One year after the Beirut explosion, scars and questions remain

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When his workplace exploded, docker Yusuf Shehadi was awaiting news from his colleagues who had rushed to help firefighters put out a blaze in the port of Beirut. The fire was serious and was getting worse, they told him in their last conversation before a giant explosion killed them and 210 others a year ago today.

The catastrophic explosion destroyed the place where Shehadi had worked for a decade. And he immediately knew the cause. “I had transported the nitrate from the dock to the hangar six years earlier,” he said of the massive stockpile of military grade fertilizer he helped move from a freighter to a nearby hangar in 2014.

Six years later, it caught fire and pulverized Lebanon’s main port. “Their phones were dead,” Shehadi said of his eight colleagues, four of whom were also dockworkers who had helped unload nitrate from a Russian freighter.

He quickly learned of their fate and that of his hometown through the Armageddon-type imagery that reverberated around the world. Even in a city hardened by trauma and loss, the shocking scenes of Beirut’s devastated waterfront innovated for the horror it caused at the time, and in the miserable year since which responses have been scarce. .

A year later, the Lebanese capital remains a city shell; While most of the physical damage has been repaired, the scar on Beirut’s psyche remains raw and festering, its impact intensified by the anger of a people deprived of justice.

“Once, only once – especially now – this country could have produced a result for its people,” said Fadia Doumit, as she gazed at the tangled mess of metal and masonry strewn over what was once the port, near his workplace. The huge field of debris is almost in the same condition as a year ago, a one-day memorial that has come to define Lebanon’s dysfunction and the complicity of its rulers.

Attempts at judicial inquiries over the past year have led to the arrest of several dozen bureaucrats, but leaders have refused to be questioned or to vote in favor of lifting the immunity that protects them from lawsuits. “The Lebanese state cannot and does not want to investigate itself,” said Shadi Haddid, from the city of Broumana, 30 minutes from Beirut. “No one here is competent to judge the other. “

Questions about the ultimate beneficiary of the nitrate, how much nitrate exploded, how it caught fire, and whether any part of the stock was removed remain unanswered. “Everyone knows they don’t want to get to the bottom of this,” Haddid said. “It would involve the entire political class, one way or another. “

In the absence of an effective local investigation, it is up to local lawyers, journalists and civil society actors to explore the circumstances of the arrival of the Russian freighter, the Rhosus, which then sank at its moorings at the port. , and then arrived at the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that were unloaded from it.

“They never told us how much we were moving, but it was a lot,” Shehadi said. “And part of it was in bad shape, with water in the bottom of the bags. It was so caustic that it eroded the front of the forklifts.

Over the past year, international investigators, Lebanese police sources and a dock worker told the Guardian that some of the nitrate was moved from the hangar shortly after delivery.

Lebanese investigators suggest it may have been moved to Syria for use in raw explosives, known as barrel bombs, which were dropped from Syrian military helicopters on parts of the country held by the opposition. during the peak years of the Civil War.

“There were several trucks which were intercepted and turned back by [Lebanon’s] internal security forces around 2015-16, ”said a senior official. “They could never determine where the nitrate came from. “

However, this claim has been contradicted by European investigators, who say that a thorough investigation of the port and its activities showed that large-scale smuggling of nitrate from the site in question – hangar 12 – was unlikely. .

Asked about an FBI report suggesting nearly 600 tons exploded to 2,750 tons, the report’s authors agreed, but said the rest likely burned in the ensuing fire. A European investigator added a warning that security cameras showing the main doors of the hangar had not worked for several years.

Shehadi also doubts that the nitrate was smuggled out of the port, either at the time of delivery or subsequently. “There were six doors and they were guarded,” he said. “They would have needed forklifts to move it, and we would have known that. “

At the center of the investigations is the sudden diversion in 2013 of the Rhosus to Beirut, where it was tasked with picking up 160 tonnes of agricultural machinery to be transported to the Jordanian port of Aqaba.

The ship, however, was already at full capacity and was not equipped to take such heavy pieces. Her deck buckled after the first attempts to load it, and the Rhosus was impounded instead of paying the postage.

For the next 10 months, the crew were not allowed to leave the vessel as the port authorities attempted to locate the owners of the vessel. “I used to bring them food,” Shehadi said. “They had no idea where they were going at any time during the trip. “There was something strange about it. “

Even more interesting is the shell company used to buy the nitrate. Savaro Limited – whose final owner remains unknown a year later – was only used once to facilitate a deal between a now defunct company in Georgia and a mine in Mozambique, where nitrate could have been used to make explosives for mining.

The use of a single-purpose vehicle is considered by lawyers in the UK and the region to be irregular. The company’s London address has also been used to register companies linked to two Syrian businessmen sanctioned by the United States, for allegedly procuring nitrate for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

Unraveling the opaque mess of the Rhosus’ voyage, the purchase of the nitrate, knowing whether Mozambique was ever the intended destination and what happened to its cargo once it reached Beirut have led to cautious responses from most. stakeholders.

Asked about a potential link to Syria when Human Rights Watch launched a landmark report on the explosion, the organization’s crisis and conflict director Lama Fakih said: “The investigation raises questions but we have nothing final.

The HRW report delivered a scathing summary of Lebanese leaders, who have been repeatedly warned of the dangers of the port.

“The evidence currently available indicates that several Lebanese authorities were, at a minimum, criminally negligent under Lebanese law in their handling of the Rhosus cargo,” the report said. “The actions and omissions of the Lebanese authorities created an unreasonable risk to life. Under international human rights law, failure by a State to act to prevent foreseeable risks to life constitutes a violation of the right to life.

“In addition, evidence strongly suggests that some government officials predicted the death that the presence of ammonium nitrate in the port could cause and tacitly accepted the risk of death. Under domestic law, this could constitute a crime of homicide with probable intent and / or unintentional homicide.

The report was seen as a validation by many Lebanese. “This is what a competent investigation should do, and it needs to be replicated by an international team,” Yusra Ahmad said in a Beirut cafe. “Finally something to fear for the leaders. “

Toby Cadman of attorneys Guernica 37 Chambers said a credible international investigation was vital. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon was “an expensive and ineffective academic exercise that yielded little,” he said of a 15-year investigation into the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“The international community must turn to a more inclusive and effective mechanism, such as those successfully implemented in the Western Balkans. We are currently exploring such an initiative, bringing together Lebanese and international legal experts in an independent commission.

On a shore overlooking the harbor at sunset on Tuesday, Dana Salha was standing watching the carnage. “He should stay here forever as a witness to what happened. Where else in the world could this go unchallenged? “

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