A day of national of mourning to remember the victims of the Beirut port explosion
by Fady Noun

A year ago, entire neighbourhoods in the Lebanese capital were destroyed. It is still unclear why ammonium nitrate was stored in a port warehouse. The investigation into the role played by politicians is proceeding slowly. The Maronite patriarch is set to celebrate Mass without politicians present.

 


Beirut (AsiaNews) – Today Lebanon held a day of national mourning to mark the first anniversary of the explosion, on 4 August 2020, of more than 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate poorly stored in a warehouse alongside flammable material.

The blast killed more than 200 people, injuring thousands, some of whom will be scarred for life, devastating entire neighbourhoods in Beirut, in particular, some of the oldest near the port.

The blast was so powerful that it blew tiles off the roofs of traditional homes, caused sandstone walls to collapse, turned doors and window frames into sledgehammers, and propelled countless shards of broken windows in every direction.

Thousands of families lost their homes and had to move elsewhere. Hospitals, schools and churches were also damaged by the blast, which was felt for miles around. 

The families of the victims organised large rallies on this day of mourning. The day’s activities include an interfaith ceremony to be followed by a Mass celebrated by the Maronite Patriarch at the very site of the explosion. 

Muslim and Druze dignitaries will attend the ceremony, but no political or diplomatic representatives will be present. The interfaith celebration is set for 5:50 pm (2:50 pm GMT).

A moment of silence will be held at 6.07 pm, the exact time of the tragedy, followed by bell ringing and a Muslim call to prayer. The names of the victims will be read aloud. 

Mass will begin after a moment of reflection. Led by the Maronite Patriarch, the liturgy will be celebrated in the presence of the Apostolic Nuncio to Lebanon, Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, 25 bishops, 150 priests and 1,200 other participants, including the families of the victims, those who were injured or disabled, and those who lost their property. 

The representatives of a few NGOs involved in the reconstruction will be present, as will some journalists.

The ceremony was organised by a group of priests called “Église pour le Liban” (Church for Lebanon) who have been helping the families of the victims and martyrs for the past year.

The event will be broadcast by Lebanese television.

Political negligence

The explosion of 4 August 2020 showed to the Lebanese and the world the negligence of the country’s political leaders.

The investigation launched after the tragedy revealed that the ammonium nitrate had arrived at the port of Beirut in late 2013 on a cargo ship, the Rhosus, chartered by the Savaro company. The vessel had left Georgia on its way to an explosives manufacturing factory in Mozambique.

The stopover in Beirut was supposed to be purely technical, but it proved to be ominous for the future. The nitrate, which can also be used to make fertiliser, was placed in a port warehouse where it lay between 2013 and 2020.

The investigation has not yet fully determined why it was kept for so long, by whom, and what triggered the explosion. No definitive answer has been found yet, but local and foreign interference have hampered the enquiry.

Those responsible could be charged with criminal and/or administrative offences. The magistrate currently investigation the case, Judge Tarek Bitar, is a man known for his probity and seriousness.

He recently decided to question some former ministers and senior officials who stand among the accused, but has been thwarted by the legal immunity which protects them.

Criminal negligence: politicians charged

The ministers involved are Transport (port supervisory authority) and Finance (customs supervisory authority) who have held those positions since 2014. In addition, the judge summoned Brigadier General Jean Kahwagi, the former Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces; Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of the General Security Directorate; Major General Antoine Saliba, director general of State Security, and a former head of the army's intelligence services. 

Current caretaker Prime Minister Hassane Diab has also been summoned. Although he acknowledged that he was informed of the presence of the ammonium nitrate a few weeks before the tragedy, he availed himself of his right to legal immunity.

By contrast, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who is in the same situation as Prime Minister Diab, set an example, and accepted to appear before Judge Tarek Bitar.

After the explosion, some 30 people were indicted and 25 arrested, including the Director General of Customs Badri Daher, who is under the Ministry of Finance, and Beirut port director Hassan Koraytem Port, whose supervisory authority is the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.

Eight of those arrested have been released. But it is apparent that Mr Daher and Mr Koraytem were well aware of the presence of ammonium nitrate and of its explosive potential. 

Writing for the L’Orient-Le Jour newspaper, Marie-Jo Sader notes that despite the significant exchange of letters over the seven-year period (2013-2020), no order was ever given to remove the ammonium nitrate from the port of Beirut. The investigation should find out why.

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