"Things are much heavier as time passes. At first, we were in denial mode."
"A year later we are back to that state of mind. The authorities are backstabbing us with their hypocrisy. They are killing us in cold blood. To handle that, we seek refuge in denial", Elie Hassrouty told me. His father, Ghassan, died in the devastating Beirut blast.
To the rest of the world, August 4th 2020 was a dull summer’s day. To us Lebanese, it was a day of personal and national horror. Those who lost their loved ones live with shattered souls. Those who survived still carry physical and emotional scars.
The tragedy is ongoing, literally. There is still no accurate official count of the victims. Some people who died days and months later due to health conditions caused by the explosion are unaccounted for, meaning their families are denied any compensation. Survivors with permanent physical and mental damage are facing neglect and little medical assistance.
Liliane was nicknamed "the 2021 miracle" as she woke up in January after five months in a coma. She still is unable to talk, and her in-laws deny her visits from her son Ali, who was less than two months old when the explosion happened. Only recently was she allowed a short video call with the boy. She cried because she couldn't recognize him. Being a woman in a patriarchal society, she is a victim twice over.
Arlette, another victim of the blast, fought for her life for a whole year. She passed away on August 4th 2021. What a dreadful fate!
Our government promised us a five-day investigation following the blast. A year later, the authorities are hindering efforts for justice by blocking the questioning of high profile politicians and security officials, under the pretext that their jobs grant them immunity. The ruling establishment of the last thirty years consists of the same warlords who turned into politicians granting themselves impunity at the end of the civil war. They have never been held accountable for their atrocities. Nowadays, they refuse to be interrogated about the deadly ammonium nitrate shipment carelessly stored since 2013 at the heart of a crowded city, and which ended in tragedy last year. Worse yet, they threaten to take action against the very activists who are criticizing them.
Our security agencies are responding to the families of the victims with arrogance and violence. The families, along with local and international rights groups, call for an international investigation.
Elie Hassrouty is realistic in this regard. Although he stressed the need for an international factfinding committee, he thought that "with the local procrastination of a serious investigation, we need the world's help". However, he is aware that foreign countries seek their own interests in Lebanon rather than achieving justice.
Rima Bazaza, who lost her daughter Malak, remains skeptical. She said: "In the case of (former Prime Minister Rafic) Hariri, an international court took many years to indict a single person, and not his party (Hezbollah). Why didn't the world provide us with satellite images before the blast? They must have known about the ammonium nitrate. How can we trust them?"
The hero of the silos
59-year-old Ghassan Hassrouty was at the wheat silos at the heart of Beirut's port. He had worked there for 38 years. He loved his job; described by his son as "critical and dangerous". Elie proudly explained that his father and colleagues made sure that Lebanon never had a shortage of wheat delivered to mills, even in the toughest circumstances such as the civil war and the 2006 Israeli attack. He recalled that during the so- called Liberation War, in which the current president Michel Aoun took part, Ghassan spent two weeks at work without extra clothes.
When the blast occurred, Elie's first reaction was to roam around hospitals looking for his father. He couldn’t find him anywhere. He must have sought safety underneath the silos, underground. To Elie's surprise, no rescue team was sent to the area. The crisis management was "terrible…had they allowed us inside, we would have brought our shovels to dig looking for them [Ghassan and his colleagues]", he said. More than 50 hours passed before rescue teams reached the site. Eight days after the blast, a body was found. It took another six days before DNA tests proved it was Ghassan's.
^ Ghassan Hassrouty, photo provided by his family.
The reckless response to the disaster was the first official failure. The second is the attempt to jeopardize the investigation. Elie stressed that everyone who knew that such deadly materials were present at the port should be held accountable. In his words, "They failed their duty to protect the Lebanese people. They are in this collusion together, and the responsibility starts at the very top", a powerful accusation pointed at the President and high-level security officials. He added: "No one should be spared from interrogation. The Parliament is a house of hypocrites trying to distract us from the fact that the huge blast is a heinous and deliberate crime against humanity. The MPs want to portray it instead as an act of negligence. Well, no, the absolute corruption of the system has led to this mass murder".
Asked about the brutal crackdown targeting the families of the victims, he repeated that the self-granted amnesty after the war was what led to the blast. The warlords think that their impunity is endless.
The fatal dinner
On that dreadful August afternoon, Rima Bazaza was invited to dinner by her son-in-law to celebrate the engagement of her son Ali. She recalled hearing the noise caused by a military airplane flying low. We Lebanese are familiar with that sound due to past Israeli violations of our airspace. Many survivors spoke about it, and some witnessed an aircraft before the first explosion occurred.
29-year-old Malak and her husband stood up in fear and uncertainty at the sound of the blast. Then the "volcano" erupted, as Rima described the huge red mushroom cloud caused by the blast. She told me: "The sounds were terrifying and the smell was suffocating".
^ Malak Bazaza and her husband Ali Ayoub, before the blast.
Due to the force of the blast causing them to fly through the air, Malak and her husband were "severely injured", said Rima. "The restaurant walls fell on our heads. I bounced to a wall and had bruises all over me. Hanan (her second daughter) has since undergone several surgeries in her leg", she added.
Amid the horror and chaos, Rima couldn’t locate her family when she was finally able to pull herself together. Malak was taken to a hospital and Hanan to another. Her son Ali roamed around looking for them. Two days later, Malak succumbed to her wounds. Her husband was already dead.
Like Elie, Rima criticized the crisis management. She said: "Had an evacuation plan been launched when the fire was still under control at the port, my daughter and son-in-law might have been alive today".
A year later, she is trying to stay strong so that her family does not fall apart. Hanan is always sad. Ali feels guilty and has daily dreams about his sister. Malak is survived by her four-year-old son Mohammad and two-year-old daughter Lynn. As their grandmother, Rima is raising them and determined to do her best for their sake, despite lacking financial resources.
Asked about the status of the children, she revealed that Mohammad was not responsive to psychological support. He looks at family pictures and asks about his parents. He sometimes says that they are "in the sky". Lynn insists on sleeping next to her grandmother. Perhaps she is unconsciously looking for her mother.
Rima does not expect much from local justice processes, but believes in the divine justice for her daughter. She told me: "Malak loved her name (which means angel in Arabic). She is my angel now. Her beautiful face remained intact even after death".]
Rima takes part in every sit-in of the relatives of the victims. She skipped one for a doctor's appointment and felt bad about it. Hanan joins her depending on how she is feeling physically and psychologically.
During that time that Ghassan's family was still hoping to find him alive, his daughter gave birth to a son on August 10th 2020. Elie described that moment as a mixture of sorrow and joy. A year later, he said he, his mother and sisters are sad. He shared how it is hard to find happiness despite the presence of his nephew and the support of loving relatives, friends and even strangers.
Mohamad, Rima's grandson, was crying when I asked her about her expectations from life. She took a moment of silence and said: "May Allah grant me good health and patience to raise Malak's children. I am worried about them, especially Mohammad".
After conducting the interview, I provided her with the number of a hotline for psychological support. She asked me to visit her grandson. I don't have the courage for it now, but I would.
On August 4th 2021, we took back the streets, in large numbers, full of sadness, anger and disdain. Once more, we were met with bullets and tear gas. I was not surprised. After all, you don't expect a criminal regime to show sympathy. When the international community was having a conference to supposedly rescue the Lebanese people from economic collapse, we, the people, were facing yet another crackdown. Well, to the international community I would say this: we don't want food and medicine, even if they are becoming very expensive and scarce. What we need is to end impunity. We need accountability.
In Elie's words, "only accountability can lead to political change in Lebanon. We are not after revenge but to break the cycle of systematic crimes committed by the regime so we can live in peace and dignity". I totally agree and would add that peacebuilding as well would help achieve that much desired change.
I think that Elie, an engineer doing a PhD in International Relations and Diplomacy, might have come up with an interesting definition of accountability as a revolutionary and peaceful tool for reform. It is not easy to stick to non-violence when facing a corrupt and killer system established by former warlords. Imagine how hard it is for Elie to still believe in accountability and peacebuilding instead of resorting to violent retaliation as other families of victims do, out of their immense pain and despair.
In the Lebanese context, Elie's view of accountability is tied to peacebuilding as well. They both seek salvation through justice, not revenge, as well as collective work for reconciliation, equality and non-violence. Admittedly, it is tempting not to preach peacebuilding and accountability amid major devastations, but they are always worth it. It is never too late to combine them in the struggle to end the dominance of impunity over modern Lebanese society. It would be the only "positive" outcome linked to the catastrophic blast that changed Beirut, and us, forever.