More than 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a potentially explosive substance commonly used as a source of fertiliser, had been stored for six years in the port of Beirut, piled up in silos since 2014. It appears that no one knew their origin or provenance, nor did they know they were there. No one, except several members of the government of former Prime Minister Hassan Diab, linked to the Amal Movement, the Shiite partner of the Iranian-friendly Hezbollah militia, who had been repeatedly warned of the dangers of concentrating such a volume of material in the area.
The warnings were of little use. On this day in 2020, the vast quantity of ammonium nitrate detonated, triggering one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. At least 218 people were killed and 6,500 injured, beyond the countless material damages. The Lebanese capital, once dubbed the pearl of the Mediterranean, was razed to the ground, reduced to ashes. And two years after the deadly event, doubts remain as to who and how the fuse was lit. No one has been held accountable, no one has taken the blame and the case initiated to shed light on the event is still blocked.
The examining magistrate in the case, Tarek Bitar, has been unable to make any progress in the investigation for seven months. The proceedings have been suspended four times, most recently in December 2021, as a result of repeated complaints filed against the judge by former members of the Lebanese government implicated in the explosion, most of whom belong to the Amal Movement, whose leader, Nabih Berri, has presided over parliament for the past three decades. The former ministers are thus trying to remove from the case a tough judge who is willing to try whoever is needed in a corrupt Lebanese judicial system.
Le jour de la commémoration de l’explosion du port de #Beyrouth qui a dévasté la capitale libanaise le #4août 2020, une seconde partie des silos de blé s’effondre…— Claude El Khal (@claudeelkhal) August 4, 2022
Traumatisme d’une population qui n’en peut plus, dans un #Liban qui n’en finit pas de s’effondrer. pic.twitter.com/YTYsMK6Exe
Previously, the profiles linked to the explosion managed to bring down Magistrate Fadi Sawan by following the same modus operandi as soon as he tried to put them in the dock to testify. It is precisely this lack of answers that generates even more discontent and animosity among the Lebanese towards the system, an institutional architecture that has plunged them into a spiral of crisis. What was such a quantity of ammonium nitrate doing in an unsecured port warehouse? Why were President Michel Aoun and the then head of government Hassan Diab aware of it and did not react?
To commemorate the second anniversary of the tragedy in Beirut and to demand answers, hundreds of people took to the streets of the capital on Thursday in three separate marches and then converged on the port, the nerve centre of the deflagration, at around 14:00 GMT (17:00 local time). Dressed in white with red paint stains to simulate the blood spilled in the tragedy, carrying flags, pictures and banners with various demands, the demonstrators demanded justice for the victims.
The threat of collapse recorded this week in the port silos after the one that occurred on Sunday, caused in turn by the fermentation of the remains of wheat stored before the tragedy, has not stopped the mobilisation. On Thursday, the silos again suffered a partial collapse as hundreds of demonstrators approached the area. The authorities had urged citizens to cover themselves with masks and go indoors in case of partial or total collapse of the granaries, and to evacuate "immediately" areas within a radius of 500 metres from the grain stores.
More Beirut silos collapse as Lebanon marks two years since the blast, with a cloud of smoke and dust eerily similar to that from the explosion rising into the sky. pic.twitter.com/ujwEWIvwNB— Timour Azhari (@timourazhari) August 4, 2022
On Wednesday, a group of 37 human rights experts from NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called on the UN Human Rights Commission to set up an international enquiry into the devastating explosion in Beirut. A "swift and independent" investigation, reads the statement, "leading to justice and accountability". The world has done nothing to find out why it happened," the missive lamented. On the second anniversary of the explosion, we are disheartened that people in Lebanon are still waiting for justice, and we call for an international investigation to be launched without delay".
The octogenarian Michel Aoun also called on Thursday for the "full truth" to be revealed about the deadly event of 4 August 2020. "I assure you of my commitment to achieving justice through the uncovering of the whole truth by an impartial judicial process that goes to the end, free of any fraud or injustice," the president told the Lebanese, before pointing to the so-called 'Party of God' and the Shi'ite Amal Movement as the main suspects. The latter have disassociated themselves from the incident, even accusing the UN mission in the country of having transported the explosives.
But Aoun, a Maronite Christian who may be in his last months in office, lacks the strength and legitimacy to stand up to Hezbollah, an organisation that has created a parallel structure within the state and even has its own army, superior to that of the Lebanese state. Even less so given the political alliance between Aoun and the Shiite platforms that was signed 14 years ago on the complex national chessboard, where power is shared in quotas between various sects. Indeed, Aoun has been president since 2016 thanks to the invaluable backing of Hezbollah. Accountability seems complicated.