Almost a year after a cataclysmic, near-nuclear, explosion obliterated the port of Beirut, decimated a huge chunk of Lebanon’s capital city, killed more than 200 people (total numbers undetermined), and destroyed the homes of hundreds of thousands, there’s still no definitive culprit.
“Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport,” said educator and writer Mishka Mojabber Mourani. “Except the perpetrators are not the mythical gods of Shakespeare’s King Lear; they are the people who govern us, whom we elected and (to whom we) entrusted our fragile and old and vulnerable, not to mention our young and brave and beautiful. So many people senselessly slaughtered, their futures erased.”
Mojabber Mourani was in her apartment overlooking the port when the blast occurred. She sustained multiple fractures in both hands, wrists and fingers, a broken humerus, broken ribs and a torn lip, for which she underwent five surgeries. Two of her fingers are still broken.
The apartment, that looked like a whirlwind had swept through it, was ravaged. She and her husband have had to change doors and windows, remodel the kitchen, and re-upholster and repair furniture. The impact of the blast shredded reinforced concrete grain silos at the port that she can still see from her balcony.
I asked how she felt.
“I feel profound gratitude for being alive and I am haunted by a sense of loss,” she replied. “My hands are no longer mine; they are deformed. They belong to a world that is tainted and haggard. A world that discards its people carelessly like a spoiled child tosses her toys.”
I asked who should be held responsible and whether she thought justice would ever be served in this case.
“Our only hope is that justice be served and the balance righted,” she said. “Otherwise, we will be condemned to a limbo similar to the post-Lebanese civil war era.”
A reported 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate parked in a hangar at the port triggered a terrifying toxic explosion and multi-colored mushroom cloud seen and felt in much of the country, causing an earthquake-like rumbling, and heard as far as the island of Cyprus 264 kilometers (164 miles) away.
The bags of ammonium nitrate had arrived by ship years earlier, stored at the port under suspicious conditions with the full knowledge of many government officials and their enablers, and blew up with apocalyptic consequences two days before the 75th anniversary of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima during World War II.
“I felt the day of the Beirut port blast they killed our dreams, they killed the dreams of the Lebanese,” said Rima Maktabi, who lost her home and almost lost her mother and other family members. She has been repairing her home since last year.
Maktabi, the UK Bureau Chief at Al Arabiya News Channel, was visiting on vacation on that ill-fated day.
The “they” to whom she referred are Lebanon’s feudal, sectarian, warmongering and kleptocratic politicians, bankers, business people and assorted militia leaders who’ve run the country for decades at the expense of the Lebanese and who are being accused of criminal responsibility and cover-up for the explosion, as well as causing a crippling financial meltdown of the country, with the coronavirus adding to the wreckage.
The devastating August 4, 2020 blast wiped out untold businesses, damaged various heritage buildings, museums and cultural centers, disrupted educational institutions, destroyed several hospitals and traumatized an entire population.
To say most people in the country suffer from various degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would be an understatement.
Lebanese officials have since tried to halt or undermine a proper investigation into the cause and have traded accusations about who was/is responsible for this epic crime.
The ugly irony is that an inquiry into the catastrophe is being hampered by several members of parliament, three of whose colleagues are being called for questioning because of their former positions as cabinet ministers with oversight of the port, and because they knew about the deadly materials, or were allegedly in collusion with the people who brought and stored the ammonium nitrate.
Legislators from the Future movement of former prime minister Saad Hariri (son of slain former premier Rafic Hariri and traditionally allied with the West and Saudi Arabia), Hezbollah (the Party of God allied with Iran) headed by Hassan Nasrallah, the Amal movement whose leader is parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, also allied with Iran and Syria, and, a kingmaker with his own ties to the West, and the Marada party of former minister Suleiman Franjieh (grandson of a former president by the same name during whose tenure the civil war erupted and close to Syria), voted to divert the explosion’s inquiry from the current lead investigator to a castrated rubber stamping higher council supposedly authorized to put presidents and cabinet ministers on trial.
The parliamentarians’ parties and political views often conflict, but they rallied to their common cause in record time.
The implicated officials are seeking immunity behind their consecrated impunity in a tangled spider’s web and jurisdictional power game of “you scratch my back, I scratch yours.”
“The port is like Ali Baba’s cave. No political party wants a proper audit because they currently have the leeway to do what they want,” Joseph Khoury, who works in Beirut’s free zone at the Lebanese franchise of ECU Worldwide, an international cargo company, told The National daily of Abu Dhabi a month after the blast.
If the port were under the direct control of a specific ministry, the political party in charge of that ministry would manage the facility. But it had been under the influence of all political parties, so nobody wanted a single ministry to take over, he explained.
Asked by Annahar newspaper’s editor in chief Nayla Tueni in an interview — part of a series dubbed “The Love and the Tear” marking the explosion’s first anniversary — what she would tell officials and what it would take for things to change in Lebanon, Maktabi replied:
You can’t send any message to officials; they’re finished in the view of Lebanese society. With all due respect to anyone with a political affiliation, or any party, my cry is to the Lebanese. I respect your affiliations. Hold your bosses and those responsible in the parties to account. For those with no political affiliations, who I think are the silent majority in Lebanese society and that are silent in all elections, it’s time to say “enough, this is unacceptable.”
Both women’s fathers were assassinated — Maktabi’s during Lebanon’s 1975–90 civil war and Tueni’s in 2005 — because of their political views.
While no conclusive results of investigations of countless political and other crimes have surfaced, and the persistent impunity attached to illegal actions has hobbled such attempts over the years, angry Lebanese have delivered their own indictments.
Octogenarian Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who is nicknamed “bay el kil” (Arabic for everybody’s father, given his age), was slammed in a picture and a caption reading “bay el kill” (as in death), for having known about the lethal materials at the port before the blast.
In another picture, Aoun is shown with a caption repeating what he once said: “I’ll hand over Lebanon (to the next president) better than I got it” atop a photo of the burning port and another caption reading “is this to your liking, or do you prefer something better yet?”
In a third picture Aoun is sitting in a chair staring into space with a caption in English and Arabic that says, “he knew.”
Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who resigned after the explosion and has been serving in a caretaker capacity ever since (as the president tapped former premier Saad Hariri to reassume that job but both failed to agree on a cabinet formation while the country sank into deeper trouble over a ten-month period), got his share of the blame for knowing about the substances at the port before the explosion and not taking drastic action.
Diab’s image, in an all-red picture with photoshopped black skull and bones on his forehead, was accused in a caption that read, “you’re responsible.” The caretaker premier is often described as a vase (for decorative purposes, but ultimately useless).
Massive demonstrations filled Beirut’s central district, notably Martyrs’ Square, days after the blast prompting angry Lebanese to erect a guillotine and gallows with hanging effigies of the country’s politicians and former militia leaders.
An illustration that made the rounds showed five figures hanging from nooses against a backdrop of a burning city and the caption “hang them all.”
A tweep posted an historic illustration of criminals impaled through their posteriors with the tweet, “there’s a better one, the best way to execute is with the ‘khawazeeq’ (the impaling rods).”
The palpable anger translated into graffiti on a wall along a street overlooking the demolished port that said, “my government did this.”
Megaphone, an independent online media platform, posted an accusatory video report on Twitter this week with substantial documentation implicating various officials over the years in what’s been termed the crime of the century.
An illustrated rendition of the mushroom cloud as a screaming woman rising from the port reflects Lebanon’s continued agony.
People in Lebanon are expected to mark the explosion’s anniversary next month with a day of rage.