It’s been two years since a major explosion at the port of Beirut killed his 3-year-old daughter, Alexandra – and Paul Nagier has lost hope that outrage over the disaster will bring justice and force change in Lebanon.
An investigation into one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosions has been blocked for months by Lebanese political powers. Many blame the tragedy on the Lebanese government’s long-standing corruption and mismanagement, but the decades-old elite in power has ensured they are untouchables.
In fact, some of those charged in the investigation were re-elected to parliament earlier this year.
Even as the ruined silos at the port have been burning for weeks – a fire ignited by the fermented grain still inside them – officials have given up trying to put out the fire. A portion of the silos collapsed in a huge cloud of dust on Sunday.
“It has been two years and nothing has happened,” Naggier said of the August 4, 2020 disaster, when hundreds of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, a material used in fertilisers, exploded at the port. Looks like my daughter got hit by a car.”
The explosion created a pressure wave that shattered everything in its path across the capital.
Naggier, his wife, Tracy Awad, and little Alexandra were looking out to the harbor in their apartment when heavy force sent glass, furniture, and other debris flying by. Naggier and his wife were found with cuts and bruises. Alexandra, or Lexou, as they called her, was seriously injured and died in the hospital.
She was the second youngest victim of the explosion, which killed more than 215 people and injured more than 6,000.
It later emerged that ammonium nitrate was shipped to Lebanon in 2013 and has since been improperly stored in a port warehouse. Senior political and security officials were aware of its presence but did nothing.
Lebanon’s factional political leaders, who have divided power among themselves for decades, closed ranks to thwart any accountability.
Judge Tarek Bitter, who led the investigation, charged four former senior government officials with intentional murder and negligence that led to the deaths of dozens of people. He has also accused several top security officials in this case.
But their work has been blocked for eight months pending a Court of Cassation decision after three former cabinet ministers filed a legal challenge. Court cannot rule unless many vacancies are filled due to retirement of judges. The appointments signed by the justice minister are still awaiting approval from the finance minister, an aide to parliament speaker Nabih Beri.
Judicial officials with knowledge of Bitter’s investigation told The Associated Press it was in advanced stages of answering important questions – including who owned the nitrates, how they entered the harbor and how the explosion occurred. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation.
Bitter is the second judge to take up the case. The first judge was ousted after two cabinet ministers made complaints against him, and it would be the final blow to the probe if the same thing happens to Betar.
The lack of justice has added to the pain of relatives and friends of the blast victims. They feel frustrated and abandoned not only by the government but also by the apathy of the public as the months and years have dragged on.
The explosion was initially followed by large-scale protests and sit-ins demanding justice. This raised hopes that Lebanese politicians could be held accountable.
But public enthusiasm waned as Lebanese became absorbed with surviving the country’s economic collapse. In addition, a deadly gun battle broke out last year between Hezbollah supporters opposing Beitar and members of a Christian faction, raising fears that suppressing the investigation could push Lebanon into factional conflict.
Now only a small number of people are seen in the protests and picketing organized by the relatives of the victims.
There is a wave of mourning in the families.
For Muhyiddin Ladkani, whose father Mohammad was killed, time has come to a standstill.
When he first heard explosions from the port, his father led the family to the entrance hall of their apartment, believing it would be safe as there were no windows. But the explosion tore the front door from its hinges and sent a cupboard that was slamming the older girl. He was in a coma for weeks due to a brain haemorrhage. He died 31 days later.
Ladkani, a 29-year-old law student, said his family still cannot talk about that day.
“We still can’t remember, and we can’t get together as a family,” he said. “My brothers and uncles have pictures of my father as their profile photos. I don’t. Whenever I miss my father, I fall.”
“It is something I don’t want to believe. I can’t live with it,” Ladkani said. He added that those who voted for politicians accused in the disaster are also responsible for his father’s death.
“The ink on the fingers of the voters who voted for him is not ink but the blood of the victims,” Ladkani said.
One of the accused and re-elected politicians, former Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeiter, told the AP that he has the right to run for parliament again because there is no court ruling against him. He said that Betar has no right to accuse him as MLAs and ministers have a special court where they are usually tried.
Amid the standoff, the families of some victims are moving courts outside Lebanon.
In mid-July, the families filed a $250 million lawsuit against TGS, a US-Norwegian firm, suspected of being involved in bringing explosives to the port. TGS has denied any wrongdoing.
Naggier said his family, two others and the bar association have filed a lawsuit in the UK against Savaro Ltd, a London-registered chemical trading company, which investigative journalists in Lebanon say was responsible for transporting nitrates from Georgia to explosives. The shipment was chartered as intended. Firm in Mozambique.
Naggier said he was losing hope.
He and his wife, a dual Lebanese-Canadian national, had thought about leaving Lebanon after the explosion. But the huge public outcry that followed soon gave him hope that change was possible.
But after this year’s parliamentary election results, they are considering going seriously again.
Nevertheless, they vow to continue working for justice. In a recent sit-in, he appeared with his 4-month-old baby, Axl.
“They’re trying to forget us… but we won’t stop for (Alexandra’s) sake until we reach truth and justice,” Naggier said.
The Nagiers have repaired their apartment, but they haven’t lived there since Axel’s birth, for fear that it still isn’t safe.
The only fire burning in the ruins of grain stores gives an impression of danger. A northern part of the structure collapsed on Sunday, and experts say more parts are in danger of collapsing. At night, orange flames can be seen licking the base of the northern silos, glowing eerie in the dark.