Thousands of Lebanese call for justice 1 year after massive explosion
214 people were killed in last year's blast, which was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever
United in grief and anger, victims' families were among several thousand Lebanese who marked one year since a horrific explosion at Beirut's port Wednesday — joining for a moment of silence and prayers at the foot of the silos that were shredded by the blast.
A few blocks away, near parliament, stone-throwing protesters clashed with security forces who fired water cannons and tear gas at them. At least six people were injured in the vicinity, a security source told Reuters.
The protesters accuse the security forces of blocking the investigation into the port blast by refusing to lift immunity of senior politicians implicated in negligence that led to the explosion.
The grim anniversary comes amid an unprecedented economic and financial meltdown, and a political stalemate that has kept the country without a functioning government for a full year.
The explosion killed at least 214 people, according to official records, and injured thousands.
The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history — the result of hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate igniting after a fire broke out.
The explosion tore through the city with such force it caused a tremor across the entire country that was heard and felt as far away as the Mediterranean island of Cyprus more than 200 kilometres away.
It soon emerged in documents that the highly combustible nitrates had been haphazardly stored at the port since 2014 and that multiple high-level officials over the years knew of their presence and did nothing.
A year later, the investigation has yet to answer questions such as who ordered the shipment of the chemicals and why officials ignored repeated internal warnings about how dangerous they were.
The chemicals arrived on a Russian-leased cargo ship that made an unscheduled stop in Beirut in 2013. An FBI report seen by Reuters last week estimated around 552 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, far less than the 2,754 tonnes that arrived.
"It is shameful that officials evade the investigation under the cover of immunity," Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, Lebanon's most senior Christian cleric, said during a mass at the port on Wednesday.
"All immunities fall in the face of the victims' blood, there is no immunity against justice."
"We want to know who brought in the explosives … who allowed for their unloading and storage, who removed quantities of it and where it was sent."
French President Emmanuel Macron said Lebanese leaders owed the people the truth.
What critics are calling a lack of accountability around the explosion, which destroyed and damaged thousands of homes and businesses, has added to tensions and anguish in a country reeling from multiple other crises, including an economic unraveling so severe it has been described by the World Bank as one of the worst in the last 150 years.
The crisis has led to a dramatic currency crash and hyperinflation, plunging more than half the country's population below the poverty line.
On Wednesday, demonstrators chanted slogans against the country's political class, which is widely blamed for the port disaster and years of corruption and mismanagement that plunged Lebanon into bankruptcy.
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'We are all victims of this system'
"This is too big of a crime for it to be swept under the carpet," said Sara Jaafar — an architect whose house opposite the port was destroyed — as she marched toward the rally there.
"It's important for foreign countries to know we are against this murderous ruling class," Jaafar said. A year later, she has not been able to go back to her home, which like so many remains in ruins.
During Wednesday's demonstrations, families of the victims carried posters with photographs of their loved ones, as crowds lined up on both sides of the street applauded. During a memorial inside the port — which still holds the ruins of the giant silos — names of each person killed were read out. A huge metal gavel with the words "Act for Justice" was placed on a wall opposite the port.
"We are all victims of this system," said Paul Naggear, who's three-year-old child, Alexandra, died in the blast. He spoke on a podium outside the port.
Flags flew at half-staff over government institutions and embassies. Medical labs and COVID-19 vaccination centres were closed to mark the day. Reflecting the raw anger at the country's ruling class, posters assailing authorities were hung on the facades of defaced buildings across from the port.
"This is a day of pain and grief," said Ibrahim Hoteit, a spokesperson for victims' families who lost his brother in the blast. "It is the day we lost our loved ones and relatives and children. We hope all those coming down [to the streets] in solidarity with us to respect our pain,"
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, the Lebanese army said it arrested a number of people who were on their way to take part in anniversary commemorations. The army said the people who were arrested had a large number of weapons and ammunition in their possession.
In Beirut's eastern neighborhood of Gemayzeh, a fist fight broke out between supporters of the Lebanese Communist Party and others who support the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces. Several people were lightly injured by the exchange of stone throwing, before security forces opened fire in the air and dispersed the two sides.
'Tainted with blood'
In an extensive investigative report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday called for an international probe into the port blast, accusing Lebanese authorities of trying to thwart the investigation.
HRW said a lack of judicial independence, constitution-imposed immunity for high-level officials and a range of procedural and systemic flaws in the domestic investigation rendered it "incapable of credibly delivering justice."
Meanwhile, an international conference co-hosted by France and the United Nations on Wednesday raised over $357 million US in aid required to meet the country's growing humanitarian needs, including $118.6 million pledged by France, the former colonial power in Lebanon.
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At the Vatican, Pope Francis recalled the suffering of Lebanese people, as he held his first weekly audience with the public since surgery a month ago.
"A year after the terrible explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon's capital, that caused death and destruction, my thoughts go to that dear country, above all to the victims, to their families," the pontiff said.
"And so many lost the illusion of living."
With files from Reuters