TLEIL, Akkar — They were soldiers, schoolboys, farmers and refugees.
They came to get fuel so they could drive to tend their orchards or to report to duty at their army posts. Teenagers came to get a few liters for their fathers’ cars. Fathers came to fill tanks to drive their children to doctors’ appointments. An unlucky Syrian, who had no car and was walking home from work, happened to pass by the wrong stretch of road at the wrong time.
More than 30 people died in the Aug. 15 explosion in the town of Tleil, where a chaotic late-night distribution of thousands of liters of illicitly stored fuel ignited, turning the site into an inferno.
The victims were all men, most of them young, many of them providers for their families. At least eight were Syrian refugees, and about the same number came from the ranks of the Lebanese Army. They came from different walks of life, but they had one thing in common: they were desperate for fuel.
Some of their families shared their stories with L’Orient Today.
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“If he hadn’t been in need of fuel and worried about his land, he wouldn’t have gone,” said Raghida al-Cheikh, the widow of Fadi al-Cheikh, a 48-year-old father of four, sitting on the veranda of their home in Ain Tinta, a quiet village in the hills of Akkar between Tleil and Qobeiyat.
The couple used to pass most of their evenings on that veranda; her husband was a homebody who preferred to stay in with her and the children rather than going out late with his friends. The only thing that matched his love of his family, she said, was his devotion to his land.
When he retired from the Lebanese Army about two years earlier, he had bought a plot of land and turned to farming. He had planted all the bounty the land could support: avocados, olives, lemons and oranges, pears, pomegranates and almonds.
“I can’t describe to you how much he loved to work the land,” Raghida said. But recently, she said, “all the time he was worrying about gasoline and diesel.”
Amid Lebanon's worsening economic crisis, the fuel supply had dried up throughout the country, but in Akkar the shortages were more severe.
They needed diesel for the generator to power their home when the state electricity was cut, which was most of the time, but there was none to be had: “Now for 10 days we haven’t had the generator, and the state power comes two hours a day, one hour during the day and one at night,” she said.
They needed gasoline so he could drive his pickup truck to the farm in the morning and evening and for her hourlong commute to work. (In what has now become a cruel irony, she works in the office of a charitable association providing assistance to widows and orphans.)
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In Tleil, just down the street from the site of the explosion that killed his 19-year-old son, Mohammad, a car mechanic, and left his 14-year-old son, Hamzeh, badly burned, Mustapha al-Kurdi described the same dilemma.
The Syrian refugee has a small car that he uses for his work as a vegetable vendor, but lately filling its tank has become a Sisyphean task.
“Sometimes I leave my car waiting at the station for two days, seriously,” Kurdi said. “My son brings it and parks it for me, and once the diesel and gasoline comes, I come and wait four or five hours, but there is nothing. I come back the next day and it’s the same thing.”
His sons, he said, had rushed when they heard there was fuel being distributed in Tleil “because of me, haram, for my car.”
“If I’d known this would happen, I would have gone and made them leave,” he said. “But I didn’t know.”
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“He had been searching for two or three days for gasoline because of our son,” said Roukaya Khaled, the young widow of 34-year-old soldier Alaa Kbeidat in Ain Tinta.
Their 5-year-old son has a delay in speech development and had been seeing a therapist in Qobeiyat, about a 20 minute drive away, where they had also enrolled him in preschool so he could get used to being around other children.
“Look at this hero,” Khaled said, scrolling through pictures of her athletic husband on her phone, as adoring as when he had been the object of her schoolgirl crush more than a decade ago.
“We were married almost six years, but I have known him since I was 12 years old,” she said. “He was 10 years older than me, and I was in love with him since I was young. And I stayed with him until his last day.”
On the day of his funeral, Kbeidat’s uniform remained on the couch where she had laid it out for him on the morning of Aug. 15 in preparation for him to catch the van to his duty station in Beirut.
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“We don’t have a car. We don’t have anything,” said Khadija Salloum, whose husband, Mohammad Osman, was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
They had four children and another on the way. Osman used to pick up whatever day labor he could to support them and to help his father, disabled by a stroke and already mourning the loss of one of Mohammad’s brothers, who had gone missing in Syria before they fled to Lebanon.
“My husband would work for LL15,000 or LL20,000 a day,” Salloum said. “A bag of diapers is now LL70,000 or LL80,000. He would work for three days just to get a bag of diapers.” The LL100,000 per person they received monthly from the UN refugee agency only took the edge off slightly.
Osman had been walking down the highway after a day at work in a neighboring village when he saw the commotion.
“He was coming from work walking, and he saw them and went down to see what was happening,” Salloum said. “And what happened, happened.”
She added, “May God not forgive those who did this.”
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The details of exactly what did happen remain unclear. The army has yet to release an official report from its investigation. The owner of the land where the fuel was stored, George Rashid, and his son were arrested in the wake of the explosion, but no charges have been announced.
ُBefore their arrests, enraged local residents had torched Rashid’s house, alleging that he had stored the fuel to smuggle it to Syria; in a video posted before his arrest, Rashid claimed not to have known that the fuel was stored on his property, saying that the containers had belonged to a man from Wadi Khaled who had been arrested several months earlier.
Local residents and a security source told L’Orient Today that the day before the explosion, the army had discovered tens of thousands of liters of diesel and gasoline stored at the site. The army confiscated the bulk of it and moved it elsewhere, but some 3,000 liters remained.
Late in the evening, when most of the crowd that had gathered around the site had cleared out, Fadi al-Cheikh’s brother Marwan said, “there remained seven or eight people insisting they wanted gasoline. The officer who was responsible allowed them to fill up, so they filled up and left, and the word got out that the army is filling up gasoline, so everyone came.”
Fourteen-year-old Hamzeh al-Kurdi recalled that during the two or three hours he and his brothers waited at the site, the crowd grew increasingly agitated.
“There was one guy saying he wanted to set [the fuel tank] on fire,” he said. “There were a lot of problems happening. In the end, the army didn’t get involved. They withdrew to a distance, away from us, and people began filling up for themselves, and they started pushing each other.”
Some early accounts said the explosion had been triggered by gunfire, but eyewitnesses and a security source who spoke to L’Orient Today said it had been set off by a lighter.
Ensconced in bandages in the burn unit at Salam Hospital in Tripoli, Abdallah Delawati, a Syrian refugee who works in construction, told L’Orient Today that he had gone in hopes of finding gasoline for his work because he could not afford the LL250,000 per 20 liters then being charged on the black market. “I wanted to fill a jug, and there started to be problems and pushing.”
Amid the chaos that ensued, Delawati said, a man who had grown irate after being unable to take a turn filling up began to shout and brandished a lighter.
“He lit the lighter and dropped it on the ground,” he said. “I saw it with my eyes, by God. I was the first one to be burned.”
From the bed next to Delawati’s, a Lebanese soldier who did not give his name chimed in to concur with the account. Forcing the words out with difficulty through chapped lips, one of the only features visible through the bandages on his face, the soldier said, “My father died. He was next to me.”
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Around 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 15, Mohammad Osman’s father, Marwan, heard a loud noise.
“When I heard the noise, I thought, ‘Hamoudi is dead,’” he said, using his son’s nickname. “How he died, I didn’t know, but it came to me. My heart told me he had died.”
Mustapha al-Kurdi, who was nodding off at home when the explosion happened, was roused by people rushing to his house from the scene, some of them wounded. He hurried to the site, where he found Hamzeh, wounded but conscious. They called for Mohammad, but there was no answer. After searching hospitals for three days, Kurdi learned his son was dead.
Raghida al-Cheikh was woken at 2:39 a.m. by her son asking, “Where is Dad?”
Her brother, a soldier, had been wounded in the blast, and her husband was unaccounted for.
“For three days he was missing and I was asking God for a miracle,” she said. But in the end, his body came back to Ain Tinta, to be buried in the ground he had loved.
Roukaya Khaled got up at 3:30 a.m., as she usually did, planning to wake her husband so he could get ready to head down to Beirut, but discovered he had not yet come home. She called him; there was no answer.
In the hours that followed, she would learn that her husband had been wounded in the explosion and transferred to the burn unit at Lebanese Hospital Geitaoui.
“He would get a bit better every day,” Khaled said. “I had a great hope, until the last day, the last moment, that he would come back.”
On Thursday, she woke up hoping for good news. Her husband was set to be transferred out of the country to be treated in the United Arab Emirates. Instead, he died that day.
“My father died when I was 15 years old from cancer, and now my children will grow up without their father,” she said.
Echoing the words of Salloum, a woman coming from very different circumstances, but now in the same situation, she added, “May God not forgive those who did this.”
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Names of the Akkar explosion victims
The following names have been verified by L’Orient Today as of Aug. 25. There may be additional victims who have not yet been identified.
Naji Ammar Abdallah
Mohammad Radwan al Asaad
Mahmoud Hussein Awad
Fadi Ghazi al-Cheikh
Ali Jamal Chrayteh
Fayad Adel Chrayteh
Hussein Adel Chrayteh
Jalal Mouin Chrayteh
Khaled Mouin Chrayteh
Ahmad Ismail al-Hassan
Mohammad Ismail al-Hassan
Ali Hussein Hawik
Ibrahim Hassan Hawik
Khaled Ahmad Hawik
Khaled Mohammad Hawik
Alaa Salem Kbeidat
Walid Moustapha Kouja
Mohammad Mustapha al-Kurdi
Ahmad Mohamad Merhi
Shaaban Ezzeddine Mohammad
Hassan Khaled al-Muslamani
Ammar Mohammad Mustapha
Ahmad Saadallah Osman
Mohammad Marwan Osman
Ali Issa al-Waari
This article has been updated to include the name of the most people to die from injuries sustained in the explosion. Ali Jamal Chrayteh passed away on Aug. 29 and Taleb al-Hassan passed away on Aug. 30.