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Lebanese protest impunity one year on from deadly blast

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Demonstrators march with posters showing the faces of a victim of the 2020 Beirut port blast, outside the port of Lebanon’s capital on August 4, 2021, on the first anniversary of the explosion that ravaged the port and the city. – Hundreds of Lebanese marched on August 4 to mark a year since a cataclysmic explosion ravaged Beirut, protesting impunity over the country’s worst peacetime disaster at a time when its economy was already in tatters. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

Thousands of Lebanese marched Wednesday to mark a year since a cataclysmic explosion ravaged Beirut, protesting impunity over the country’s worst peacetime disaster at a time when its economy was already in tatters.

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Shortly after 6:00 pm on August 4, 2020, a stock of ammonium nitrate fertiliser haphazardly stored at the city’s port exploded and left swathes of the Lebanese capital looking like a war zone.

What went down as one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history killed at least 214 people, levelled entire neighbourhoods, irreparably scarred the nation’s psyche and deepened the country’s economic abyss.

Thousands of people gathered in central Beirut and started to march towards the port on Wednesday afternoon, many carrying Lebanese flags, an AFP correspondent said.

At a fire station, Wafaa Karam stood among grief-stricken relatives honouring the firefighters killed after they rushed to the port last year to extinguish what they thought was an ordinary fire in a warehouse.

“We want the truth,” said the 37-year-old, who lost her brother, as well as a nephew and cousin — all firefighters — in the subsequent blast.

“We want to know who killed our brothers, who ravaged our lives,” she added, clutching a white rose. “We won’t stay silent.”

Lawyers, doctors, engineers and retired army officers also joined in the afternoon march to pay tribute to those who perished in the blast whose shockwave was felt as far away as Cyprus.

Port workers were buried under gutted grain silos in the explosion, commuters crushed to death and residents lacerated by supersonic shards of glass bled out in their homes.

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‘They all knew’
The country’s already reviled political class has hidden behind its proclaimed immunity to avoid prosecution, stalling the lead investigating judge’s work at every turn.

Last year’s initial shock at the disaster has evolved into anger that has only grown every day the crime stays unpunished and economic strife grows in the Mediterranean country.

With more than half the population now living under the poverty line, former colonial power France on Wednesday pledged 100 million euros ($118 million) at an international conference co-hosted by the UN.

French president Emmanuel Macron warned Lebanese leaders “owe their people the truth” over what happened in the blast.

Jeffry Chartouni, a worker at the port’s grain silos, was still boiling with indignation after seven of his colleagues died in the blast.

How, the 32-year-old asked, had authorities for years not told them about tonnes of explosive materials stored right next to their offices?

“The security officials, the government, the customs, of course they all knew,” he added.

“They need to be held to account, from the very top of the ladder to the lowest rung.”

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Amnesty International has accused the Lebanese authorities of “shamelessly obstructing” justice, while Human Rights Watch accused them of “criminal negligence”.

On Monday, relatives of blast victims called on authorities to lift immunity within three days, warning they were willing to “break bones” in upcoming protests.

“We are done with routine and peaceful demonstrations… beware of our anger,” said Ibrahim Hoteit, a spokesperson for the families.

‘Nitrate deputies’
According to foreign and Lebanese intelligence reports seen by AFP, hundreds of tonnes of fertiliser were carelessly stored in the same warehouse as tonnes of fireworks and rolls of detonating cord, among other dangerous materials.

The reports, all dating back to last year, suggest welding work caused the original fire.

However, more thorough investigations have yet to ascertain that fact and answer how the shipment got there in the first place, or why the deadly assortment of hazardous materials was left to fester in the same location for years.

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Lebanon’s parliamentarians — some of whom have been nicknamed the “nitrate deputies” on social media — are ignoring intense international pressure and threats of sanctions.

They have yet to agree on a government line-up despite being given a mid-September deadline last year by Paris, which has spearheaded an aid drive conditioned on reform.

A first donor conference for Lebanon in the immediate aftermath of the blast collected 280 million euros ($332 million at current rates).

Lebanon’s descent into chaos had already started before the port blast, with a bankrupt state trapping people’s savings in banks and the national currency nosediving on the black market.

The country is now facing medicine, fuel and clean water shortages that are compounding the post-blast trauma, crippling a health sector facing a new wave of Covid infections and leading all of those who can to emigrate.

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