On the anniversary of the deadly explosion, the port of Lebanon is once again in flames

A grain silo is on fire after a two-year explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut.
A grain silo is on fire after a two-year explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut. (Manu Ferneini for the Washington Post)

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BEIRUT – During a day of national mourning, the port of Beirut burned down. The calm of birds chirping and waters lapping on Thursday was broken by the periodic slapping of flames attacking silos on Lebanon’s waterfront.

It was two years to the day after a fire in a port shed triggered one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history, an explosion that killed 200 people and leveled large swaths of the capital. The current fire is causing anger and fear here, especially among the families of the victims and those who live near the port, for whom it reminds one of the worst days of their lives.

Family members, activists and others marched to a gazebo to mark the anniversary and again demand justice and accountability when parts of the silos began to crumble.

The remains of silos in Beirut’s seaport collapsed on August 4, on the second anniversary of the deadly explosion that destroyed large parts of the city. (Video: Reuters)

The grain stored in the silos had cooked under the scorching sun and intense humidity, fermented and roasted. Three weeks ago, oils from the grains ignited a fire, which has been growing and licking the gutted sides of some of the 157-foot-tall structures ever since.

On Sunday, four of the 16 silos in the northern block of the port began to collapse. Thursday, the flames continued to weaken the structures. Four other silos leaned to the side and then fell, throwing up a cloud of sand-colored dust a few hundred meters from the walkers.

Emmanuel Durand, a French civil engineer who volunteered to work alongside rescuers to monitor the structure, said the southern block was structurally sound. These silos were built later, are in better condition, have stronger foundations and were mostly empty at the time of the 2020 explosion, he said. There is no fire burning there.

“Laser scan and tiltmeter measurements show it to be stable,” he said.

In April, the government, fearing that the grain silos would all eventually collapse, announced that it had ordered their demolition. But activists and some families of victims have opposed the move, calling instead for their preservation as a memorial site.

Their protest is symbolic of the outcry over a halted pursuit of justice: activists, parliamentarians and others are calling for the silos to be left alone until an independent investigation into the causes of the explosion is carried out.

A judicial inquiry that began in 2020 has come to a slow halt: the first investigating judge charged four officials with negligence for ignoring 2,750 tons of highly combustible ammonium nitrate for six years, during which time the material was stored on the waterfront in a warehouse alongside fireworks and paint thinners, on the edge of a crowded town.

The judge was removed from office after two of the former ministers he had accused filed a complaint, alleging he had shown a lack of neutrality in picking figures to indict to appease an angry public.

The judge who followed him, Judge Tarek Bitar, met with resistance from officials whom he tried to question, arguing that they had immunity or that he lacked authority. They flooded the courts with complaints asking for his dismissal. Its work has been suspended as a result: the courts that have to decide on complaints are on hiatus due to the retirement of judges.

“Our demands are clear,” said Najat Saliba, an atmospheric chemist and newly elected MP. “And the main demand is for the independence of the judiciary so that people at least have the feeling that the victims and their souls have not been wasted.”

Saliba won a seat in parliament in May as part of a group of new independent candidates dubbed “the forces of change”. They capitalized on a demand for new voices in a legislature ruled for decades largely by aging men from a few families.

Saliba said the silos must be witnesses to the disaster, the stables must not be touched until justice is served.

“The government says there is an economic loss in the lost area of ​​the basin,” she told The Washington Post. But the priority, she said, is to bring justice to the families.

” We say [ministers], whatever happens, the silos will have to stay straight and upright,” she said. “They remain to be a testament to our collective memory.”

Thousands of people gathered on a bridge overlooking the harbor on Thursday. At 6:07 p.m., the time of the explosion, they observe a minute of silence. Then, as helicopters in the background dumped containers of water onto the smoldering remains of recently fallen silos, the mother of one victim addressed the crowd.

“We want to know the truth. It is our right to know that those responsible for this horrible crime are held accountable! Mireille Khoury shouted into a microphone. Her son Elias, 15, was killed in the blast.

“It was the right of my son and all the victims to live and be safe,” she said, her voice cracking at the word “safe.”

Men and women, standing under a large Lebanese flag marked with red spots to represent the blood of the disappeared, wept silently.

A woman led the gathering in an oath.

“I swear by their pure blood, by the tears of mothers, brothers and sisters, fathers, children and elders,” she read in a statement, “that we will not despair, we will not acquiesce we will not conform, we will not back down, we will not be tempted, we will not underestimate. We are here and we will be here until the end of time.

At each promise, the listeners, arms raised, repeated the words “I swear”.

Earlier Thursday, some family members went to the port to pay their respects to the dead. Port security officers seemed unfazed by the weight of the day – some expressed annoyance at the attention the silos and the port continue to receive. But others felt differently.

A soldier stood guard amid mounds of dented metal crates, heavy tangled ropes and wrecked cars, rusty spray cans and curtain rods still unwrapped. Three ships that were in the harbor when the explosion occurred are still there, lying on their sides. A ship, thrown out of the water, rusts on concrete.

The soldier, who was asked if the mountains of wreckage above him were all from the explosion, nodded. “And that will remain,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media. “Look at it, it’s a mountain of garbage. Who will take it away? When asked if he was aware of any plans to clean up the site, he shook his head. “Who can afford it?”

The soldier lost a friend in the explosion, a comrade who was stationed near the silos. “When we found his vehicle, it was so big,” he said, holding his hands about 20 inches apart.

He had no opinion on whether the southern block should be kept as a memorial or demolished.

He said it didn’t feel weird working so close to a place where he had lost a friend.

“You get used to it. That’s life,” he said. “Those who cannot are the families. For example, I had known him for a year. They lost their son.

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