6 months after Beirut blast: Rebuilding slow, prosecution stalled

Physical and psychological scars remain fresh in the wake of the August explosion that killed 200 and laid to waste large swaths of Lebanon’s capital.

A general view shows the damage following Tuesday''s blast in Beirut''s port area, Lebanon August 5, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
A general view shows the damage following the blast in Beirut's port area on August 4, 2020 [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon – Six months after a massive explosion devastated Beirut, the scars of destruction remain everywhere.

The dire state of Lebanon’s economy has handicapped rebuilding efforts, with victims and survivors saying the government continues to offer no reconstruction aid while failing to determine who was responsible.

“The way that the government is treating this is insulting,” said Mireille Khoury, whose 15-year-old son Elias died in the August 4 explosion.

Khoury is among the many people in the Lebanese capital who are calling for an independent international investigation. They believe a Lebanese court will fail to hold powerful figures to account or competently investigate the explosion that killed some 200 people, wounded more than 6,000 – many severely – and damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of homes.

“After six months, the investigation here in Lebanon has gone nowhere,” she said.

While a Lebanese judge has issued indictments and charges in the case, no one thus far has been tried or convicted in relation to the explosion, which was fuelled by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored improperly in a warehouse at Beirut’s port for six years.

The inquiry, led by Judge Fadi Sawan, stalled in December after he issued indictments for Hassan Diab, who was prime minister of the country at the time of the explosion, and three former cabinet ministers.

Diab refused to show up for questioning, and two of the former cabinet members sued in Lebanon’s Court of Cassation – the country’s highest court – to have Sawan removed.

That suit has since failed, and in January the Court of Cassation ruled that the investigation could continue, but it is currently paused because Lebanon is under a 24-hour curfew until at least February 8 to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Even so, many doubt any court proceeding in Lebanon will result in justice.

“There is a question about the independence of a Lebanese inquiry, after decades of United Nations reports that the Lebanese system is a deeply flawed system,” said Antonia Mulvey, executive director of Legal Action Worldwide, which is advising a group of victims and survivors of the explosion.

“At this stage, we really must be shining a spotlight on the lack of access to justice and also that victims and their families have not been consulted in the proceedings to date and not had their voices heard.”

Beirut port blast aftermath
A man stands next to graffiti reading ‘My government did this,’ at the damaged port area after a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, August 11, 2020 [Hannah McKay/Reuters]

Sawan has so far charged more than 30 people with criminal negligence for failing to remove the dangerous cargo from the port, but in a statement on Wednesday, US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the prosecution had failed to protect the rights of those charged and detained in the case.

“The court handling the case appears to have run roughshod over detained defendants’ due process rights, signalling that it is unable or unwilling to deliver justice,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at HRW.

“Sawan has, since August, brought charges against 37 people, 25 of whom are detained under conditions that appear to violate their due process rights. Those detained are mostly mid to low-level customs, port, and security officials; and their families and lawyers say that the judicial authorities have not yet presented the specific charges or evidence against them,” the statement added.

Diab resigned from his post six days after the explosion as public anger boiled over into street protests, but he remains in a caretaker capacity as Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has so far failed to form a government. Though it is not rare for Lebanon to remain for months at a time without a fully functioning government while the country’s factions bicker over cabinet lineups, the months since the explosion have been particularly tumultuous.

The country’s COVID-19 outbreak has worsened dramatically, and the caretaker government has had trouble striking a balance between restricting the spread of the virus and keeping the fragile economy alive. Late last month, demonstrations in the northern city of Tripoli against coronavirus restrictions and the lack of government turned violent, leaving one protester dead.

Economic woes, slow rebuilding

Meanwhile, many buildings look much as they did six months ago, when survivors and bodies were still being pulled from the rubble. The effects of inaction are also visible, as winter rains have fully brought down some buildings that were structurally damaged by the explosion.

“A month ago, the building next to us collapsed,” said Khalaf Abbas Faraj, a Syrian refugee who lives with his family about 500 metres (1,640 feet) from the site of the explosion in Beirut’s Karatina neighbourhood, adjacent to the port.

Faraj said “only one wall” of the one-room apartment he shares with wife and four of his five children remained intact after the explosion. All of them sustained minor injuries, and his youngest daughter, six-year-old Aline, remains terrified of loud noises.

“My daughter always asks if it’s going to happen again,” he said.

On the other side of the port, as she surveyed the now-empty building in the Gemmayze neighbourhood where she had lived for 50 years, Simone Achkar praised God she and her sister had survived the explosion with only minor wounds. One of her neighbours was killed and another paralysed when the building next door to hers collapsed.

Achkar laughed ironically when asked if she had received anything from the government. She said she was fortunate, and though she could not afford rebuilding, she had a place to stay outside of Beirut.

Lebanon’s currency has lost approximately 80 percent of its value against the US dollar in the past year, making imports of construction materials – everything from window glass to aluminium to steel – prohibitively expensive and slowing down rebuilding.

“All the materials are priced in dollars, and we are in a very difficult economic situation, and the material is very expensive, yet it is a necessity to make people return safely to their homes,” said Mohamad Ghotmeh, the head of CTI Contracting, a firm working on seven projects in the explosion-damaged zone.

Ghotmeh said if it had not been donations by NGOs, nothing would have been rebuilt so far, but that even those funds were not enough.

“Until now, the government has not funded any private house or private entity to return home,” Ghotmeh said. “Aid was only related to the basic emergencies, food and shelter.”

Ghotmeh scoffed at an announcement earlier this week by the country’s finance minister that more than $5.5m of reconstruction aid would soon be disbursed.

“The ministers do a lot of press releases, but nothing is tangible,” Ghotmeh said.

Among those who have managed to rebuild are the family of 23-year-old Laura Sayegh, whose mother spent three weeks in a coma and was blinded by the explosion.

“We’re still very good compared to others who lost a family member,” Sayegh said.

When asked about the government’s inaction after the explosion and the fact that the event had occurred in the first place, Sayegh’s response underscored how little Lebanese have come to expect from the state.

“To be honest – I’m not surprised.”

Angie Mrad contributed reporting to this article

Source: Al Jazeera