The fate of Beirut port’s grain silos is once again at the center of a heated debate.
On March 16, the government decided to demolish the giant structure that was severely damaged in the Aug. 4, 2020, explosion, amid fears that it might be on the verge of collapse.
On Monday, however, Culture Minister Mohammad Mortada said cabinet had decided to classify the silos as a historical monument, raising questions about the government’s incoherent decision-making.
Meanwhile, the victims’ relatives have long been calling for the silos to be designated a memorial.
Mortada told L’Orient-Le Jour that his decision was in no way motivated by the calls of victims’ relatives, but rather by his obligation to preserve the memory of the city.
“This decision was not taken to satisfy the families of the victims. None of them contacted me about that matter. I think that some of the victims' relatives are trying to one-up each other,” Mortada said.
“My decision is not at all a populist one. I decided to protect the silos because it is a monument connected to the cultural memory of Beirut.”
In a statement issued Friday, Mortada stressed that “the silos have always characterized the capital’s seafront,” and that they remind the Lebanese of “a painful page of the history of their city.”
“Given the need to preserve these historic silos as part of a human heritage and given that they have become the emblem of a stricken city, I have taken the decision to classify them as historical monuments,” the minister added.
He also, “forbade any changes to the structures without [his] prior approval.”
The remarks of Mortada, who is close to the Amal movement, are not in line with the government position and the recommendations of Minister of Public Works and Transport Ali Hamiyeh, who is close to Hezbollah, to demolish the silos.
Observers are surprised by the two allied parties’ diverging positions, raising questions about the nature and scope of these differences.
Contacted by L’Orient-Le Jour, Hamiyeh said he was taken aback by his colleague’s decision.
“I was very surprised to learn that the silos have been classified as a historic monument. I have no idea what could have motivated this decision and I was not consulted on this,” he said.
Hamiyeh also recalled that the demolition was decided during a cabinet session “and in the presence of all ministers,” following the recommendations of a committee he’d formed, and “in the presence of the ministers of justice, defense and economy, and representatives of the Council for Development and Reconstruction.”
“The justice minister handed me an official document whereby Judge Tarek Bitar [who heads the port blast investigation] confirms that the silos are no longer of any use to the investigation. The experts also say that these structures are tilting and are in danger of collapsing,” Hamiyeh explained.
Experts say the severely damaged structure is tilting daily by two millimeters and is thus at risk of collapsing, which prompted the government’s initial decision, in the face of the victims’ relatives who decried their destruction.
Asked about this, Hamiyeh said he “preferred not to comment” on the relatives’ demands.
As for Mortada, he defends his decision, notwithstanding the confusion it has caused, saying he acted according to his personal convictions.
“I was criticized for saying that I should raise the issue during the cabinet session, but this does not concern the government as a whole. It is about my way of seeing things. It is my duty, as minister of culture, to preserve everything that relates to the history of the capital,” he said.
‘The Lebanese forget quickly’
William Noun — whose brother Joe Noun, a firefighter at the Beirut fire station, died under the rubble at the port on that fateful day of August 4, 2020 — is satisfied with Mortada’s decision, even if it was not taken to please the victims’ relatives.
The families have staged several demonstrations demanding the preservation of the silos and their designation as a memorial dedicated to the 200 individuals who perished in the blast.
“There was some dissension within the government about the future of these structures, but common sense prevailed. This is a positive step, and we're going to keep the momentum going,” Noun told L’Orient-Le Jour.
“We're planning to meet with the Order of Engineers and Architects this week to look into erecting retaining walls to support the structure. We will then put up plaques with the names of the victims. This is an essential step,” he added, “because the Lebanese forget quickly.”
As for the security risk posed by the silos, a source close to the case recalled that “detectors have been put in place” and that the government and the Ministry of Economy are monitoring the structure.
“All I can tell you is that the silos are indeed tilting, but this tilt is minimal,” the source said.
Geryes Berberi, director general of the Cereals and Sugar Beets Department of the Economy Ministry is much more alarmed by the prospect of not razing the silos.
“Since the explosions occurred, the silos have tilted by a little more than 7 centimeters, which is not insignificant,” he said.
Berberi fears that the grain silos could collapse “because their foundations were affected in the explosion.”
“If they crumble, this would impact the nearby neighborhoods and no one is willing to assume such a risk,” he added.
“We should start building new silos as soon as possible,” Berberi said, “and free up space for containers, because the entire port may be remodeled.”
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour.