2 years after Beirut port explosion, Lebanese people still suffering

Lebanon was already in an economic crisis which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic – and now the war in Ukraine has cut off the grain imports that the country relies on.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from the site of an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon August 4, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR)
FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from the site of an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon August 4, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR)

Next week marks the second anniversary of the Beirut port explosion. In the two years since the disaster in the heart of Lebanon’s capital city, the investigation into the blast has stalled and the Lebanese people still have not received a full accounting of nor justice for what happened. And they are still suffering the consequences of the deadly blast. 

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On August 4, 2020, some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which was stored in a warehouse at the port, exploded after an uncontrolled fire broke out in an adjacent warehouse, causing one of the most disastrous blasts in the history of the modern world.

The disaster took the lives of 220 people, injured more than 6,500 and devastated the center of the city, destroying thousands of residential and commercial buildings and crippling the country, which was already suffering from an economic crisis and poor living conditions, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.  

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one of the world’s largest grain exporters, the global grain market experienced a severe shortage, causing prices to soar and harming the main importers, among them, Lebanon.

A Lebanese economist told The Media Line that the blast is the reason for Lebanon’s grain shortage. “The explosion destroyed the grain silos and the grain supplies were cut off and, since then, Lebanon relies on imports of grain from Ukraine,” he said.

 A view shows the exterior of Lebanon's Central Bank building in Beirut, Lebanon March 21, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR) A view shows the exterior of Lebanon's Central Bank building in Beirut, Lebanon March 21, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR)

Before the explosion, the grain silos contained about 85% of Lebanon’s grain. “We are now witnessing shortages in bread and people are waiting hours in lines in order to buy bread,” the economist said.

The blast that caused death, injuries, the destruction of homes and businesses, a food crisis, and economic damage due to the halt of business, loss of investment, and severe physical damage to the center of the city, will remain burned in Lebanon’s national memory.

Hezbollah's role in Lebanon's economic crisis

“Hezbollah and its puppet government have made the Lebanese society a society of beggars running after food and medicines, and forgetting about their rights, pride and freedom.”

General Tannous Mouawad

General Tannous Mouawad, a retired brigadier general of the Lebanese army, and CEO of the Middle East Studies political and security consulting firm, told The Media Line that Hezbollah is responsible to a large extent for the deplorable situation of Lebanese citizens.

“Hezbollah and its puppet government have made the Lebanese society a society of beggars running after food and medicines, and forgetting about their rights, pride and freedom,” he said. “The iron fist of Hezbollah is running by force a hidden dictatorship in the country.”

“The iron fist of Hezbollah is running by force a hidden dictatorship in the country.”

General Tannous Mouawad

Jamal Wakim, a professor of history and international relations at the Lebanese University in Beirut, told The Media Line that, despite the tremendous economic crisis that the country finds itself in and that the situation has deteriorated much further since the explosion, the Lebanese people still demand justice.

“Despite the fact that the Lebanese people are suffering from the economic crisis, they still look forward to knowing what happened,” he said. “The Lebanese people are divided, but they agree that the government is not doing anything to reveal what happened and who the perpetrators were.”

Lorenzo Trombetta, a Beirut-based scholar and author specializing in the contemporary history of the Middle East with a focus on Syria and Lebanon told The Media Line that the Lebanese people do not believe that the country’s government will give them answers. He said that the Lebanese people demand justice and truth, “but almost everyone knows that it will be very hard to get truth and justice within the Lebanese judicial process.”

Trombetta added that the status quo of the ruling governance favors of the same Lebanese political class that is blamed for the blast.

The investigation led by Judge Tarek Bitar since February 2021 has been de facto halted since the Tayouneh neighborhood clashes between Hezbollah and the Amal movement last October in Beirut that left seven dead and dozens injured. The violence broke out during a protest organized by Hezbollah and its allies against the judge, who the protesters accused of being biased. And there are no signs that there will be a change in the power balance, he explained.

Mouawad says that Bitar did not conduct a proper investigation to identify those responsible for the explosion.

“He should have called all the different military and civilian officials who were in charge of the port, without any exception, since the date of arrival of the ammonium to the port, and not only some of them,” the retired general said.

He noted that Walid Jumblatt, a leader of the Druze community in Lebanon, has said that the ammonium was brought to the port to be taken to Syria and to be used to “bomb Syrian civilians with barrels of ammonium nitrate.” The ammonium was placed in a warehouse at the port in 2014, months after the ship and its cargo was abandoned at the port. 

Additionally, Mouawad emphasized that Hezbollah controls the ports in Lebanon. “The international community, East and West, knows very well that the air, land and sea frontiers of Lebanon, including ports and airports, are controlled by Hezbollah,” he said.

The Lebanese economist told The Media Line that the Lebanese people have one demand regarding the blast. “It is to punish the people responsible for this, and to punish those who put the ammonium nitrate in the Beirut port,” he said.

The government’s formal institutional narrative supports the need for truth and justice, according to Trombetta. However, he said, “the ruling elite does not have any interest in disclosing the circumstances surrounding the blast. So, they are buying time while undermining any genuine effort from the independent judiciary to work on the case.”  

The economist added that the blast has had a great psychological impact on Lebanese citizens. “It will be always stuck in the minds of the Lebanese people and especially those affected who now have PTSD. Not to forget that no one was held accountable, so people lost every inch of trust in the judiciary system and the government,” he said.

Trombetta says that the blast represented a truly dramatic apex of the tragic consequences of decades of mismanagement, impunity and lack of transparency among the Lebanese ruling circles of power.

He added that the event has a deeper meaning. “We cannot only blame a bunch of politicians for being responsible for stocking 2,750 tons of nitrate in Warehouse 12 of the port. We need to carefully and honestly look at the deeper cultural patterns of how post-war Lebanese society works as a whole.”

In this sense, he continued, “the explosion per se and its dire consequences on the bodies of humans beings and buildings of the Lebanese capital are just another blow to a society in crisis.”

Trombetta believes that the Beirut blast will continue to constitute a symbolic emotional moment for those who aspire to change, but it won't have a direct effect on change. He believes it is just another element that shows the political and social landscape of the country.