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Beirut Silo Explosion a Reminder of 2020 Loss

This frame grab from video shows dust rising from silos in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, July 31, 2022.
This frame grab from video shows dust rising from silos in the port of Beirut, Lebanon, July 31, 2022.

The partial collapse of the northern block of the Port of Beirut’s huge grain silos on Sunday painfully reminded Lebanese citizens of the massive 2020 explosion that killed many of their loved ones, destroyed homes and businesses, and forever changed their sense of security in the capital. Improperly stored ammonium nitrate at the port caused the blast on August 4, 2020, which has been recorded as one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

Grains stored in the silos since that time fermented and ignited in Beirut’s blistering summer heat, smoking for weeks. Activists had urged authorities to put out the fires to preserve the silos as a memorial to those who had tragically lost their lives two years ago. But that did not happen.

As with the port explosion, people in Beirut blame the silo collapse on political and security officials for failing to enforce safety regulations. The government said it wanted to bring down the silos, but held off after victims’ families and survivors protested, saying the sites may have evidence needed for the investigation.

Dr. Najat Saliba, a member of parliament and an environmental expert at the American University of Beirut, told VOA that she and others have urged the government since 2020 to clear the grain from the silo ruins. The government told the experts it had cleaned the area as much as it could, but that the silos might fall. But Saliba says equipment from Belgium may have made the cleaning job easier.

“The health concerns are what we are experiencing right now — combustion of the grains and the accumulation of fungi and mold in grains left open. It became very risky to get close to the silos. Nothing is done. We’re just watching the silos fall down. As we speak, there is a high chance that another two silos are going to collapse.”

Two years on, no one has been held accountable for the port explosion, and victims’ families are still fighting for justice.

Dania Koleilat Khatib and other observers blame Lebanese officials for constantly recusing judges, such as Tarek Bitar, from investigating the explosion and for stopping procedures when summoned for questioning, thus impeding the course of justice. Khatib is an analyst and co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO. She spoke to VOA about the probe.

“The thing is stagnating. What should have happened is to have the investigation by Tarek Bitar, but they blocked it. We don’t hear about him in the news anymore. He was supposed to subpoena many people. Now, it’s not even part of the discourse. The second anniversary of the Beirut blast. Let’s see how much there will be a movement around it. The people wanted justice, but the investigation is going nowhere.”

“The collapse of part of the port's silos will not erase from the memory of the Lebanese that a major crime was committed two years ago,” lawmaker Ziad al-Hawat tweeted this week. “We will seek till the end to reveal the whole truth,” he said, adding that a law he proposed, if approved, will “re-establish the judicial investigations.”