Countdown to Fury: Beirut Blast Survivors, Victims’ Families Demand Justice

As the clock ticks to the first anniversary of the Beirut port’s near-nuclear blast, with no one held accountable, there’s hell to pay.

A reported 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate parked in a hangar at the port triggered a terrifying toxic explosion on August 4, 2020, and a 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.

Screenshot of Beirut port explosion August 4, 2020

It killed more than 200 people, injured at least 6,000, demolished the maritime facility, destroyed a huge slice of the Lebanese capital, and obliterated the homes of hundreds of thousands.

But an FBI report released last week said only a fifth of the reported chemicals caused the cataclysmic explosion, so questions remain as to who’s responsible, where the rest of the ammonium nitrate went and who stood to gain from all that.

“Everyone,” said Rayan Khatoun, a human resources manager and single mother of two teenagers, who was badly injured. “Everyone who had a hand in the shipping, the poor handling and storage of the ammonium nitrate, everyone who knew about it and did nothing about it, everyone who knew there was a ticking time bomb in the heart of Beirut and turned a blind eye, everyone withholding information, everyone covering those that are withholding information, absolutely everyone!”

Khatoun suffered head trauma that needed stitches, a fractured cheekbone, a high grade tear to the tendon in her right arm, trauma to the right side ribs and thigh, deep cuts on her right arm, left arm, and a huge cut on her back from one shoulder to the other.

She wasn’t hospitalized, as most medical facilities were totally overwhelmed that day, to say nothing of the spread of Covid-19, but was stitched without anesthesia and got a tetanus shot.

She later underwent physiotherapy and in April this year had surgery to remove a cyst from that same arm with a biopsy showing it contained “foreign bodies” sustained from the blast.

Rayan Khatoun sustained multiple injuries and escaped death in her damaged car parked a few feet away (photos courtesy Khatoun)

Khatoun was lucky to survive. She was driving home from work, stopped to meet someone in Gemmayzeh — a street parallel to the blast area — was reading tweets about a fire at the port, stepped out of her car, locked it, heard a rumbling sound, turned to ask people if she’d heard fighter jets and before she knew it, felt she was flung into a wall like a rag doll.

“At that specific moment I had no idea what had happened to me,” she recalled. “The adrenaline rush I experienced was unbelievable. I was on my feet in seconds. Moments later, I was wondering why my neck and the front of my shirt were so wet before I realized it was my blood. The pain did not kick in for a while.”

I asked about her recollection of that day.

She said the worst thing was the silence at first, adding that everything was deathly quiet as everyone tried to grasp what had happened. Everything and everyone was covered in white dust.

Screenshot of an Aug 4 anniversary video and mass production of coffins

“Everywhere I looked, people were bleeding and crying for help and none of us had the ability to help each other,” she said.

The streets leading to them were blocked by traffic and rubble, her car was under fallen trees, which could have killed her, and she knew she’d have to go find help on her own.

What has this done to her psychologically? Is she dreading August 4?

“Sometimes I suffer from insomnia, repetitive nightmares, PTSD and anxiety,” she said. “I sometimes have a hard time finding words; they’re right there on the tip of my tongue but I forget them.”

Other times she has survivor’s guilt and can’t understand how she made it out of that area alive.

Khatoun is dreading August 4 and hasn’t been herself, with raw emotions surfacing, triggered by a loop of social media posts opening up people’s wounds. She admits to being very angry by it all, and that she’s lost her mouth filter, doesn’t sugar coat anything for anyone anymore, noting it was “absolutely therapeutic.”

As I wrote on July 21, people in Lebanon plan to mark the anniversary with a day of rage.

In a scathing “Open Letter to Lebanese Criminals,” Médéa Azouri wrote in the French-language daily L’Orient-Le Jour:

I curse you with all my being. I curse you because you took everything from us and still want more. I curse you because on the eve of the disastrous anniversary of this crime against humanity you made sure it would go unpunished. Because you’re doing all in your power to obstruct the investigation and the work of justice to protect suspects…

You are assassins, nameless monsters. You’re ignoble, contemptible, sordid. You’re the worst of the human race. A concentration of all the tyrants history has known. You’ve had recourse to repression, torture, propaganda, murder, theft, (drug) trafficking, money laundering to maintain power.

Screenshot of poster featuring Lebanese warlords and politicians with the caption “Nobody represents me”

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.

The damage from the blast was initially estimated at $15 billion, with some 25,000 homes destroyed to the point of being uninhabitable, leaving many residents, usually without homeowners insurance, homeless.

Embrace, an organization dealing with mental health issues in Lebanon, released a video showing a young woman with a slightly scarred face at a doctor’s clinic with her mother. The clock on the wall shows 6:07, the time of the blast.

Screenshot of Embrace video on mental health

The doctor assures the mother in the year since the explosion the wound had healed well and that with time it would be better.

The daughter stares at the clock. The mother asks the doctor if the scar will still show and if it can be eliminated permanently. The daughter heads for a window and opens it as a breeze blows through her hair. She hears the sound of an explosion, cringes and closes her eyes. The graphic reads: there are hidden wounds that remain unhealed.

Journalist Salman Andary tweeted: “The more August 4 approaches, many of us feel fear, worry, anxiety, tension, disarray, confusion, physical and psychological pains, pain in the soul, at a very agonizing remembrance. I tell these people we’re all like that…what happened to us isn’t easy at all. What we’re living through isn’t easy, what we lived through, what we experienced.”

Sawssan Abou Zahr, an independent journalist working on peace building and refugee rights, was in downtown Beirut that gruesome day not far from the port and left for home further away before 6 p.m. to use the elevator in her building ahead of an electricity cut — part of routine chronic power shortages.

A window was blown away and hit Abou-Zahr on the head, then bounced back to the wall (courtesy Abou-Zahr)

As she sat on her couch, a window was blown away and hit her on the head then bounced back to the wall. Luckily it didn’t break on her skull or cause any injury. Another window’s glass shattered next to her right arm, missing by a hair.

It’s a trauma that will never heal, she said, unless ever-elusive accountability cures some of the pain, but she has emotional scars and feels guilty towards the victims’ families for having survived.

Will she ever find justice amid all the impunity?

“Impunity has been the rule since the end of the (1975–90) civil war,” she said blaming the entire ruling establishment, noting that warlords turned into politicians had excelled at protecting themselves no matter how corrupt they were.

“Killon ya’ani killon (Arabic for all of them meaning all of them),” she added. “They all knew and did nothing.”

Screenshot of Sawssan Abou-Zahr tweet about the anniversary

The Lebanese cabinet declared a national day of mourning on August 4 during which official administrations, institutions and municipalities will observe the occasion and flags will fly at half mast.

The government also declared all normal radio and television stations programs would be “revised in keeping with the painful tragedy and be suitable for the families of the righteous martyrs, the wounded and their families.”

Lebanese survivors are not impressed. They want long-overdue justice, not commemorations.

Actress Aida Sabra posted a tweet with an illustration of August 4 and a noose hanging from a letter. She said: “Maybe God on that day will answer people’s prayers (for retribution).”

Screenshot of tweet “Maybe God on that day will answer people’s prayers”

Elsewhere, Egyptian movie star Abeer Sabry posted a crass picture of herself and fellow actress Elham Shaheen with retired Brazilian soccer great Ronaldinho in Lebanon and a caption reading: “Celebration in solidarity with beloved Beirut and the injured of the port with the Brazilian Ronaldinho and Elham Shaheen in Lebanon.”

Critics lambasted the three for the tasteless remark, pointing to the lingering open wound and rejected any celebration.

Screenshot of crass Egyptian stars and retired Brazilian soccer player “celebrating” Beirut blast

Lebanese architect Nadim Karam came under blistering criticism in an article by fellow architect Leyla El Sayed Hussein for designing a statue many considered an eyesore and an insult to the victims, as it was erected on the same spot of the explosion.

Rayan Khatoun also didn’t pull any punches. In a tweeted video clip she described the creation as a “hideous, ugly, insulting sculpture” and suggested he could have used all that metal to set up railway tracks given Lebanon’s miserable infrastructure and lack of decent public transportation.

Rula El Halabi, a business developer and marketing/media consultant, tweeted: “Please dear God, I do hope when I wake up tomorrow morning ‘I don’t know what to call this thing’ will be gone,” with emojis of praying hands, a sad face and a monkey covering its eyes.

Screenshot of Rula El Halabi tweet: “Please dear God when I wake up tomorrow morning”

The committee of victims’ families has called on authorities to lift immunity from officials held responsible for the disaster in the remaining hours to the anniversary, threatening “confrontational actions” since peaceful protests had come to naught.

There are planned demonstrations and religious services in Lebanon, and Lebanese expatriates will hold vigils in at least a dozen cities around the world. Expats designed and posted a wheat emblem in Arabic and English with the words “Never Forget August 4, 2020.”

The interior minister had promised last August to conclude an investigation into the blast within five days. None materialized. A rogue’s gallery of officials and ex-militia leaders have done everything possible to derail a probe.

So does Khatoun think she’ll ever find justice?

“I will not and I know it,” she said. “I am not at peace with the thought yet but I do know that in a land as corrupt as this one, there will never be a chance for justice. Ever. This is one truth that will go with them to their graves.”

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Magda Abu-Fadil

Magda Abu-Fadil is a veteran foreign correspondent/editor of international news organizations, former academic, media trainer, consultant, speaker and blogger.