BEIRUT (AP) — It has been two years since his 3-year-old daughter Alexandra was killed in a massive explosion at Beirut port — and Paul Naggear has lost hope that outrage over the disaster will bring justice and force change in Lebanon becomes.
An investigation into one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosions has been blocked by Lebanon’s political power for months. Many blame the tragedy on the Lebanese government’s longstanding corruption and mismanagement, but the elite’s decades-long fixation with power has ensured they are untouchable.
In fact, some of the accused were re-elected to Parliament earlier this year.
Even as the wrecked silos at the port have been burning for weeks – a fire started by the fermenting grains still inside – authorities appear to have given up trying to put out the fire. Part of the silos collapsed in a huge cloud of dust on Sunday.
“It’s been two years and nothing happened,” Naggear said of the Aug. 4, 2020 disaster, when hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilizers, detonated at the port. “It’s like my daughter just got hit by a car.”
The blast created a blast that shattered everything in its path through the capital.
Naggear, his wife Tracy Awad and little Alexandra were in their apartment overlooking the harbor when the tremendous force threw glass, furniture and other debris through the air. Naggear and his wife suffered cuts and bruises. Alexandra, or Lexou as they called her, was badly injured and died in the hospital.
She was the second youngest victim of the blast, which killed more than 215 people and injured more than 6,000.
It later emerged that the ammonium nitrate had been shipped to Lebanon in 2013 and had been improperly stored in a port warehouse ever since. High-ranking politicians and security officials knew of his presence but did nothing.
The political leaders of Lebanon’s parties, who have shared power among themselves for decades, have closed ranks to thwart accountability.
Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the inquiry, accused four former senior government officials of first degree killings and negligence that have resulted in the deaths of dozens of people. He has also charged several senior security officials in the case.
However, his work was blocked for eight months pending a decision by the Court of Cassation after three former cabinet ministers lodged legal challenges. The court cannot decide until a number of vacancies caused by the resignation of judges are filled. The appointments, signed by the Justice Minister, have yet to be approved by the Finance Minister, an ally of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.
Law officials with knowledge of Bitar’s investigation told The Associated Press that they are at an advanced stage of answering key questions — including who owned the nitrates, how they got into the port and how the blast happened. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation.
Bitar is the second judge to take the case. The first judge was expelled after complaints were lodged against him by two cabinet ministers, and if the same thing happens to Bitar it would likely be the final blow to the investigation.
The lack of justice is compounding the pain felt by the families and friends of the victims of the blast. They feel abandoned and abandoned not only by the government but also by public apathy as the months and years drag on.
After the explosion, there were initially large protests and sit-ins demanding justice. It raised hopes that Lebanese politicians could be held accountable.
But public enthusiasm waned as Lebanese struggled to survive the country’s economic meltdown. Also last year, deadly gun battles broke out between Hezbollah supporters protesting Bitar and members of a Christian faction, raising fears that pushing the investigation could push Lebanon into a factional clash.
Now only a handful of people show up at protests and sit-ins organized by victims’ families.
Families remain wracked with grief.
Time has stood still for Muhieddine Ladkani, whose father Mohammed was killed.
When they first heard explosions from the port, his father led the family into the entrance hall of their apartment, believing it was safe as there were no windows there. But the blast blew the front door off its hinges and threw a cupboard at the older Ladkani. For weeks he was in a coma with a brain hemorrhage. He died 31 days later.
Ladkani, a 29-year-old law student, said his family still cannot talk about the day.
“We still can’t remember, and we can’t gather as a family,” he said. “My brothers and uncles have my father’s photos as their profile photo. I don’t Whenever I think of my father, I break down.”
“It’s something I don’t want to believe. I can’t live with that,” Ladkani said. Those who voted for the politicians charged in the disaster were also responsible for his father’s death, he added.
“The ink on the fingers of the voters who voted for them is not ink but the blood of the victims,” Ladkani said.
One of the indicted and re-elected politicians, former Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeiter, told the AP he had the right to stand for parliament again as there was no court verdict against him. He said Bitar has no right to impeach him because lawmakers and ministers have a special court where they are usually tried.
Amidst the impasse, the families of some victims are turning to courts outside of Lebanon.
In mid-July, families filed a $250 million lawsuit against a US-Norwegian company, TGS, suspected of being involved in hauling the explosive materials to the port. TGS has denied any wrongdoing.
Naggear said his family, two others and the Bar have filed a lawsuit in the UK against London-registered chemical trading company Savaro Ltd Firm in Mozambique.
Naggear said he was losing hope.
He and his wife, who is a Lebanese-Canadian citizen, had considered leaving Lebanon after the blast. But the large public protests immediately afterwards gave them hope that change was possible.
But after the results of this year’s parliamentary elections, they are seriously considering leaving again.
Still, they vow to keep working for justice. During a recent sit-in, they showed up with their 4-month-old baby, Axel.
“They try to make us forget … but we won’t stop for (Alexandra’s) sake until we reach truth and justice,” Naggear said.
The Naggears repaired their apartment, but they haven’t stayed there since Axel was born, fearing it’s still not safe.
The fire that burns in the ruins of the grain elevators only feeds the sense of danger. A northern section of the structure collapsed on Sunday, and experts say more sections could fall. At night, orange flames can be seen licking at the base of the northern silo, glowing eerily in the dark.