Most Americans of a certain generation could remember where they were on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated. August 4, 2020, holds a similar place in Lebanon’s national psyche. The horrific explosion in Beirut port that killed more than 200 people, injured around 6,000 and rendered some 300,000 people homeless, was an incomparable trauma in a country already facing much pain.
Now, a year later, the victims of that outrage are nowhere nearer to knowing who was responsible. The inquiry has hit a wall. The two judges who headed the official investigation in succession have faced a political leadership that has tried to derail their efforts, refusing to lift the immunity of politicians and security officials whom the current investigator Tareq Bitar wants to question.
Some leading politicians have since backtracked, calling for a lifting of immunity for all those on Mr Bitar’s list. But to most Lebanese, these are shallow statements to curry public favour, as they know well that that the truth is unlikely to ever come out.
There have been many theories of what happened. One of them, from the late Lokman Slim, a Shiite opposition figure who was assassinated in February, was that the ammonium nitrate that exploded was kept at the port for the Syrian government to prepare its barrel bombs at home. This was likely done with the complicity of Hezbollah and Russia. While this remains unproven, there is a suspicion locally that the hangar in which the compound ignited was under Hezbollah’s control.
Whatever the truth, the Lebanese authorities’ reluctance to allow the investigation to move forward has only reinforced a general suspicion that the country’s politicians and parties are hiding something. Certainly, many of them knew the ammonium nitrate had been stored at the port as of September 2013, and did nothing to push for its removal. This includes Lebanon's President Michel Aoun and the caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab.
For the families of the victims of the blast, the indifference of officials has been one more insult for a population already facing widespread poverty and an avoidable national collapse. The country’s political leadership is widely recognised as incompetent, except in the ways of crime. However, the port blast took this to another level of horror. Essentially, the authorities paid no attention to the fact that a time bomb was located near residential areas.
An FBI report dated October 7, 2020 but recently reported by Reuters, showed how close the Lebanese came to a holocaust. The report noted that of the 2,754 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port, only 552 tons had exploded. The word “only” may sound laughable in light of the severe damage, but given that the initial amount was over five times what blew up, the word is apt. Had the full complement of ammonium nitrate detonated, much of Beirut would have been flattened. The number of deaths would probably have been in the tens of thousands of people, if not the hundreds of thousands.
A year on from this disgrace, it remains difficult to understand why the Lebanese are not angrier. It seems amply clear that justice will not be served and that the innocents who died or who were injured on that day, whose houses were destroyed and whose lives were shattered, will never get compensation. In any normal country, a politician could not hope to go home after such a tragedy.
Yet, in Lebanon, even as the situation has continued to deteriorate to levels hitherto unseen in the country, even during the civil war, the population has remained relatively passive. Perhaps their fault is having lived for so long in a dysfunctional country that they are prepared to adapt to the worst.
Increasingly, however, the paralysing, mercenary disputes of the political class are causing death. Patients, including children, are dying because hospitals no longer have medicines to treat them. The absence of electricity means that people who require oxygen machines to survive cannot keep them on for long. A doctor recently reported that there were no pacemakers left in Lebanon.
The port explosion confirmed in the bluntest way that Lebanon’s politicians are slowly killing their own people, if not by action then by omission. In the face of such a pernicious reality, is adaptability even acceptable? Some people argue that those in power hold all the cards – the security forces, armed thugs and the repressive powers of the state. But in October 2019, they were all overwhelmed by a peaceful popular uprising that transcended sects and frightened the politicians.
Wishing for a revival of this movement may be too ambitious. But a year after the port explosion there is a sense that the Lebanese just don’t have it in them. They’re good at examining their predicament, but only once in a while do they rise up to try to resolve their problems – before soon abandoning everything. Those who lost family members on August 4 are alone in not surrendering, but all the signs are that their struggle will remain a long and lonely one.
Listen to the latest podcast on the Beirut blast here