A block of silos damaged in the Beirut port blast collapsed on Thursday, as Lebanon marked two years since the massive explosion that killed 215 people, injured thousands and destroyed large parts of the capital.
The collapse happened as people were gathering nearby to mark the blast anniversary, leaving some of the silos still standing. Families of the victims held marches in Beirut on Thursday afternoon as they continued their search for justice, with protests also planned in the US, Europe and elsewhere.
A few hundred people began their march at the Justice Palace in Adlieh, holding photos of the victims as well as placards with slogans such as, “You will not kill us twice” and “Lebanon is hostage to a criminal regime”. The number of marchers had grown into the thousands by the time they reached the port.
At 6.07pm - exactly two years after the explosion happened - sirens blared as firefighters commemorated their colleagues and other victims who died in the blast. A moment of silence was broken by the sound of applause for the firefighters and others who perished.
The August 4, 2020, explosion occurred after a huge stock of ammonium nitrate, inexplicably left in storage at the port for years, caught fire.
So far, no senior officials have been held accountable for the blast and a judicial investigation has been stalled for eight months.
There has been widespread political interference in the investigation and two sitting MPs charged in connection with the blast have refused to attend hearings.
“We want justice. We have been waiting for the Lebanese justice for two years and it's not going anywhere,” protester Camille Mourani told The National.
“So today, we are asking for international justice, an international investigation," she said, holding a sign with a picture of one of the ex ministers who is wanted in relation to the investigation.
Families of victims want the UN's Human Rights Council to set up an international enquiry. As part of the march on Thursday, they protested outside the French embassy in Beirut and urged Paris to back an external investigation.
Paul Naggear lost his 3-year-old daughter Alexandra in the blast. As protesters entered Martyrs Square, the site of Lebanon's 2019 protest movement, he said: “Justice in Lebanon is dead.”
“We are relying on the international fact-finding mission from the UN Human Rights Council that has been blocked by France,” he told The National. “We need to lobby to make this happen.”
A handful of protesters - some carrying gallows, others coffins daubed with the names of victims in red paint - briefly clashed with riot police outside parliament.
Speaking on the morning of the anniversary, Lebanon's top Christian cleric Bechara Boutros Al Rai hit out at the government's handling of the investigation, saying it had “no right” to impede justice and that “God condemns those officials” who do so.
"What more do you want, what more than this crime of the century, to act?" he said.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said there had been “two years without justice”.
“In the name of the dead, among them the son of a UN staff member, I reiterate my call for an impartial, thorough and transparent investigation into the explosion,” he said.
Two-year-old Isaac, the son of UN staffer Sarah Copland, was the youngest person to die in the explosion.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Legal Action Worldwide and other NGOs on Wednesday called on the UN to send a fact-finding mission.
“It is now, more than ever, clear that the domestic investigation cannot deliver justice,” they said.
Official correspondence between political, security and judicial officials has revealed that many were aware about the hazardous substances stored in the port though no meaningful action was taken to remove it.
On the eve of the second anniversary of the deadly blast, Pope Francis said the truth over what happened “can never be hidden”.
Lebanon is in the grip of a devastating economic crisis which first became apparent in 2019 and has been described by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern history.
Much of the population has been plunged into poverty, the local currency has fallen in value by more than 90 per cent and there are widespread shortages in water, electricity, medicines and other basic supplies.
Compounding the trauma for survivors and relatives of victims is a fire that has blazed for weeks at the port’s grain silos, which were heavily damaged in the blast.
A section of the silos first collapsed on Sunday, with more falling on the anniversary. Efforts to put out the fire have so far been unsuccessful.
On Thursday, as marchers gathered near the port, a Lebanese Army helicopter could be seen dropping what appeared to be water on the site.
The environment and health ministries in late July issued instructions to residents living near the port to stay indoors in well-ventilated spaces and to wear masks.
The fate of the silos, which shielded parts of Beirut from the blast, remains a deeply sensitive topic. In April, Lebanon's Cabinet approved their demolition after a survey found they could collapse in the coming months.
But many Lebanese, including families of some of the blast victims, want the silos to remain as a memorial. Some believe the government is using the fire as a pretext to allow the demolition of the silos.