Grain silos heavily damaged in the 2020 Beirut port blast can be demolished, the Lebanese government has been told by the judiciary.
Judge Tarek Bitar, who is investigating the tragedy, informed the country's Economy Ministry on Monday that having access to the site was not necessary for his inquiry, Economy Minister Amin Salam told The National.
This paves the way for their demolition.
But victims’ families and architects oppose the project. They said the Lebanese state was once again trying to erase one of the country’s many tragedies.
More than a year and a half since one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, the silos still stand, heavily damaged and leaning forward, just a few metres from a crater full of seawater.
For many, the 48-metre-high silos are a symbol of the tragedy that claimed at least 215 lives. They shielded large parts of Beirut from the impact of the August 4 explosion of hundreds of tonnes of dangerous chemicals that had been improperly stored in a hangar for seven years.
But a report conducted last year by a Swiss firm showed that the silos might collapse soon and are tilting by two millimetres a day. They were built in 1968 on reclaimed land on the Mediterranean Sea on close to 4,000 underwater concrete posts. An undetermined number of the posts broke in the blast.
“It’s a big building. It’s very dangerous to keep it,” Mr Salam told The National this week.
“I made it very clear that by no means will I or the government do anything that relates to demolition or rebuilding new silos without having full clearance of the judiciary system.”
The government is still waiting for an official letter from Mr Bitar, who is under severe pressure from Lebanon’s politicians obstructing his work and does not talk to the media.
“The government needs to look at it and approve it, with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence and all related stakeholders to make sure this is legal,” Mr Salam told The National.
The government is considering building new silos in Beirut’s port, but also in the northern city of Tripoli or in the eastern region of the Bekaa.
“Strategically, you should not have a commodity like wheat stored in one location,” said Mr Salam. “The perfect example was that after the explosion we had no other reserves.”
Building new silos in Beirut’s port is not compatible with keeping the damaged ones, said Mr Salam. The old silos are “a massive structure that is taking up a big piece of the port,” he said. “Keeping it is not logical. It’s not feasible financially.”
Lebanon’s wheat reserves were reduced from a three-month supply to just one month's worth after the blast, with potentially dangerous consequences for Lebanese food security.
'Killing the witness'
But the planned demolition of Beirut’s silos has upset families of victims of the port blast. On February 20, some staged a protest at the port, under the slogan: “instead of imprisoning the criminals, they are killing the witness.”
This was a reference to the multiple lawsuits filed by former ministers and sitting MPs against Mr Bitar. They forced him to suspend his probe for the fourth time on December 23. The internal security forces have not executed arrest warrants issued by Mr Bitar in September and October against two suspects, MP Ali Hassan Khalil and former minister Youssef Fenianos.
“The silos are a symbol and a witness of what happened,” said Elie Hasrouty, whose father Ghassan died inside the silos on August 4, 2020. “It’s really sad, because they are treating the matter like business as usual, not like a major collective trauma. Demolishing or keeping the silos should be part of a process of reconciliation with us, the Lebanese people.”
Dutch consulting company Royal Haskoning won a tender to prepare a study on rehabilitating the port last month.
Architect Jad Tabet, who headed Lebanon’s order of engineers and architects at the time of the blast, said that the silos should be kept upright with reinforcements while discussions about the port’s future continue.
What is at stake is Lebanon’s troubled relationship with the past, he said. “We must keep a trace of what happened. The problem is that in Lebanon we have always erased everything,” he said, referring to the controversial reconstruction of the Beirut city centre after the 1975-1990 civil war. “It’s a philosophical question that relates to our relationship to tragedies.”
Mr Salam said he was in discussions with the Culture Ministry about preserving a portion of the silos as part of a memorial.
“The most important thing is to give value to the lives that were lost,” he said.
Mr Tabet was unconvinced. “Let’s take the time to reflect, and then we can decide whether we keep a part or all of the silos,” he said. “I don’t know why they are in such a rush.”