BEIRUT (AP) — It’s been two years since his 3-year-old daughter, Alexandra, was killed in a massive explosion in Beirut’s harbor — and Paul Naggear has given up hope that outrage over the disaster will bring justice and force change in Lebanon.
The investigation into one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosions has been blocked for months by Lebanon’s political forces. Many blame the long-standing corruption and mismanagement of the Lebanese government for the tragedy, but the elite’s decades-long lock on power has ensured they are untouchable.
In fact, some of the defendants in the investigation were re-elected to parliament earlier this year.
Although the damaged silos at the port have been burning for weeks – a fire ignited by the seeds still fermenting inside them – authorities appeared to have given up trying to put out the fire. A section of the silos collapsed on Sunday in a huge cloud of dust.
“It’s been two years and nothing happened,” Naggear said of the Aug. 4, 2020 disaster, when hundreds of tons of high-explosive ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilizers, detonated in the port. “It’s like my daughter got hit by a car.”
The explosion caused a pressure wave that toppled everything in its path across the capital.
Naggear, his wife, Tracy Awad, and young Alexandra were in their apartment overlooking the harbor when the massive force sent glass, furniture and other debris flying. Naggear and his wife suffered cuts and bruises. Alexandra, or Lexou, as she was called, was seriously injured and died in hospital.
He 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 since then. Senior politicians and security officials were aware of his presence but did nothing.
Lebanon’s factional political leaders, who have shared power among themselves for decades, closed ranks to avoid any blame.
Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation, charged four former senior government officials with premeditated and negligent homicide that led to the deaths of dozens of people. He also blamed many top security officials in the case.
But his work has been blocked for eight months pending a decision by the Court of Cassation after legal challenges were brought by three former cabinet ministers. The court cannot rule until certain vacancies caused by retiring judges are filled. The appointments, signed by the justice minister, still await approval from the finance minister, an ally of parliament speaker Nabih Berri.
Judicial officials with knowledge of the Bitar investigation told The Associated Press that it was at an advanced stage of answering key questions – such as who owned the nitrates, how they got into the port and how the explosion happened. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation.
Bitar is the second judge to take up the case. The first judge was forced out after allegations were made against him by two cabinet ministers, and if the same happens to Bitar, it would likely be the final blow to the investigation.
The lack of justice increases the pain of relatives and friends of the victims of the explosion. They feel let down and abandoned, not only by the government but also by public apathy as the months and years pass.
Initially after the explosion there were large protests and sit-ins demanding justice. It brought hope that Lebanon’s politicians might be held accountable.
But public fervor waned as the Lebanese became absorbed in surviving the country’s economic collapse. Also last year, deadly gun battles broke out between Hezbollah supporters protesting against Bitar and members of a Christian faction, prompting fears that the pressure of the investigation could push Lebanon into factional conflict.
Now only a few people show up at demonstrations and sit-ins organized by relatives of the victims.
Families remain devastated by grief.
For Muhieddine Ladkani, whose father, Mohammed, was killed, time has stood still.
When they first heard explosions from the port, his father took the family to the entrance of their apartment, thinking it would be safe since there were no windows. But the blast tore the front door off its hinges and sent a locker crashing down onto the elder Ladkani. He was in a coma for weeks with a brain bleed. He died 31 days later.
Ladkani, a 29-year-old law student, said his family still can’t talk about that day.
“We still can’t remember and we can’t come together as a family,” he said. “My brothers and uncles have my father’s photos as their profile picture. I don’t do it. Whenever I remember 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 blamed for the disaster are 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 accused and re-elected politicians, former public works minister Gazi Zeiter, told AP that he had the right to run for parliament again because there is no court order against him. He said Bitar has no right to charge him because lawmakers and ministers have a special court where they are usually tried.
Amidst the impasse, the families of some victims are appealing to courts outside Lebanon.
In mid-July, families filed a $250 million lawsuit against an American-Norwegian company, TGS, which was suspected of involvement in transporting the explosive material to the port. TGS denied any wrongdoing.
Naggear said his family, two others and the Bar Association have filed a lawsuit in Britain against the London-registered chemical trading company Savaro Ltd., which investigative journalists in Lebanon say chartered the shipment, intending to carry the nitrates from Georgia to explosives. company in Mozambique.
Naggear said he is losing hope.
He and his wife, who is a dual Lebanese-Canadian citizen, had considered leaving Lebanon after the explosion. But the large public protests soon after gave them hope that change was possible.
But after the results of this year’s parliamentary elections, they are seriously considering leaving again.
Despite this, they vow to continue working for justice. At a recent sit-in, they showed up with their 4-month-old baby, Axel.
“They are trying to make us forget … but we will not stop, for (Alexandra’s) sake until we get to the truth and justice,” Naggear said.
The Naggears have repaired their apartment, but have not stayed there since Axel’s birth, fearing it was still unsafe.
The fire burning in the ruins of the grain silos only feeds the sense of danger. A northern section of the structure collapsed on Sunday and experts say more sections are at risk of falling. At night, orange flames can be seen licking at the base of the north silo, glowing eerily in the dark.