Two Years After Beirut Explosion, Fight for Justice Remains

t Gate 9 of Beirut’s port in mid July, all eyes were on the mammoth, concrete grain silos. A blazing fire was visible and puffs of smoke were seen coming from the silos’ northern blocks. Rima Zahed, one of 218 victims of the Aug. 4, 2020 port explosion, was present at a protest with a portrait her brother Amin. The silos were a disemboweled wreckage of their former selves. Zahed feared the additional damage will cause them to collapse—and denounced the Lebanese authorities for not stamping out the blaze.

“The authorities told us that the fire was extinguished despite the fact that it was growing. They could have stopped it,” Zahed said. When part of the silos gave way, Zahed said that her fears were confirmed.

Learn More Photo taken by a photographer after the Beirut Explosion.

Beirut’s port silos were first completed in 1970, and before the explosion they stored some 85% of Lebanon’s grain. Jean Touma, a former director of the silos from 1976-2006, says they had long ensured the country’s food security.

The silos that were left behind by boats in port after the explosion of August 2020, which occurred in Beirut (Lebanon), on July 22, 2022, caused damage to the silos.

Myriam Boulos—Magnum Photos for TIME

But in April, Lebanon’s cabinet approved the demolition of all of Beirut’s port silos—both the northern and southern ones—located at the site of the 2020 blast. Ever since, the families of the victims of the blast have mobilized to preserve them, and are outraged about Sunday’s partial collapse. Over a year, Lebanese officials have obstructed and stopped judicial investigations into the blast, which was one of the most significant non-nuclear explosions in human history. (An independent report by Human Rights Watch last August found that “multiple Lebanese authorities were, at a minimum, criminally negligent under Lebanese law” over the handling of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port since 2014, which caused the blast after the warehouse where the fertilizers were deposited in caught on fire.)

On July 4, the same day the fire erupted, civil society groups alongside families of the victims launched a solidarity campaign called “The Silent Witness.” The goal still remains to protect the silos—at least now what’s left of them—that are located less than 300 feet from the epicenter of the 2020 explosion, and which absorbed much of the blast’s force thanks to the dense grain that had been stored within them. For Mariana Fodoulian, who lost her 29-year-old sister in the blast, both the collapse and the government’s drive to demolish all of the silos is part of the country’s endemic culture of impunity.

“How could they let the [northern block of silos] collapse just before Aug. 4?” Fodoulian says. If no silos are left standing in the end, “when future generations grow up, no one can tell them what happened.”

An amnesia history

A culture of impunity has plagued Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war—which left at least 120,000 people dead and pushed some 1 million people, more than one-third of the population at the time, to leave the country. The adoption of an amnesty law in 1991 protected those accused of war crimes and allowed them to remain key players in Lebanon’s fractured political scene. More than 17,000 are missing in action from the war. This has left thousands of people waiting for information about their fate.

An arm tattoo of security personnel at the port.

Myriam Boulos—Magnum Photos for TIME

At the same time, key visual reminders of the war have been erased through the demolition of historic downtown areas that saw some of the conflict’s fiercest fighting. Experts say that firms involved in post-war reconstruction—chiefly Solidere, which was overseen by former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri—contributed to that amnesia. Solidere, critics claim, further erased the memories of war through the destruction and demolition of iconic buildings and historic homes like the Rivoli Cinema and more houses than the fighting.

Lebanese authorities have been “trying to repeat the same policies of amnesia that followed the civil war with the silos. They do not want people to remember anything related to the crimes they committed,” says Soha Mneimeh, an urban planning researcher at the Beirut Urban Lab and member of the Order of Engineers and Architects of Beirut.

Mneimeh states that the government has not given much thought to the families of victims or activists trying to save the silos. Mneimeh says that the government has yet to launch any public consultations or solicit input from families of those who have lost loved ones. This anger has been only fuelled by the blazes and their subsequent fall.

The government ordered several studies in order to evaluate the extent of the damage done to silos after the explosion of 2020. Ammann Engineering conducted the most recent assessment in March. It found that the north block could not withstand more than 10 years and may collapse within months. The assessment concluded that the southern block, however, was stable and “demolition is not a priority compared to other challenges in Beirut port.”

On July 22, 2012, there were piles of rubble around the Silos in Beirut.

Myriam Boulos—Magnum Photos for TIME

On July 22, shipping containers and silos were damaged from cars.

Myriam Boulos—Magnum Photos for TIME

Mneimeh says the northern block of silos could have been safely reinforced and preserved—a view that was supported by some of the studies. According to her, the studies prove that April’s decision to remove all the silos including those in stable areas was ultimately one of politics.

Indeed, the government’s plan to rebuild the silos at a new location is an apparent recognition that the blast site could not be easily repurposed for other uses. The 48-meter-high concrete structures (157 feet) were constructed on ground that had been reclaimed by the sea, and was reinforced with piles. Engineers and architects claim that the foundations below cannot support large structures.

Learn More Beirut Was Already Suffering. Then came a terrible explosion

Remembrance is a push

In June, the families of the victims filed three lawsuits at Lebanon’s Shura council to overturn the government’s decision to demolish all of the silos. The families also asked for a stay on execution while the suit is being considered by the Shura council. Ghida Frangieh is a lawyer and researcher from the NGO Legal Agenda. She believes that if such plans are not stopped, victims will lose their rights.

“International standards consider preservation of the crime site to be part of compensation for victims, which includes recognition of the victims’ pain and satisfaction,” Frangieh says. Failure to preserve them “would not only affect their mental health, but also their right to be treated with dignity.”

Ghida Frangieh in the Legal Agenda offices in Beirut’s Badaro neighborhood on July 21.

Myriam Boulos—Magnum Photos for TIME

Families of the victims, in addition to legal action, have tried for several months to get the silos registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List. These efforts build off Minister of Culture Mohammad Wissam El-Mortada’s decision in March to designate them as heritage buildings.

“The silos are part of the city,” says Mortada. “They also represent a common memory for all the people who were victims of the explosion.”

Mortada quickly withdrew his decision not to include the silos in the list of heritage sites, citing lack of funds to protect them. But he says he has been working since then to create a public park with an open museum and a memorial site in collaboration with artist Rudy Rahme on the east side of Beirut’s port.

That there are government plans to rebuild the silos—at a time of soaring wheat prices and global food disruption brought on by the war in Ukraine, not to mention Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis—at a separate location bolsters the case for preserving what’s left of them, the families say.

Back at the launch of the “Silent Witness” campaign in early July, by the Emigrant statue opposite the port that acknowledges the millions of Lebanese in the diaspora, Elie Hasrouty, who lost his 59-year-old father who was working at the silos at the time of the explosion, is exasperated by the uphill battle to preserve the silos.

“Every day that passes, with the stalling of the investigation and the government’s willingness to demolish the silos, is a continuation of the Aug. 4 crime,” Hasrouty says. He says that he is at a “great loss” when TIME checks in with him after the partial collapse. “It is a place that represented our wounds, and our pain. It is a very disgusting act by the authorities. It has been two years and nothing has been done to preserve the silos, and make it a place of memory.”

Elie Hasrouty’s mother Ibtissam and sister Tatiana at home in Beirut’s Sin El Fil neighborhood on July 20. This family, which has been living in this home for 38 years refuses to move, despite the destruction caused by the blast.

Myriam Boulos—Magnum Photos for TIME

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