Families of Beirut Explosion Victims Fight for Justice

A year after the explosion that shook Beirut on August 4, 2020, which killed 218 people, injured more than 7,000 and destroyed much of the city, the Lebanese investigation into the explosion has yielded no credible results. Families of the victims, some of whom are calling for an international investigation, talk to Jowharabout their quest for justice.

With their palms covered in red paint, women clad in black hold up framed photos of their loved ones. Empty white coffins symbolizing the victims of the explosion in Beirut are carried by the crowd. Protesters pelt the home of the interior minister with tomatoes and try to climb the walls of the building.

“Mohamed Fahmi, we will not leave you alone. Lift the immunity,” said a spokesman for the families of the victims.

Hundreds of protesters clashed with riot police outside the home of the Lebanese interior minister on July 13, amid growing anger over the stalled investigation into the explosion in Beirut.

Fahmi “kills us for the second time,” Mariana Fodoulian, whose sister Gaia was killed in the explosion on August 4, 2020, told Jowharby phone.

Gaia Foudalian, 29, a Lebanese-Armenian art gallery owner and product designer, was at home with her mother in the eastern district of Achrafieh when a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate exploded in the harbor shortly after 6 p.m., shaking Lebanon’s capital with an explosion that left was felt in Cyprus.

Gaia Fodoulian, 29, an art gallery owner and product designer, was one of 217 people killed in the explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020. © Mariana Fodoulian

Mariana ran to her younger sister after a frantic call from her mother, rushed the unconscious Gaia to hospital after hospital for help, and manually pumped her oxygen into the back of an ambulance that had no paramedic. But Gaia died of a brain haemorrhage at the fifth hospital she was taken to.

A year after the explosion, which killed 218 people and injured another 7,000, none of the victims’ families in Lebanon have been asked to testify. Nor have they received any form of official apology or even been approached by the Lebanese authorities.

Fodoulian is furious that top Lebanese officials, who repeatedly ignored warnings about the dangers of the explosives stored in the port, are still being held accountable.

“They have to pay for what they’ve done,” said Fodoulian, who has given up her job as a veterinarian to better focus on fighting for justice for her sister. As president of the Beirut Port Explosion Victims’ Families Association, she helps organize protests and mobilizes people on social media as part of the family campaign for justice.

First they want answers to their “many questions”. They want to know why the ammonium nitrate was in the harbor, who ordered it and what happened to the rest (only 750 tons of the 2,750 stored there would have exploded). They want to know what other explosives are kept in the harbor and how the fire that caused the explosion started.

“Knowing the truth won’t bring my sister back,” Fodoulian said, “but if they (Lebanon’s ruling elite) pay for what they’ve done, maybe we can change something here in Lebanon and live in a normal country.”

‘Obstruction, evasion and delay’

Lebanese authorities initially promised a prompt investigation into the explosion, promising “to deliver results within five days”. President Michel Aoun dismissed calls for an independent, international inquiry as “a waste of time”.

But according to Human Rights Watch, the investigation into the greatest crime in Lebanon’s history over the past 12 months has been “characterized by little more than obstruction, evasion and delay.”

Authorities have assigned only one investigating judge to the case, while “the political class has just set up roadblock after roadblock,” said Aya Majzoub, the Lebanon investigator for Human Rights Watch.

Last December, when the first judge assigned to the case, Fadi Sawan, tried to charge then-Interim Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three senior cabinet ministers with “negligence and causing the death of hundreds”, he was fired. .

His successor, Judge Tarek Bitar, who was appointed in February, took a different approach, requesting the waiver of parliamentarians’ immunity and asking permission to investigate top security officials such as Abbas Ibrahim, one of Lebanon’s top generals, for his role. at the explosion.

But judges in Lebanon are appointed by politicians, meaning the decision to waive the immunity rests with those involved.

Interior Minister Fahmi initially said he would waive Ibrahim’s immunity so that Bitar could prosecute him, only to later change his mind and reject Bitar’s request.

“They all cover each other,” said Fodoulian.

Only about 25 middle to low level officials, who worked in the port in administrative and security positions, are languishing in Lebanese prisons, while the top officials mentioned by Bitar have yet to be charged.

‘Living with a bomb for seven years’

Government officials ignored repeated warnings, documents show, of the “extreme danger” posed by the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate improperly stored in the port since 2014.

“They let us live near a bomb for seven years,” said Mireille El Khoury, whose mischievous 15-year-old son Elias was killed by the force of the explosion in his own bedroom.

“He wanted to be an architect just like his father. He liked to tease me and say he dropped out of school to become a rapper.”

Elias El Khoury (15) was killed in the explosion in Beirut that destroyed much of the Lebanese capital on August 4, 2020. © Mireille El Khoury

“He had many dreams. His dreams were as big as the world and he had a lot of potential. If he had been born in a country other than Lebanon, he would have worked miracles,” she said, speaking in English, her voice breaking when she remembered her son.

El Khoury, whose home is just 300 meters from the port, was furious that authorities did nothing to warn people in the area when the fire in the port first broke out, blazing at least 13 minutes before the ammonium nitrate ignited. .

“They could have called the fire service to evacuate the area,” said El Khoury, who was himself seriously injured in the explosion. “If only they’d texted or told people to open windows.”

“The minimum we can say is that they are inhumane,” she said of Lebanon’s ruling elite, noting that none of those involved lost relatives on Aug. 4, and none of them had homes near the port. although the area is prime Beirut real estate.

El Khoury now has little confidence that the domestic investigation can bring.

“We have given the Lebanese system enough opportunities – it is clear that it is not working. It’s not possible. There are conflicts of interest. There are big holes in our legal system… We need international interference. This is a crime against human rights,” she said.

Majzoub of Human Rights Watch agreed.

“We are not confident that the Lebanese judiciary will conduct a credible, impartial and independent investigation into the explosion in Beirut in a transparent manner and in a manner that is fast enough for the families of the victims,” ​​she said.

“We have let the Lebanese investigation proceed,” Majzoub added. “There doesn’t seem to be a clear path forward.”

Sanctions and Resolutions

Sarah Copland was feeding her two-year-old son Isaac in his high chair when the explosion struck, making him a “seated target” for a shard of glass that pierced his small chest.

She is one of the families calling for a Human Rights Council resolution to establish an international fact-finding mission that could run in parallel with the Lebanese investigation.

She would also like to see targeted individual sanctions for those responsible. “Many of these people thrive on money and power — hitting them where it hurts would be a form of individual responsibility.”

But beyond sanctions and resolutions, she wants Isaac, the explosion’s youngest victim, to be remembered as the “extraordinary” child he was.

Sarah Copland with her 2-year-old son Isaac Oehlers who died in the explosion in Beirut. © Sarah Copland

“He was just such a special little boy – he was destined for great things and to think he missed something kills me every day.”

Copland, who spoke to Jowharfrom her home in Australia, also expressed concern that the international community has been so consumed by Covid-19 that they have forgotten the atrocity in Beirut.

“They blew up a city,” she said with quiet indignation. “They blew up a city. The international community cannot let that happen and move on as if it were nothing.”

Human Rights Watch’s Majzoub sees glimmers of hope for a Human Rights Council resolution, but warns it will be “an uphill battle” to find a country that will lead the way on a resolution, rather than just one to support.

“There is a very strong priority for this progress. If there is an international investigation, it will be very difficult for Lebanon to refuse entry,” she said. “But essentially, the investigation can continue without Lebanon’s consent.”

“There is already a lot of evidence,” Majzoub continued. “There have already been statements made blaming each other. Everyone wants to make sure they’ve given their side of the story. Imagine what it’s like for a UN body – everyone suddenly wants to speak.”

For those who lost their children, siblings, parents and other relatives in the explosion that struck the heart of Beirut, there can be no real justice.

“Nothing I think about ever feels like enough,” Copland said softly. But she would like to see more support for the victims in Lebanon and for the country’s “systemic corruption” to be reformed so that the people of Beirut can “be safe in the knowledge that this will never happen again.”

For others, seeking some sort of justice is the only thing that keeps them going.

“We have lost our hopes and our lives, we only live for this cause,” said El Khoury. “We will follow it until the last day of our lives.”

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