Lebanon Suffers From Endless Beirut Port Blast Trauma

A gloomy day over Beirut’s demolished seaport reflected the trauma Lebanon residents relived two years after a near-nuclear blast ripped through the facility killing hundreds, injuring and maiming thousands and damaging a good chunk of the capital.

Gloomy day over Beirut’s barely visible demolished seaport in the distance reflecting Lebanon’s ongoing trauma (Abu-Fadil)

Reinforced concrete grain silos that stood tall in the port for decades took the brunt of the August 4, 2020 explosion, thereby protecting thousands more from dying.

But they were severely damaged and the sheared carcasses tilted dangerously until they “coincidentally” began falling — a huge slice on the very anniversary of the blast.

On July 26, Lebanon’s Environment and Public Health ministries issued a joint safety advisory ahead of the anticipated collapse urging Beirut residents, notably those within a 500-meter (1,640 foot-) radius, to evacuate the area in the event of a fall given the spread of residual fermenting grain, concrete dust and other harmful substances.

The areas within a 500–1,500-meter (1,640–4,921-foot) radius were also expected to get fallout for at least 24 hours.

So occupants of residences, businesses, hospitals and other structures were told to close windows and doors, turn on fans and ACs, while those moving outdoors were advised to wear KN-95 masks until the dust settled and to head to safer locations.

TV coverage of collapsing Beirut port silos (Abu-Fadil)

The Beirut City Guide shot back: “’Close your windows and turn on the AC — another ‘let them eat cake’ measure from an incompetent government.’”

The state-run electric company that hardly provides any electricity announced last Sunday it would supply areas within the port radius with power until Monday morning to enable customers to turn on their air conditioners and fans.

A tweep lashed back, “electricity is a right, not a favor or a gift.”

Lebanon has suffered from chronic power cuts since the end of the 1975–90 civil war with private neighborhood generator owners across the country — part of a corrupt mafia — supplementing the need at cutthroat prices.

A reported 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate parked in a hangar at the port triggered the toxic explosion in 2020, and a multi-colored mushroom cloud seen and felt in much of the country caused an earthquake-like rumbling heard as far as the island of Cyprus 264 kilometers (164 miles) away.

In recent weeks segments of the port’s grain silos were seen ablaze as suspicious fires sent plumes of smoke over an already polluted city until several blocks collapsed into a surreal toxic dust storm on July 31 adding to huge piles of mangled metal from the original blast.

Rookie member of parliament Halimé El Kaakour tweeted: “Neglecting the wheat silos’ fire can only be justified as this regime’s rejection of the people and victims’ loved ones and their will and demand for justice. When members of parliament from the ruling parties turned down an urgent call to pass a law protecting the silos, their annoyance about the proposed legislation was an ugly expression of a criminal’s desire to erase traces of his crime.”

Thursday’s slow-motion silos toppling like drunken sailors going face down sent even more huge dust plumes and fermented grain particles into the port and surrounding areas.

A few weeks before the collapse, activists circulated an online petition objecting to authorities’ purported intention to demolish the silos to make way for the port’s reconstruction. It went nowhere fast.

Media personality and political activist Ghada Eid pulled no punches.

“Whoever wants to be involved in the construction of Beirut’s new port doesn’t want the silos. Just as there was destruction of remnants of Beirut after the (civil) war to erase the memory of those whose properties were taken by force (in the city’s downtown area). Genocide of people and stone goes on. God have mercy on the innocent victims.”

Member of parliament Waddah Sadek said it was clear the ongoing fire and lack of measures to extinguish it had achieved the regime’s demand to demolish the silos in a bid to cover up everything that reminds the Lebanese and the world of the port blast.

“It’s closely related to watering down the investigation and barring the accused from appearing before the judiciary,” he said.

Two of the accused are re-elected members of parliament who also served as cabinet ministers and are closely tied to the country’s parliamentary speaker, himself the head of a former civil war militia and a close ally of Hezbollah.

Twisted irony: the two legislators serve on parliament’s justice committee.

The lame joke is that the then interior minister said an investigation into the blast would last a mere five days after which results would be shared with the public. Nothing of the sort ever happened.

Beirut’s Greek Orthodox Bishop Elias Audeh was very critical in a Sunday sermon.

“The state wants to erase from memory all (evidence) that reminds (people) of the port blast catastrophe and to obliterate all evidence, rather than display it,” he said.

Screenshot of Bishop Elias Audeh castigating government for wanting to erase traces of the crime

The French daily Le Figaro concurred in an August 4 article headlined: “Two years after the explosion, Beirut, the muffled truth.”

Beirut’s shaken residents are bracing for the remaining silos’ collapse.

PTSD and other disturbing symptoms survivors experienced on the first anniversary are still raw and unsettling.

It’s hard for people who’ve suffered so much to erase memories of “Beirutshima,” in reference to the U.S. atomic bomb attack on the Japanese city of Hiroshima during World War II.

Japan’s ambassador to Lebanon Takeshi Okubo commemorated the anniversary with this tweet: “As a Japanese citizen whose country suffered twice from the biggest explosions in the history of humanity, I’ll never forget the tragedy of the moment the August 4 blast occurred.”

Psychiatrist Joseph El-Khoury said if people really cared about the victims and survivors, they should choose anything but the blast video to share on social media to mark the anniversary.

“No one has forgotten the explosion and many wish they could forget it,” he said, adding that re-traumatizing does not contribute to justice.

Screenshot of Lebanese Psychiatric Society advisory

The Lebanese Psychiatric Society had this pre-August 4 advisory: “As the country commemorates the 2nd anniversary of the tragic Beirut Blast, the following simple steps can help us approach it as a community.

1. If you are still traumatized by the blast, minimize your exposure to social media during the next 3 days.

2. If you are posting videos or images from the blast or its aftermath pin a ‘trigger warning’ to it.

3. Last but not least, please remember that each person remembers this day differently and will wish to grieve or commemorate it also differently. There is no right or wrong way.”

Screenshot of journalist Sawssan Abou-Zahr beside a poster of blast victims’ pictures and slogan “You will not kill us twice.”

“Justice in Lebanon is dead in our eyes, there is no such thing as justice here,” said Paul Naggear, whose daughter Alexandra, 3, died of her wounds from the explosion’s impact.

Screenshot of Alexandra Naggear, one of the youngest blast victims

Investigation into the blast has been stalled for months by powerful Lebanese politicians.

“In the two years since the explosion, Lebanon’s political elite — known colloquially by the pejorative term al-sulta, or ‘the power’ has evaded justice and tried to sweep the memory under the proverbial rug,” wrote CNN’s Tamara Qiblawi. “For activists, especially relatives of the deceased, it was painfully reminiscent of the way in which the country’s civil war ended in 1990.”

Screenshot of “forgotten” port blast defendants

Ziad Abdel Samad, executive director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND), said the way the political, security, judicial and administrative authorities have dealt with the most dangerous non-nuclear explosion since World War II and the excessive impunity express criminal intent towards an entire population.

Survivors painted an indictment on a wall overlooking the port: “My government did this.”

Starting with President Michel Aoun, fondly (or derisively) referred to as “bayy el kil” (everybody’s father), who reportedly knew of the ammonium nitrate’s existence but did nothing to mitigate the danger.

Critics posted a picture of him with the damning caption “Bayy el kill” that played on Arabic and English words to mean father of death.

Screenshot of “bayy el kill”

French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Beirut two days after the blast and promised the Lebanese he’d help hold those responsible to account tweeted on Thursday: “Two years after the explosion at the port of Beirut, today is a day of national mourning in Lebanon. It’s with a lot of emotion that I remember the shock that gripped me in August 2020 when I learned of this drama.”

To which an irate Lebanese tweep retorted: “You signed agreements with the illegitimate criminals, which makes you an accomplice, while watching the Lebanese people suffer because of a corrupt and terrorist political class. Besides, where are your precious sanctions and promises? Nothing but words.”

The French daily Le Monde headlined an editorial “In Lebanon, the sin of Emmanuel Macron’s pride.”

The sub-head reads: “The day after the explosion in Beirut on August 6, 2020, the French president had promised a lot to the Lebanese people. Two years later, his fiery rhetoric came to naught given the resistance of local chiefs and weakness of the means to sanction them.”

The trauma continues.

Writer-translator Lina Mounzer asked rhetorically, “Can you even write fiction about a country where the reality is this outrageous?”

She said she had no words or feelings left.

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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.