Families of Beirut blast victims fight for justice

A year after the explosion that rocked Beirut on August 4, 2020, killing 218 people, injuring more than 7,000 and devastating much of the city, the Lebanese investigation into the blast has yielded no credible results. Families of the victims, some of whom are calling for an international investigation, talked to the media about their search for justice.

With their palms covered in red paint, women dressed in black hold framed photos of their loved ones aloft. Empty white coffins that symbolise those killed in the Beirut blast are carried through the crowd. Protesters pelt the interior minister’s home with tomatoes and try to scale the building’s walls.

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

Hundreds of protesters scuffled with riot police outside the home of Lebanon’s caretaker interior minister on July 13 amid growing anger over the stalled investigation into the Beirut blast.

Fahmi “is killing us a second time”, Mariana Fodoulian, whose sister Gaia was killed in the blast on August 4, 2020, told FRANCE 24 by phone.

Gaia Foudalian, 29, a Lebanese-Armenian art gallerist and product designer, was at home with her mother in the eastern district of Achrafieh when a massive stockpile of ammonium nitrate blew up in the port shortly after 6pm, rocking Lebanon’s capital with an explosion that was felt as far away as Cyprus.

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

Mariana dashed to her younger sister’s side after a frantic phone call from her mother, rushing the unconscious Gaia to hospital after hospital for help and manually pumping her oxygen in 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, in which 218 people were killed and a further 7,000 injured, none of the victims’ families in Lebanon have been asked to give witness statements. Nor have they received any form of official apology or even been contacted by Lebanese authorities.

Fodoulian is incensed that top Lebanese officials, who repeatedly ignored warnings about the dangers of the explosives stored in the port, have yet to be held accountable.

“They have to pay for what they did,” 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 organise protests and mobilises people on social media as part of the families’ campaign for justice.

First they want answers to their “many questions”. They want to know why the ammonium nitrate was in the port, who ordered it and what’s happened to the rest of it (just 750 tonnes out of the 2,750 stored there reportedly exploded). They want to know what other explosives are being kept in the port, and how the fire that triggered the explosion was started.

“Knowing the truth will not bring my sister back,” said Fodoulian, “But when they (Lebanon’s ruling elite) pay for what they did, maybe we can have a change here in Lebanon and we can live in a normal country.”

‘Obstruction, evasion and delay’

Lebanese authorities initially promised a swift investigation into the blast, vowing to deliver “results within five days”. President Michel Aoun rubbished calls for an independent, international investigation as a “waste of time”.

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

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

When the first judge assigned to the case, Fadi Sawan, tried last December to charge the then caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab and three senior cabinet ministers with “negligence and causing death to hundreds”, he was dismissed.  

His successor, Judge Tarek Bitar, appointed in February, took a different approach, requesting that MPs immunity be lifted, and asking permission to investigate top security officials such as Abbas Ibrahim, one of Lebanon’s most senior generals, over his role in the blast.

But judges in Lebanon are assigned by politicians, meaning the decision to lift immunity lies in the hands of those implicated.

Interior Minister Fahmi initially said he would lift immunity on Ibrahim, allowing Bitar to prosecute him, only to later change his mind and reject Bitar’s request – a move that sparked widespread anger among the victims’ families.

“They are all covering for each other,” said Fodoulian.

Just some 25 mid- to low-level officials, who worked at the port in administrative and security jobs, are languishing in Lebanese jails while the top officials named by Bitar have yet to be indicted.

‘Living near a bomb for seven years’

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

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

“He wanted to be an architect like his father. He liked to tease me – saying he was dropping out of school to be a rapper.”

Elias El Khoury, 15, was killed in the Beirut blast that devastated 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 lots of potential. If he was born in some other country than Lebanon – he would have done wonders,” she said, speaking in English, her voice breaking as she remembered her son.

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

“They could have called the firefighters to evacuate the area,” said El Khoury, who herself was badly injured in the explosion. “If they had only sent an SMS or told people to open windows.”  

“The minimum we can say is that they are inhuman,” she said of Lebanon’s ruling elite, pointing out that none of those implicated lost any family members on August 4, and that none of them had homes near the port, even though the area is prime Beirut real estate.

El Khoury now has little faith that the domestic investigation can deliver.  

“We’ve given enough chances to the Lebanese system – it’s obvious that it’s not working. It cannot. There are conflicts of interest. There are big gaps in our justice system … We need an international interference. This is a crime against human rights,” she said.

Majzoub of Human Rights Watch agreed.

“We have no faith that the Lebanese judiciary will credibly, impartially and independently investigate the Beirut blast in a transparent way, and in a way that is quick enough for the families of the victims,” she said.

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

Sanctions and resolutions

Sarah Copland was giving her two-year-old son Isaac supper in his high-chair when the explosion hit, making him a “sitting target” for a shard of glass that pierced his tiny chest.

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

She would also like to see targeted individual sanctions on those responsible. “A lot of these people thrive on money and power – hitting them where it hurts would be a form of individual accountability.”

But aside from sanctions and resolutions, she wants Isaac, the youngest victim of the explosion, to be remembered as the “extraordinary” child that he was.  

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

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

Copland, who spoke to FRANCE 24 from her home in Australia, also expressed concern that the international community has been so consumed with Covid-19 they have forgotten about the atrocity in Beirut.

“They blew up a city,” she said with quiet indignation. “They blew up a city. The international community just can’t let that happen and move on like it was nothing.”

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

“There’s a very strong precedence for this moving ahead. If there is an international investigation, it will be very hard for Lebanon to deny access,” she said. “But fundamentally, the investigation can move ahead without the consent of Lebanon.”

“There already is a lot of evidence out there,” Majzoub continued. “Already people have made statements blaming each other. Everybody wants to make sure they’ve given their side of the story. Imagine what it’s like for a UN Body – everybody suddenly wants to speak.” 

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

“Nothing I think of ever feels like enough,” said Copland softly. But she’d like to see more support for 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 this will never happen again”.

For others, the search for some kind of justice is the one thing that sustains them.

“We have lost our hope and life, we are living just for this case,” said El Khoury. “We will follow it til the last day of our lives.”