Lebanon, One Year Later

The deadly port explosion exacerbated a troubled country’s political and economic problems. No one has been held accountable.

On August 4, 2020, Tania Daou-Alam was at a routine doctor’s appointment at St. George’s Hospital, which overlooks the Port of Beirut. She and her husband, Jean-Frederic Alam (she calls him Freddie) had a pact: They never went to the doctor’s office alone. Freddie was not particularly thrilled to accompany her that day, but she insisted. When they arrived at the appointment, he remarked “what a nice view,” Daou-Alam remembered.

They were finishing up around 6 p.m. when they heard a huge explosion. From the windows, they saw the smoke billowing from a hangar at the port. Then a second explosion happened. “All I saw was the glass windows coming towards me. I flew backwards,” Daou-Alam told The Dispatch. “There was this terrible, terrible noise of everything breaking.” 

She was thrown across the room, away from Freddie. “I couldn’t see because I was bleeding from everywhere. My eyes, my head, my hands. I didn’t know where the blood was coming from.” She was knocked out for a few seconds, and when she could she called out to Freddie, but he did not respond. When she finally saw him, “his body was covered in huge, huge pieces of glass.” He was lying on his stomach, and when she tried to turn him over to clear his airway, “his throat was cut open from one side to the other.” 

Freddie died instantly. Daou-Alam recounts that she heard a phone ringing and realized it was her husband’s. She had to reach underneath him to answer it; it was the couple’s two sons calling to check on their parents. The children were okay—they lived far enough from the blast that they heard it but were unharmed—but Daou-Alam told her boys that their father was not breathing. 

“It was complete destruction around me, just apocalyptic,” Daou-Alam said. 

Nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate had exploded at the port. More than 200 people were killed that day, and thousands more were injured. The explosion caused billions of dollars in damages, left nearly a million people homeless, and intensified a downward spiral Lebanon is barely surviving. In the year since, there has been no accountability for those responsible. The government is in shambles, inflation has reached historic levels, and the international community is mostly ignoring the collapse.

Lebanon, a country about the size of Connecticut situated between Israel and Syria, was not unfamiliar with explosions or their resulting chaos. Over the years, numerous targeted assassinations have been carried out using car bombs within Lebanese borders. But the explosion at the port was unique. It was not a terrorist attack or an assassination attempt. There was no target. Government impotence and corruption caused the deadly accident, and continue to guard against calls for justice. 

For Sarah Copland and her family, “it was a really normal day.” Copland was seven months pregnant at the time, and like many others in Beirut she was working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She was having dinner with her 2 year-old son, Isaac Oehlers. Her husband was in the other room when they heard a loud noise. 

The family lived less than half a mile away from the port. Copland went to the balcony to see if she could see anything, and she just returned to Isaac’s highchair when the second explosion occurred. His highchair was thrown across the room. Copland and her husband rushed to their son and ran to the bathroom; they were worried there might be more explosions and thought a windowless room would be safer. Once there, the couple realized the extent of their son’s injuries—Isaac’s chest was pierced by a large piece of glass. 

“I wrapped him in a towel to try to put pressure on his chest and we ran for help,” Copland told The Dispatch. They flagged down a car in the street—a man with his whole family in the car picked them up and drove them to a hospital. He drove “like a bit of a madman trying to get there. The whole city was in chaos.” 

Once they arrived at the hospital, Copland—very pregnant with an obvious head injury—was ushered one way. Her son was taken the other direction. “Craig stayed with Isaac, but that was the last time I saw Isaac. He died a few hours later.” 

Isaac was the youngest person killed in the explosion. 

Outside the city, Christina Achkar and Alain Chelala were having ice cream with friends. About 20 minutes outside of Beirut, in the mountains, overlooking the sea, the friends were enjoying a reprieve from the isolation brought on by COVID restrictions. Around 6 p.m., “we felt as if there was a strong wind that came into the store we were in,” Chelala told The Dispatch. “I remember in this very second everyone went silent, and we all looked at each other not really sure what had happened,” he continued. 

“From where we were we heard and felt it,” Achkar said. “Unfortunately we know the sound of an explosion when we hear it. So we knew that it was an explosion, but nobody expected the extent of it. Everybody thought that it was close to them.” Back in Beirut, Achkar recounts, a huge glass door fell on her father when the blast hit. Her own bedroom “completely exploded.” Despite the damages, her family sustained only minor injuries. 

It all started with a fire at Hangar 12. Those around—about 100,000 people live within a mile radius of the port—heard and felt the initial explosion, which for less than a minute was mostly smoke and ash. Then, it appears, the ammonium nitrate ignited, and the explosion sent shock waves throughout the city. People as far as Cyprus—an island 145 miles off the coast of Lebanon—reportedly heard the blast. 

The explosion happened one year ago today, but the story starts in 2013. In March of that year, Najib Mikati—a billionaire businessman—stepped down as prime minister after two years in office. At the time, he announced: “The region is descending into the unknown; regional fires are infecting us with their heat; and internal divisions are leaving deep scars.” He was referring to cleavages in Lebanon resulting from the civil war in Syria. 

When a prime minister resigns in Lebanon, he remains the caretaker prime minister until the next prime minister forms a government. Tammam Salam, prime minister designate, was elected by parliament in April, but did not form a government until February 2014. In the meantime, Mikati remained functionally in charge of day-to-day governance. Since Mikati’s resignation, only three politicians have successfully formed a government to serve as prime minister—Tammam Salam, Saad Hariri, and Hassan Diab—though many others have tried.

In September 2013, a ship flying the flag of Moldova, sailing from Georgia’s Batumi Seaport and officially destined for Mozambique, faced technical difficulties and entered the Port of Beirut. The Port State Control inspected the ship and found 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate aboard. According to a 2015 report from shipping industry newsletter ShipArrested.com, authorities barred the ship from sailing further; the crew was repatriated to Moldova, but the ship—and its tons of ammonium nitrate—were abandoned at the port. 

“Owing to the risks associated with retaining the Ammonium Nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouses,” the report read. “The vessel and cargo remain to date in port awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal,” it added.

That never happened. Instead the ship’s contents were stored in Hangar 12 of the port’s storage facilities, alongside 15 tons of fireworks, numerous jugs of oil, kerosene, and hydrochloric acid, and five miles of fuse on spools. For the next seven years, the explosive material remained at the port despite the known physical and security risks.

There were numerous calls for change over the years: It is well-documented that officials knew of the poorly stored explosives. A piece in the Washington Post the day after the explosion recounts the numerous officials who reportedly called for action, to no avail. “Badri Daher, director general of Beirut Customs, said he wrote several letters to Lebanon’s ‘judge of urgent matters’ asking for guidance on what to do with the ammonium nitrate.” He never received an answer. 

Late in 2019, a new security officer noticed the contents of Hangar 12 through a broken door, the New York Times reported. “Capt. Joseph Naddaf of the State Security agency, warned his superiors about what appeared to be an urgent security threat,” the Times wrote. Naddaf’s warnings also went unheeded. 

From these accounts, it appears anybody who could do something about the poorly stored explosives already knew about them. There was simply no effort to fix the problem. To date, no politicians or senior security officials have been questioned in an official investigation. For the last year, members of Parliament have been protected from questioning under constitutional immunity. 

In December 2020, Judge Fadi Sawan charged former finance minister Ali Hassan Khalil, former public works ministers Youssef Fenianos and Ghazi Zeaiter, and caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab with “negligence.” All parties refused to appear before Sawan. Diab called the charge a violation of the constitution, and Zeaiter and Khalil filed a lawsuit to remove Sawan from the proceedings. 

The investigation was suspended, and in February 2021 the Court of Cassation removed Sawan from the case. Judge Tarek Bitar was assigned to handle the investigation. In July, he requested to lift parliamentary immunity. On July 29, Speaker of the parliament Nabih Berri announced they were preparing to lift immunity for MPs and other government officials, but he has not clarified when this will happen, or through what means. 

Lebanon’s Government Since the Blast

Just days after the explosion, Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his resignation. “May God protect Lebanon,” he said in a televised address. In his place, Mustapha Adib, former ambassador to Germany, was tapped. Less than a month later, however, Adib announced he too would step down: “I excuse myself from continuing the task of forming the government.” 

Next was Saad Hariri, who served as prime minister from 2016 to early 2020. He resigned following the October Revolution in 2019, but remained as caretaker until January 2020. From October 2020 to July 2021, Hariri attempted to form a government. When he finally had enough failure, he announced his resignation on July 15, 2021. 

On July 26, 2021, Najib Mikati—the business tycoon who served as prime minister when the ammonium nitrate first entered the Port of Beirut—secured enough votes to become Lebanon’s prime minister designate. Throughout this process, Diab remains the caretaker prime minister of Lebanon, and will continue to do so until Mikati—or someone else—successfully forms a government. 

“How can you trust a system with the same people,” remarked Tania Daou-Alam, reflecting on the rinse-and-repeat cycle embedded in Lebanese politics. 

The current political system rests in the al-Mithaq al-Watani system, the national pact that mandates that the president will be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shiite. For years, this system was considered the key to a thriving democracy in Lebanon, ensuring supposedly equitable representation for all religious communities within Lebanon. However, with 18 official confessional communities, the process of governing while protecting religious and minority rights is a source of perpetual difficulty. 

This system also rests on the assertion that Maronite Christians make up the largest percentage of the population in Lebanon. This was true at Lebanon’s founding, but there has not been an accurate census in decades. Maronite Christians are no longer the majority in Lebanon, but the political system is unchanged. Similarly, there are huge populations of refugees with neither a path to citizenship nor legal protections from the state. The last estimate from 2020 suggests there were 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in the tiny country. “We don’t know how many Syrians there are, because the Lebanese government told the U.N. to stop counting,” Will Todman, fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, explained. And even then, they are “only allowed to work in construction, farminging, or cleaning.” 

Hilal Khashan, professor at the American University of Beirut, argues that the sectarian system is irredeemably corrupt. “The sects in Lebanon are sanctuaries for sect members. And once you get shelter in your sect you become untouchable,” he told The Dispatch. “Lebanon was created to be an uncountable country.”

Deeply embedded in the political system is the outsized influence of Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, a Shiite militia turned political party in Lebanon. Led by Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah is the most effective export of the Iranian Revolution, and their most dangerous regional proxy. Hezbollah is beholden to Tehran, fights for the Assad regime in Syria, attacks Israel on demand, and exerts influence in Lebanon through corruption and coercion. In the last decade, Lebanese politics have been determined by Hezbollah’s support. The group is designated as a terrorist group by the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as several Latin American countries. 

However, Hezbollah flourishes in Lebanon because it is allowed to do so by the political elite. It is nearly impossible for a prime minister designate to form a cabinet without support from Hezbollah, and its support comes at the expense of Lebanon’s future. 

“Since the explosion, things have gotten catastrophically worse,” in Lebanon, Todman told The Dispatch. The political elite fear “that if they lose power, they will be held accountable for the rampant corruption and mismanagement of the country that we’ve seen,” so an investigation is seen “as an existential crisis.” 

Economics and the State

Already in political upheaval from the October Revolution in 2019, compounded by the pandemic, the deadly explosion at the port magnified Lebanon’s existing financial crisis. 

The official exchange rate between U.S. dollars and Lebanese pounds has been $1 to 1,500 pounds for years, and remains the official rate to this day. However, Hanin Ghaddar, an expert on Lebanon at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Dispatch that this official rate is a “fake exchange rate” that “really does not match the market.” Instead, it is “just put out there by the banks and the Central Bank and the government because they want to make sure that the banks do not lose.” But “if you actually want to use your money,” look at the black market exchange rate. 

At its worst in July 2021, the black market exchange rate reached $1 to 22,000 LBP. Nizar Ghanem, a Lebanese citizen who earned his masters in international relations and economics at Johns Hopkins University and now works for a consulting company in Beirut, explained the differences between the official exchange rate and the black market rate to The Dispatch. 

“Our whole economy is dollarized, and the deposits are in dollars,” Ghanem explains. When you try to use the bank to withdraw money, they will give you LBP, but at their own exchange rate rate (3,900). On the other hand, if you simply pay for goods and services in USD, the exchange rate is currently closer to 20,000 LBP. The official exchange rate of 1,500 LBP to $1 applies only to fuel and pharmaceutical imports. 

For those paid in Lebanese currency, the inflation of goods and services is nearly insurmountable. The price of food soared 400 percent in December 2020. Inflation reached historic highs—88.18 percent—in 2020. The 2021 trendline indicates it will be even higher. For comparison, in 2019 Lebanon had an annual inflation rate of only 2.9 percent. 

Many workers are paid in foreign currency, however, especially those who work for NGOs or businesses with international offices. Samer—who asked for his family name to be withheld—works for such an intergovernmental organization. He told The Dispatch that he makes more than his mother, who has worked at the central bank for 30 years. He is only 24 years old, but his purchasing power in the country has overtaken that of even extremely wealthy Lebanese who are paid in local currency, or have their money stuck in the bank. 

This separation between those who have access to foreign currency and those who don’t is shrinking, however. Medication, fuel, and even electricity are increasingly scarce—even those who can afford the necessities have trouble finding them. 

International organizations and humanitarian services have stepped in, but with so many crises they have a difficult time managing. There are organizations already in Lebanon serving Syrian refugees. There are humanitarian workers focused on the pandemic. There are teams tasked with cleaning the Port of Beirut. 

“The problem with NGOs is they crowd out the states,” Samer commented. With a government as ineffectual as Lebanon’s, external organizations provide vital social services. In doing so, it reduces the incentive of the state to do it, he explained. “We are trying to … hold the state accountable. But if people can get these services through other means, then the state will not be held accountable,” Samer told The Dispatch. 

Essentially, while NGOs provide lifesaving services, they also maintain the corruption inherent in the Lebanese political system by allowing the government to skirt responsibility. Revolutions happen when stomachs are empty—so long as the government can rely on external aid to fill stomachs, their positions in power are safe.

Hope for Tomorrow

One year later the survivors of the blast and the families of the more than 200 people killed are still awaiting justice. One year later, the same people remain in power, no one has been named responsible, and families have received no support from the government. 

For Sarah Copland, justice for the loss of her son Isaac still feels unattainable. “Nothing will bring Isaac back. Nothing makes up for everything he missed out on. And it’s hard to talk about justice when we still don’t even have any answers,” she told The Dispatch. “I think there needs to be serious reform, because this was not just a simple accident: It was the result of a system that is rife with corruption, lack of accountability, and negligence, and the people in Beirut can’t be assured that something like this won’t happen again.”

Isaac was a remarkable child, Copland said. He was born in the United States, a dual Australian-American citizen. In his daycare in Beirut, he learned French and Arabic. At two years old, he could count to 25 in French. “He astounded us every single day with how smart he was,” Copland recounted. “And he was really loving … there were a few times when he accidentally knocked over a few of his friends because he would run up and give them a big cuddle and they weren’t expecting it, and so he accidentally knocked them off their feet.” 

Copland now lives in Australia with her husband and son, Ethan, who was born just months after Isaac was killed. She is a vocal advocate of an international—and independent—investigation into the events that killed her son and so many others. “A whole city was blown up ... and there have been no answers, let alone accountability for that … Isaac deserves justice, all of the victims deserve justice.”

Since the blast, there have been numerous protests calling for a complete overhaul of the current political system—the system responsible for the tremendous suffering of Lebanses citizens. “We’re being held hostage,” Tania Daou-Alam told The Dispatch

United States’ sanctions on Iran have tightened Hezbollah’s pockets, but they remain an influential power determined to maintain their standing in Lebanon. “When Hezbollah succeeds, Lebanon fails,” Hanin Ghaddar of the Washington Institute told The Dispatch. “When Hezbollah fails, Lebanon succeeds.”

There remains hope that an election, “if it happens on time, and if it is transparent, then they will be able to introduce some changes within the system,” Ghaddar admits. But her hope is not high. “Hezbollah lost elections before in 2005 and in 2008, and they simply used their arms against other Lebanese to hamper the results of the election and form another government.” 

The next legislative opportunity for institutional change will be in May 2022. In July 2021, President Michel Aoun indicated they will occur as scheduled. This will be the first general election since the October Revolution in 2019, the financial collapse, and the port explosion. 

For many, the hope is an increase in independent parties, those outside the sectarian system. “I definitely see some hope ... in more minor elections that we have seen in universities, or in syndicates. The power has definitely shifted towards the independent candidate, compared to the ones that always held power, so this definitely gives me hope ... I just think it’ll take time, but I think that we’re slowly but surely shifting towards a more independent and a cleaner political state,” Chelala said

Daou-Alam splits time between the United States and Lebanon since Freddie was killed in the blast. Her sons, 18 and 16, “lost confidence in Lebanon for good,” she told The Dispatch. “They’re never considering a future in Lebanon.” To them, it is the country that killed their father. She and some other Lebanese mothers created an NGO called Rebound, designed to teach school children about citizenship and leadership. “The models they have are not the right ones,” Daou-Alam said, but they hope to teach their children “how to be leaders” that Lebanon needs. Today, “Lebanon is a country that is a victim of its own politicians,” but she hopes to help build a brighter future—a country her boys could be proud to call home.