In Beirut's quest for justice, the victims' families lead the charge

Elias Maalouf holds a picture of his son George, who was killed in the Beirut port explosion, in a protest in July 2021. (TNA)
5 min read
05 August, 2021

This day a year ago, Ibrahim Hoteit was going from hospital to hospital in Beirut, searching for his younger brother.

The Beirut port explosion had thrown the city into disarray, with hospitals damaged and overwhelmed, barely able to cope with the over 6,000 wounded and 200 dead. The city’s cell network was down, choked with the calls of frantic families searching for their loved ones.

Finally, twelve days after the blast occurred, Hoteit located his brother’s corpse, once missing, now dead.

One year later, Hoteit stood on a stage addressing thousands of Lebanese demonstrators, just steps away from the port, where hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate had ignited one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

"We met and decided that we would act as one hand so that we could achieve justice"

“The blood of my brother and the blood of the martyrs will not be in vain, even if I have to avenge them with my own hands. Stand with us so we can achieve what we want!” Hoteit thundered to the cheering crowd standing in front of him.

The event, held by the families of the victims of the explosion on 4 August, touched off a year of unceasing activism, led by those most affected by the blast itself.

An aerial view shows the massive damage at Beirut port's grain silos and the area around it on August 5, 2020, one day after a massive explosion hit the heart of the Lebanese capital. [Getty]
An aerial view shows the massive damage at Beirut port and the area around it on 5 August 2020. [Getty]

Organising themselves for collective action

Before the explosion happened, most of the families of the victims had never even met. The group of 107 families, made up of different backgrounds, religions, and social classes, was organised spontaneously after the explosion, drawn together by their collective sense of loss.

“We didn’t really mean to organise in the beginning,” Hoteit told The New Arab. “Each one of us was looking for their missing loved ones - later we found out they were dead - and we began to meet one another, exchanging numbers so that we could tell each other if we found something.”

A few weeks after the blast, families began to communicate with one another and agreed to meet.

“We met and decided that we would act as one hand so that we could achieve justice,” Hoteit said.

Since that first meeting, the victim’s families have been relentless in their quest for justice. As a result, they have been beaten and threatened.

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Their quest for justice has taken many forms, from meetings with top-level officials involved in the investigation of the explosion, to on-the-ground civil disobedience.

After Judge Tarek Bitar requested Lebanon’s government lift the judicial immunity of key political and security officials so that he could interrogate them, the families quickly jumped into action.

They called for protests under the building that Caretaker Interior Minister Mohamed Fahmi lived in and threatened that they would storm the building’s gates if they were not given a dialogue with Fahmi.

Fahmi eventually let them in, and the families sat with him, expressing their concerns and demands.  

After initially agreeing to lift the immunities, Fahmi went back on his word a few days later.

The families quickly returned for another instance of direct, on-the-ground action. They staged a mock funeral for their loved ones, carrying with them wooden coffins and painting their hands blood red. They then held a vigil in front of Fahmi’s apartment building, placing the pictures of their loved ones on the coffins.

"Will the corrupt leaders put themselves on trial? Of course not. Justice will come from the victims' families, so we have to stand together and go [to the streets]"

Their protest attracted hundreds of demonstrators, who, inspired by the families’ vigil, tore down the metal gates of Fahmi’s apartment complex and stormed the building.

In addition to advocacy and acts of civil disobedience, the victims’ families have supported and helped one another cope with the grief of losing loved ones.

“All of us are suffering, each of the families has a victim. At times one of the families will feel depressed more than the others, at those times the other families will stand by them and offer their moral support,” Hoteit said.

“We have a saying in Arabic: ‘Whoever sees the misfortune of others, has their own burden lightened.’ We visit each other on important dates and anniversaries and stand by one another. We’ve become one big family,” he explained.

Virtual impunity

A year after the Beirut port exploded, destroying tens of thousands of homes and countless lives, Lebanon is no closer to knowing who exactly was responsible for the man-made disaster.

Independent investigations, such as a 3 August Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, have alleged that officials at the highest levels of Lebanon’s government had an awareness of the explosive material’s presence in Beirut port prior to the explosion.

Beirut protest
A demonstrator marches with a sign showing the face of one of the young victims of the Beirut blast with a caption in Arabic beneath reading "she could have been your daughter" on 4 August 2021. [Getty]

The HRW report named President Michel Aoun, Caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, and Director General of State Security Tony Saliba as such officials.

Officials, while nominally stating their commitment to Judge Tarek’s investigation, have made no efforts to aid the investigation and, in some cases, have tried to subvert it. Lebanese members of Parliament attempted to pass a motion in July to open a parallel investigation into the explosion, in what was widely decried as an attempt to evade responsibility.

The result of a year of inaction and obstruction has left families with little hope that justice will be achieved if business is done as usual.

“There is no such thing as justice in this country - if we were in another country we would have had justice, but not here,” Elias Maalouf, whose son George was killed in the explosion, told The New Arab.

“Will the corrupt leaders put themselves on trial? Of course not. Justice will come from the victims’ families, so we have to stand together and go [to the streets],” Maalouf said.

"There is no such thing as justice in this country - if we were in another country we would have had justice, but not here"

However, the pain of the explosion is not just held by the families of those killed. The sense of pain and loss was palpable at the 4 August memorial. Cries of grief for the victims were interspersed with cries of rage and chants of revolution among the crowd.

A minute of silence was held at 6:07 pm, when the port exploded one year earlier. The silence was broken by a scream by one of the victim’s family’s: “Thawra! (revolution).” With that, the crowd turned their sights on parliament.

William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.

Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou