved so that the government cannot simply just sweep away the crime committed against the people and so that people will not forget what happened on August 4, 2020.
So far no tenders have been accepted.
A sliver of justice: In Lebanon, the families of the victims of the explosion have found only brick walls when they have pushed for the country’s judiciary to hold those responsible accountable.
However, on June 13, a London court gave some of the families a taste of justice when it ruled that Savaro Ltd. was liable for the death, injury, and property damage that was incurred on August 4 and was required to pay nearly $1 million to three relatives of those killed.
The case had been brought before the London court by the Beirut Bar Association since Savaro Ltd. was registered in London at the time of the explosion.
This was the first time any individual or entity was held accountable for the explosion.
While this is a far cry from any real justice for the over 200 people killed and thousands more injured, it was a small victory for the families of the victims who have continued to desperately fight for the memories of their lost loved ones.
Talk: On July 11, the European Parliament passed a resolution that, among other things, called for an independent and transparent investigation into the port explosion.
In addition to this, the resolution also called for an international fact-finding mission under UN framework to look into the explosion.
Anyone found to be responsible for the explosion, the resolution stated, should be held to account for their crimes.
This is not the first time the international community has called for an independent investigation into the explosion and for there to be no political interference. All of these calls have been repeatedly ignored by Lebanon’s politicians.
For those who prefer the audio and visual mediums, here are a couple of podcasts that are essential viewings for anyone following the August 4 explosion.
The first comes from The Beirut Banyan, where host Ronnie Chatah spoke with William Noun following his release from detention. The two discuss the ongoing push to defend Bitar and his investigation, whether or not street protests can help Bitar, and his thoughts on the stalled investigation. For those looking for more from Noun, the spinoff podcast GENXZ also hosted Noun where they discussed the ongoing political, social and economic issues facing Lebanon from a youth perspective.
Lastly, in the latest episode of Sarde after dinner, Médéa Azouri and Mouin Jaber spoke with Tracy and Paul Naggear, a couple who lost their three-year-old daughter Alexandra in the explosion, about the aftermath of the blast and their lives and experiences in the three years since.