Beirut blast: six months on, families say government is burying the truth

Months after an explosion at Beirut port killed nearly 200 people, families are left with grief, loss and no sense of justice from a government that has failed to provide answers, Sunniva Rose reports in Beirut

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The body of Ibrahim Amin, 20, was so mangled when his brothers identified him after a four-day search at the morgue that they could not wash him according to Islamic tradition before his burial.

“When they opened the refrigerator, they found Ibrahim with his hands like this,” says his mother, Yesra Abu Saleh, 60, raising her arm to her face.

“They did not let me see him because he looked so gruesome. I pray that those responsible will burn.”

Ibrahim probably died trying to protect his face from the thousands of tonnes of grain that collapsed on top of him on August 4.

That day, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded a few metres away from the giant silos where he worked at Beirut’s port.

Six months later, Lebanese authorities keep stonewalling the search for justice by the families of the 204 dead.

This has compounded the pain of Mrs Abu Saleh's loss. Today, anger is taking over.

"I want the truth to be revealed. I hope it will and if it does not, I pray they lose their children," she tellsThe National.

“They” is an all-encompassing term for Lebanese leaders who failed to take measures to protect Beirut’s population even though they knew that dangerous chemicals had been stored at the port for years.

Twenty-five mid to low-ranking officials are in pretrial detention while the country’s top decision-makers remain free.

Last December, the investigating judge indicted the caretaker prime minister and three former ministers, but they have evaded questioning.

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Just like my mother wakes up every morning at 5am to visit [Ibrahim's] grave, and cries constantly, we want to break your heart

Victims' families feel politicians are trying to bury the truth.

“If they continue to refuse to be questioned, we will take their children,” says Ibrahim’s older brother Hassan, 31.

"Just like my mother wakes up every morning at 5am to visit his grave, and cries constantly, we want to break your heart. Do not worry, we are not afraid of anyone. We only fear God."

Hassan watched quietly as his mother struggled to contain her tears while she spoke about his dead brother.

His pent-up anger was evident.

“I would like to ask my people, in our region, who have also offered their children to martyrdom, why have you not taken action? What are you waiting for?

“Go down to the streets because now, my brother is gone, perhaps later your brother, father, wife, sister, uncle or cousin will be killed.”

Last November, Lebanese authorities promised to give monthly compensation to the families of those who died in the blast, but Ibrahim’s relatives say that they keep facing administrative hurdles.

Banks, which have severely limited their services since the beginning of the country’s worst financial crisis in mid-2019, refuse to open accounts to receive the stipends.

Hassan, who is unemployed, has been driving back and forth between the Defence Ministry and banks, trying to convince the latter that the former has approved the procedure.

To receive aid, the family must pay for a stamped death certificate stating the exact time of Ibrahim’s death.

Victims' families regularly organise peaceful protests, but the number of attendees never exceeds a few dozen people.

On Monday, protesters were violently pushed back for the first time by riot police as they gathered in front of the house of the judge investigating the port blast, Fadi Sawan.

Mrs Abu Saleh is a regular at these demonstrations. Wearing long black robes, she always carries the same photomontage of Ibrahim, who had thick black hair and a chubby, boyish face.

His dark eyes stare earnestly at the camera and behind him, the mosque of Karbala, which is revered by Shiite Muslims, floats on a bed of clouds.

Ibrahim had hoped to make the pilgrimage to Karbala one day, now the family plans to send someone on his behalf.

His mother remembers her youngest son as an affectionate, pious boy who used to enjoy smoking shisha on the balcony of the family home.

“He was planning to get married and live with me,” she says.

Six weeks before the blast that killed him, the private company that manages the now-destroyed port silos hired him as a labourer.

He was paid 3,000 Lebanese pounds an hour ($1.99 at the official rate, but only $0.35 on the black market).

He previously worked as a cleaner in the kitchen of a cafeteria at a large private hospital but had been laid off because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In Burj Al Barajneh, a Palestinian refugee camp that is now one of the poorest suburbs of Beirut, the family's flat was refurbished by a local NGO after the explosion.

The dirty, mouldy walls were repainted and covered with pastel wallpaper. The kitchen was retiled.

The one-bedroom flat is spotless, but Ibrahim’s mother does not feel comfortable there any more. She now spends most of her time with relatives.

Ibrahim’s shisha pipe remains has not been touched since the day he died. It stands in a corner. There are pictures of him on the wall, on candles and pillows. His clothes are still in the wardrobe.

“The house smells like my brother. Every time we come here, our souls are revived. We remember where he used to stand, sleep and sit,” Hassan says.

Giant pictures of Ibrahim hang outside on the walls of rundown buildings in the narrow alleyway that leads to the family's home.

They represent the only donation that came from the country’s most powerful Shiite Muslim parties, Iran-backed Hezbollah and Amal, Hassan says.

On the day Ibrahim was buried, the two parties wanted to drape the green Amal flag over one half and the bright yellow Hezbollah banner over the other.

But the family refused and Ibrahim's coffin was covered with the Lebanese flag.

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