You are not a likely subscriber to Shock Waves, a scientific journal that provides a forum for presenting new results in all fields where shock and detonations phenomena play a role. I’m not either, nor is there, come to think of it, any earthly reason why anyone in your circle of friends or mine would be.
But were we to have read a paper that appeared there on Sep. 22, 2020, detailing the findings of a team from the Blast and Impact Research Group at the University of Sheffield, we would’ve discovered that the massive explosion that tore through the Beirut Port a year ago this day, is considered one of the largest accidental non-nuclear explosions in history.
It had a force equivalent to well over 1,200 tons of TNT. which puts it somewhere between 3 per cent and 7 per cent of the yield produced by the atom bomb detonated at Hiroshima.
It shattered windows around the capital, destroyed three neighbourhoods, caused billions of dollars in damage, killed more than 200 people and injured thousands. In a trickledown effect, it destroyed the houses and businesses, the lives and livelihoods of countless ordinary folks on a scale and in a manner that cannot be so facilely quantified.
You imagine that getting to the bottom of how and why such an unspeakable catastrophe was allowed to happen, and who was to be held responsible, would’ve been placed at the top list of priorities — if not as the top priority — of the Lebanese authorities.
Imagine not. Lebanon today is a twilight zone governed, for the most part, by politicians who operate much in the manner of those anti-gravitational beings one encounters in science-fiction novels to whom the rules of the objective world do not apply.
Yes, an official inquiry was opened, and yes, it was headed by an independent jurist, Judge Tarek Bitar, who was tasked with interrogating witnesses, uncovering facts and arriving at conclusions — for surely the Lebanese people, in particular the Lebanese families of the victims, were owed that.
Judge Bitar was intent on getting to the root-causes of the disaster: why officials, and not just customs officials, did not bother to dispose of the chemicals during the entire six years they had been stored at the port, and why, more importantly, these officials, seemingly with vested interests and political connections, appear to have known from outset about the risks of a possible blast but chose not to act.
He didn’t get far. High-ranking legislators and security chiefs, among others, were never brought before the judge nor were they questioned because the government refused to lift their immunity. .
No one to blame?
The inquiry stalled. For months after the tragedy took place, bereaved families peacefully lobbied the government for answers, to no avail. Then, in mid-July, when they adopted a less pacifist posture, organising a noisy vigil outside the residence of Muhammed Fahmi, the interior minister, they were met by riot police who used batons and tear gas to disperse them.
Many wondered why these officials, that included legislators, refused to testify if they had nothing to hide. The answer may be found in a 700-page report released by the international rights watchdog Human Rights Watch earlier this week, where it was revealed that sundry officials were “criminally negligent under Lebanese law” and that — more ominously — there is evidence “strongly suggesting” that some of them had been warned about it and thus understood that what the presence of these chemicals may cause and tacitly accepted the risk. To be sure, a great many Lebanese had suspected that all along.
Whichever way you spin it, at the end of the day, one thing is plain: the government failed to protect the public.
To date, no one high guilty figure — not one single one — has been tried, convicted and jailed. The perpetrators of one of the planet’s most dreadful industrial accidents remain at large, beyond accountability, beyond the law!
Today the Lebanese people commemorate the first anniversary of what is without a doubt the worst tragedy in the history of their country, a country already brought to its knees by economic meltdown, political paralysis and rampant corruption — an aggregate of woes sure in time to scar any one people’s collective psyche.
Lebanon, in short, is a country whose national soul, as we speak, is experiencing lingering death by a thousand cuts, a country whose citizens, sadly, have splintered into isolated islands of privacy each, as it were, unto itself.
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile