Beirut (dpa) – Marie-Rose Tobagi is now back exactly where she narrowly escaped death almost a year ago. In the late afternoon of August 4, 2020, she too saw smoke rising over the nearby port of the Lebanese capital Beirut from the balcony on the third floor of her villa.
Then, minutes later, when a devastating explosion unfolds its power, the massive pressure wave pulls Marie-Rose to the ground. She lays there unconscious. When she wakes up again and sees the sky above her through a hole in the roof, she immediately knows: nothing is as it was.
The force of the explosion was so enormous that not only large parts of the harbor were reduced to rubble and ash, but also the surrounding residential areas were massively destroyed. Countless videos show how the pressure wave spreads from street to street in an ever-increasing radius, leaving havoc everywhere. Even many Lebanese who witnessed the 15-year civil war in their country speak of the worst experience of their lives. Officially 193 people die, representatives of victims even speak of 218 dead. In Marie-Rose’s villa, built by her grandfather at the end of the 19th century, the pressure wave rips open the roof, destroys walls and sweeps doors out. Then there is a huge boulder on her bed.
As if the explosion wasn’t traumatic enough for the people of Beirut, a drama ensued that was far from over. The reconstruction of the port has not started to this day. Only recently did a French company begin to dispose of the grain that had been stored in silos near the site of the explosion and was rotting. According to estimates by the non-governmental organization Beirut Heritage Initiative, the explosion destroyed about 800 historic buildings. A third of them have been renovated again.
Little has happened in Marie-Rose’s villa so far. Thanks to the help of a non-governmental organization, ceilings and walls were secured with supports, holes in walls and ceilings were covered with tarpaulin. But the 50-year-old doesn’t have the money to rebuild the building. She is sad that her house is still in this state, Marie-Rose says: “I am speechless. Nothing has happened in almost a year.” She has been living with friends for months.
Most victims feel abandoned by the government. To date, virtually no top political representative has seen the local situation with their own eyes. The experience of recent months has been “frustrating,” says architect Fadlallah Dagher of the Beirut Heritage Initiative. “The government has not shown itself at all in all this time. She doesn’t do anything.”
For many Lebanese, the explosion and its aftermath exemplify the misery of their corrupt political elite, who have exploited and ruined the country. Lebanon has been suffering for nearly two years from a severe economic and financial crisis that has pushed large segments of the population into poverty as they no longer have access to their frozen bank accounts. The Lebanese lira has crashed, inflation has exploded. Due to a lack of foreign currency, the country can no longer import important goods in sufficient quantities. Sick people rush from pharmacy to pharmacy in search of important medicines. If you want to refuel, you have to queue for hours. Most households only have electricity for a few hours a day.
And the leaders? You have been caught up in a bitter power struggle and have been unable to form a new government for months. It is intended to replace the only executive cabinet that resigned after the explosion. Lebanon is economically and politically paralyzed. Other countries will only help if the government decides on credible reforms.
The crisis has a huge impact on reconstruction, says architect Dagher. Most of the destroyed houses are privately owned. Due to the blocked accounts, the owners would have no money to rebuild. And what also plagues many Lebanese: it is still unclear how the accident happened and who is responsible for it.
The official investigations have so far yielded no results, but are being blocked by power struggles between the political elite. Large amounts of the highly explosive chemical ammonium nitrate were said to have exploded. But why were they lying unprotected in the harbor for years? And how did they get infected? And when will those responsible be held accountable?
The relatives of the victims in particular are pressing for answers. Like William Noun, 27, younger brother of firefighter Joe who was killed in the explosion. He works day and night to uncover the truth, William says. “We will not stop until everyone responsible for the explosion is behind bars.” The family has set up a museum for Joe in a small church.
Saina, mother of the dead, bursts into tears when she looks at a photo of her murdered son. Like the other family members, she also wears black. “I want justice for him and the other victims,” she says. “But in this country where corrupt politicians rule, they will hide the truth.”