Two years on, the misery of the Beirut port explosion still torments families

Families of victims of the Beirut Port explosion observe a minute silence during an anniversary commemoration on August 4, 2021 in Beirut, Lebanon [Getty Images]
7 min read
04 August, 2022

August 4, a national day of mourning in Lebanon that carries the heaviest weight of grief and anger, returns to mark the second anniversary of the Beirut port explosion that took hundreds of lives, displaced thousands, and destroyed most of Beirut’s neighbourhoods.

The nearest fire crew was based just a few hundred metres from the port and CCTV captured the moment they were alerted to the emergency at 5:54 PM. The church bells rang at 6 PM and at 6:04 PM the arrival of the fire truck was filmed by one of Beirut’s residents living near the port.

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A paramedic on the ground with the fire brigade filmed the scene and captured the last footage of one of the firefighters, Charbel Karam.

"Two years later, people are still trying to rebuild their lives with the country’s dramatic descent into an economic and political crisis only deepening"

The New Arab spoke to one of his family members, who wished to remain unnamed. “My heart is still aching, my feelings are inflamed and my spirit is grieving.”

Karam's cousin added, "He is a hero, a true hero that lost his life whilst on his duty as a firefighter."

The firefighters did not know that the warehouse held 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that arrived in 2013, which was then moved to hangar 12 and abandoned.

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The Lebanese government was repeatedly warned about the dangerous material but nothing was done despite the final warning by state security that the ammonium nitrate could cause the full destruction of the port.

The Beirut port was a ticking time bomb as bags of ammonium nitrate was stacked on one another in 2,000 square metres without any safety measures and was stored next to highly flammable goods, fireworks, fuses, and tires.

Relatives of victims of the 04 August Beirut port explosion stage a protest in front of the Justice Palace in Beirut [Getty Images]
Relatives of victims of the Beirut port explosion stage a protest in front of the Justice Palace in Beirut [Getty Images]

Right across the city, stories of life and death played out with the scale of the destruction overwhelming. Every nearby building was badly damaged and the families of the victims still see the explosion as a result of incompetence.

Mazen Zweihed lost his life after his body was flung from an office building into the distant rubble outside.

“We are mentally drained, we want justice for our loved ones so they can rest in peace,” his sister-in-law, Nivine Mghames, said in agony.

“Mazen was not just an engineer, he was the backbone to his family, he was so caring, so loving and so respected, he looked after everyone before himself," she added.

Nivine says his mother is shocked and cannot comprehend that he is no longer here. Every moment is filled with memories of him. 

The blast was a combination of greed, negligence, and corruption. Human Rights Watch has accused Lebanese authorities of criminal negligence for failing to secure a shipment of the hazardous chemicals that caused the port’s blast.

Long before the explosion, Lebanon’s economy was in a deep crisis. The blast inflicted widespread devastation and caused immense suffering with scores of citizens still reeling from the catastrophic impact of the explosion.

Two years later, people are still trying to rebuild their lives with the country’s dramatic descent into an economic and political crisis only deepening. 

“The whole two years I had this blast cloud above my head, the thoughts, the tragic memories, the sound, and the scenes,” said Ralph Najjar, a pharmacist-owner in Beirut and a survivor of the Beirut explosion.

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Many of the victims are still mentally scarred and are still learning to recover, for them it’s something they need to learn to live with.

In the wake of the explosion, the majority are struggling to overcome the trauma they experienced, and their mental well-being is at risk as the tragic event has brought painful memories of years of conflict in the country.

The New Arab spoke to Joseph Khoury, a psychologist part of a research team examining the sentiments of civilians in the country and the Lebanese diaspora post-blast. “If you have had more traumas in your life, having an additional trauma does revive a previous trauma of war,” Joseph said.

The study showed that Lebanese people who have experienced previous war trauma were more likely to experience PTSD after the Beirut port explosion, even though it was a different event on a cognitive level.

He told The New Arab: “We know that there are very high rates of PTSD, depression, and anxiety. The rates of PTSD were highest in Beirut and the further away people were from the blast, rates dropped significantly."

"Following the blast, 70,000 jobs were lost and over 300,000 people were made homeless"

For Joseph, what is happening at the sociological and political levels has impacted the healing process.

“The frustration that no one has been held accountable and no justice has been served is delaying healing,” he emphasised.

As the cost-of-living surges amid Lebanon’s dwindling economy, many households have been forced to reprioritise needs, laying aside mental health treatment.

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The healthcare system in the country has also witnessed an exodus of thousands of doctors, specialists, and nurses leaving, which has meant those who remained have priced treatment at exorbitant prices. 

Joseph says people are either unable to access treatment or are reluctant to get treated because of the stigma surrounding mental health in Lebanon.

Relatives of victims gather to support the judge investigating the blast, Tarek Bitar, after he was forced to suspend his work [Getty Images]
Relatives of victims gather to support the investigator into the blast, Tarek Bitar, after he was forced to suspend his work [Getty Images]

The force of the blast created a crater and for many, the blast had left a big wound that will stay with them forever.

Houses in Lebanon have turned into mausoleums with portraits and shrines of the victims everywhere to honour them.

Time has stopped completely and every day is August 4 for Rima Haidar, who lost her brother in the explosion. Rima is now an activist demanding justice, accountability, and punishment for the government's criminal negligence.

“They have to pay for what they did, we were promised results within five days by the president, why have we not been given genuine answers," Rima questioned.

The blast is a result of a dysfunctional system and with its only major port destroyed in the explosion, Lebanon is struggling to import what its people need to survive.

Hussein Cheaito, a development economist based in Lebanon told The New Arab more about the financial damages that the blast created to the livelihoods of people and businesses in the country.

“Following the blast, 70,000 jobs were lost and over 300,000 people were made homeless,” said Hussein.

He added that people have lost their jobs, and have experienced reduced working hours or salary reductions because businesses surrounding the Beirut blast have had their infrastructure destroyed.

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“There are no real government policies to support small and medium enterprises, for instance, we don’t have cash grants, we don’t have wage subsidies or any form of financial support,” he emphasised.

The bulk of financial support that reached businesses was through international support, for instance, the International Labour Organization and the United Nations and for Hussein, this is not a sustainable solution that businesses can depend on.

People are still searching for answers as Beirut’s port continues to look like a warzone. Victims’ families still meet there to mourn in a wasteland, whilst grappling with economic hardship and political upheaval.

Recently the families of some of the victims filed a $250 million lawsuit against a US firm suspected of involvement in the transfer of the explosive material to the port and some have held a sit-in at the Justice Ministry in Beirut to protest the delay in judicial assignments stalling the blast.

“Two years have passed by but our pain has stayed and our thirst for justice remains unquenched, they need to be punished for taking our loved ones,  said Joelle Njeim, who lost her mother in the explosion.

Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London covering Lebanon.

Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462