Hundreds of people marched across Beirut to the port yesterday to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the devastating explosion that took place there and to demand justice for the victims. The largest group of protesters gathered at the Justice Palace before marching to the French Embassy, where they denounced what they said is France’s unwillingness to support an international fact-finding mission into the circumstances of the explosion. The protesters continued on to the port, where they joined with other groups that had marched from the Annahar building and the fire station in Karantina, from which 10 emergency responders were dispatched to their deaths two years ago. The emergency responders were not told that what was then a fire in the port was next to a massive, unsecured stockpile of explosive ammonium nitrate, even though many top officials were aware of its presence and the risk of explosion. With grief and anger, the protesters on Thursday demanded the resumption of the Lebanese investigation into the explosion, headed by Judge Tarek Bitar, which has been stalled for months by obstructive lawsuits lobbed against the judge by top politicians accused of wrongdoing in their handling of the ammonium nitrate risk. The court responsible for hearing those lawsuits is paralyzed without necessary judicial appointments being made, having been blocked by the finance ministry. Caretaker Finance Minister Yousef Khalil is close to Amal leader and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the political patron of several of those accused in the port investigation.
A smaller group of protesters represented by Ibrahim Hoteit, the spokesperson for one of the two separate groups of families of victims of the port explosion, gathered at a different area near the port to denounce judge Bitar. Hoteit said he has documents that prove that Bitar is “not doing his job right.” He also blamed the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which he said was patrolling off the coast near Beirut, for allowing the ammonium nitrate to reach the port, as well as the Lebanese Army and its commander at the time, General Jean Kahwaji.
Meanwhile, as the main group of protesters gathered at the port, four additional grain silos in the northern block collapsed, two years to the day after the explosion that severely damaged them. The collapse sent clouds of dust into the air. The army had previously evacuated a 500-meter radius around the silos in anticipation of their collapse, which was widely expected since a first portion of the northern block of the structure collapsed last Sunday. The southern block of silos and part of the northern block of silos are still standing as of this morning. On Aug. 4, 2020 the reinforced concrete silos saved large swathes of the western part of the city from destruction by blocking some of the impact of the blast. Since that day, they have stood as reminders of the destruction that was wrought upon the city. Some people have sought to preserve them as memorials to the destruction. They have been on fire for much of the past three weeks, with the government saying it is unable to extinguish the blaze due to the risk of triggering collapses.
Air quality testing performed in the port shortly after the silo collapse appeared to show no substantial concentrations of pollutants in the area. Several pollutants were below the detectable limit of the testing equipment, and particulate matter, PM2.5 and PM10, was found to be “within acceptable limits” according to caretaker Environment Minister Nasser Yassin. The readings were taken by a Lebanese Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear team and a team from the American University of Beirut Laboratories for the Environment, Agriculture and Food. Samples for fungi and asbestos were still being analyzed, with results to be published once ready.
In case you missed it, here’s our must-read story from yesterday: “In a cruel twist of fate, four more silos collapse on the second anniversary of Beirut port explosion.”