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Mired in crises, Lebanon marks 1 year since horrific blast

Beirut explosion
Posted at 9:11 AM, Aug 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-04 09:11:46-04

BEIRUT (AP) — Banks, businesses and government offices were shuttered as Lebanon on Wednesday marked one year since the horrific explosion at the port of Beirut with a national day of mourning.

The grim anniversary comes amid an unprecedented economic and financial meltdown, and a political stalemate that has kept the country without a functioning government for a full year. United in grief and anger, families of the victims and other Lebanese were planning prayers and protests later in the day.

The explosion killed at least 214 people, according to official records, and injured thousands.

It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history — the result of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate igniting after a fire broke out. The explosion tore through the city with such force, it caused a tremor across the entire country that was heard and felt as far away as the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, more than 200 kilometers (180 miles) away.

It soon emerged in documents that the highly combustible nitrates had been haphazardly stored at a port warehouse alongside other flammable material since 2014, and that multiple high-level officials over the years knew of its presence and did nothing.

A year later, there has been no accountability, and the investigation has yet to answer questions such as who ordered the shipment of the chemicals and why officials ignored repeated internal warnings of their danger.

“This is a day of pain and grief. It is the day we lost our loved ones and relatives and children. We hope all those coming down (to the streets) in solidarity with us to respect our pain,” said Ibrahim Hoteit, who lost his brother in the blast and is now a spokesman for the families fighting for accountability.

Families of the victims planned a memorial and prayers at the still wrecked site of the blast at Beirut’s port later in the day. Mass protests were also expected. A huge metal gavel with the words “Act for Justice” was placed on a wall opposite the port with its shredded grain silos, near the words “My government did this” scrawled in black.

Flags flew at half-staff over government institutions and embassies, and even medical labs and COVID-19 vaccination centers were closed to mark the day. Reflecting the raw anger at the country’s ruling class, posters assailing authorities were hung on the facades of defaced buildings across from the port.

“Here starts your end and our beginning,” read one poster that took up the space of five floors of a high-rise. “Hostages of a murderous state,” read another.

The blast, coupled with the devastating economic crisis, political stalemate and rising poverty, have posed the gravest threat to the small country’s stability since its 1975-90 civil war.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, the Lebanese army said it arrested a number of people who were on their way to take part in anniversary commemorations, saying they had a large number of weapons and ammunition in their possession.

In an extensive investigative report, Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called for an international probe into the port blast, accusing Lebanese authorities of trying to thwart the investigation. HRW said a lack of judicial independence, constitution-imposed immunity for high-level officials and a range of procedural and systemic flaws in the domestic investigation rendered it “incapable of credibly delivering justice.”

“Since the 1960s we have not seen an official behind bars,” said Pierre Gemayel, whose brother Yakoub was killed in his apartment in the explosion.

Taking part in a small protest outside the justice palace Wednesday, he said the refusal by the political class to lift immunity from senior officials accused of negligence that led to the blast is “proof of their collusion.”

The explosion — which destroyed and damaged thousands of homes and businesses — and the lack of accountability, have added to the deep political and sectarian divisions, tensions and anguish in a country reeling from multiple crises, including an economic unraveling so severe it has been described by the World Bank as one of the worst in the last 150 years.

The crisis has led to a dramatic currency crash and hyperinflation, plunging more than half of the country’s population below the poverty line. The international community has refused to help Lebanon financially before wide reforms are implemented to fight widespread corruption and mismanagement.

Meanwhile, about 40 heads of states and government, diplomats and heads of international organizations were taking part in a conference co-hosted by France and the United Nations on Wednesday, hoping to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to meet Lebanon’s growing humanitarian needs.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the virtual event is meant to show support for the Lebanese people — not authorities — and pledged France would provide 100 millions euros ($118.6 million) in the coming months.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis recalled the suffering of the Lebanese people, as he held his first weekly audience with the public since surgery a month ago.

“A year after the terrible explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, that caused death and destruction, my thoughts go to that dear country, above all to the victims, to their families,” the pontiff said.

“And so many lost the illusion of living,” he added.

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Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, Frances D’Emilio in Rome and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed reporting.