William Noun and Maria Fares were united by loss after the devastating blast that ripped through Lebanon's capital three years ago. Now engaged, the couple pledge to keep fighting for justice.
As they prepare to take their wedding vows, Noun and Fares, both 28, sit at his family's house in the hills northeast of Beirut, surrounded by photographs of Noun's brother who perished in the tragedy.
"Ours won't be a normal wedding," said Noun, who is set to marry Fares in September.
"Many people lose their siblings... but the difference is that we don't even know why we lost them, and that they died together," he said.
Joe Noun and Fares's sister Sahar were among 10 firefighters sent to their deaths when a blaze broke out at a warehouse at Beirut's port on Aug. 4, 2020.
What followed was one of the world's biggest non-nuclear explosions, which killed more than 220 people, injured at least 6,500 and wreaked destruction on swathes of the capital.
Families of those killed have been fighting for justice ever since, with Noun one of the key figures in the campaign.
But three years on, political pressure and legal hurdles have stalled and buried the investigation into the cause of the explosion.
Fighting back tears, Fares said she was "unable to think about how the wedding day will go."
"It's very hard, knowing that your sister won't be next to you."
Authorities said a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate fertilizer kept haphazardly in a port warehouse for years caught fire and detonated.
Despite the scale of the destruction, no one has yet been held accountable, and the cause of the fire has not been officially determined.
Noun and Fares first met in 2020 during a therapy session for the siblings of firefighters killed in the blast.
Overwhelmed with grief at the time, they only got to know each other later.
Noun said he wished they had met under different circumstances, but had found in Fares someone who shared "the same pain."
Their engagement "shows our faith: despite everything that happened, we still have the will to live, and we can still go on," said Noun, who runs a family restaurant in their town.
Fares described her sister — a paramedic with the firefighters — as someone who loved life.
"We've been thinking of ways to make their presence felt with us on the wedding day, maybe with a flower or a picture," she said.
The couple are committed not only to each other but also to fighting for justice following the explosion.
"We insist on reaching the truth," said Noun, who has an image of his brother in a firefighter's helmet tattooed onto his forearm.
"This is our promise and it will grow after we marry."
But he also acknowledged the pair would have to "try to separate our private lives from the investigation."
Otherwise "we will spend our whole lives crying."
'Need to know'
The investigation into the blast has been repeatedly stalled, in a country split along sectarian lines and known for its history of official impunity.
A slew of political and legal challenges have beleaguered the probe since its early days, with high-level officials filing lawsuits against the investigating judge who had charged them.
In a surprise move, judge Tarek Bitar said in January he had resumed his probe after a 13-month hiatus.
But Lebanon's top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat retaliated by releasing the detainees in the case and charging Bitar with "usurping power."
To Noun, "the struggle for justice is harder than the explosion itself."
The activist, known for his outspokenness, was arrested briefly in January after throwing stones at Beirut's justice palace during a protest and threatening on television to "blow up" the building.
Those responsible for the blast are "people who have been in power for years and who have money, weapons... and influence" over the judiciary, he charged.
"We only have justice on our side," said Noun.
Outside a small stone chapel that the family has built in Joe Noun's memory, a statue bears his likeness. Inside, photos and items including his firefighter's uniform are on display.
With the local probe stalled, victims' families and rights groups have been urging the United Nations to create an independent fact-finding mission into the explosion.
"We need to know what happened on Aug. 4," said Noun.
Fares said she had faith her sister and others did not die in vain, and that their deaths would represent a turning point for Lebanon.
She would keep pursuing her fight for justice, "even if it takes time, even if obstacles are placed in our way."
As they prepare to take their wedding vows, Noun and Fares, both 28, sit at his family's house in the hills northeast of Beirut, surrounded by photographs of...