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Beirut traumatized by port blast, lack of justice a year later

A relative of a victim of the August 4, 2020, Beirut port explosion in Lebanon carries his portrait as she attends a mass held to commemorate the first year anniversary of the blast. Photo by Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE
A relative of a victim of the August 4, 2020, Beirut port explosion in Lebanon carries his portrait as she attends a mass held to commemorate the first year anniversary of the blast. Photo by Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Aug. 4 (UPI) -- A year after an explosion at the Port of Beirut devastated much of the city, survivors and families of victims remain traumatized -- as much by a lack of accountability for the explosion as their visceral memories of the violence.

The investigation into the Aug. 4, 2020, blast that killed more than 200, wounded 6,000 and destroyed neighborhoods hasn't determined what specifically sparked the explosion -- or who brought and hid the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, stored for seven years at the port before igniting.

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The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation concluded last week that only a fifth of the original shipment unloaded in 2013 blew up at the port, reinforcing suspicion over what happened to the rest of it.

Rage over the lack of accountability has been building, with emerging evidence showing that senior officials took no action to protect the population, although they were aware of the explosives being stored in unsafe conditions.

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Investigative Judge Tarek Bitar's requests to lift immunity and question high-level political officials, including lawmakers and former ministers, were rejected or delayed by the parliament and other authorities.

Amnesty International accused Lebanese authorities Monday of repeatedly hampering the course of investigation, blocking and stalling justice "at every turn" and "shamelessly obstructing" victims' quest for truth.

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Human Rights Watch released a lengthy report Tuesday citing leaked official documents that indicated some government officials, including President Michel Aoun, then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab, security officials and former ministers, knew about the stored ammonium nitrate and "tacitly accepted the risk of the deaths occurring."

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Aoun acknowledged he had been aware of the explosives at least July 21, 2020, and asked an adviser to follow up, but claimed he wasn't responsible, HRW Lebanon researcher Aya Majzoub tweeted.

"They all knew. They did nothing," Majzoub said in another tweet.

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'Escaped death twice'

Survivors of the blast and families of those who died are angry.

"I am furious, angry. I want every person who knew about the shipment not to die but to be tortured," Hadeel Adil Ladki, a 28-year-old digital marketer working online for a startup in London, told UPI. "I want to see the fear in their eyes as much as I had fears in my eyes on that day."

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Ladki suffered a concussion and cuts from broken glass in the explosion. She had decided to go with a friend that day to Mar Mikhael, a fashionable area adjacent to the port.

It took her months to "unlock" her memory with the help of a therapist and recall the moments that followed the double blast.

"We saw the huge pink-orange cloud and started running, while shattered glass was falling on us, the rubble in the streets blocking our way, injured people in shock, covered with blood and running toward us, while clouds of dust started to block the view," she said, recalling how in 5 minutes she "escaped death twice" when a wall collapsed near her and her friend.

When she saw the "first dead body" at the entrance of one of the hospitals, she "froze" and felt she was going to faint. "I just wanted to go to sleep."

In January, Ladki started to have anxiety attacks and nightmares about the explosion every two days. She was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression, and on top of that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

"The more we get close to Aug. 4, the more I have [anxiety] attacks, with trembling hands and numbness in my body," she said.

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Epidemic of mental disorders

Thousands like Ladki are still traumatized by the explosion, said Dr. Elio Sassine, a psychiatrist and trauma specialist.

"The intensity and magnitude of what happened in a few seconds was never witnessed before, at least in Lebanon," Sassine, who has been working with trauma survivors since 1996, told UPI. "We had been through wars, invasions... even booby-trapped cars, but it was never with such an intensity and causing so much damage and casualties in such a short time."

The Beirut port blast, the worst non-nuclear explosion in history, came amid two years marked by an acute economic crisis, a dramatic deterioration of living conditions, severe fuel shortages and power blackouts and political instability.

"What we are witnessing...is a huge epidemic of mental disorders; a huge dramatic situation concerning mental health in Lebanon," Sassine said, citing very anxious people with PTSD, depression, mood disorders, panic attacks and recurring nightmares. "They feel pain in their whole body, and all this is related to what happened there."

The medical center of the American University in Beirut was quick in setting up an emergency clinic to help traumatized people in a prompt, efficient and safe way. It kept running for months after the explosion, offering free treatment to adults and minors "who were very afraid of any sound, talking about death, unable to sleep or being separated from parents," said Dr. Olivia Shabb, a clinical psychologist there.

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"What is particular about this disaster is not just the suddenness and scope of this but really the fact that it hit at the heart, at the most intimate and safe place people thought that it was: their homes," Shabb told UPI.

Many of those who were injured in their homes still can't go back to their apartments or sleep without keeping the lights on. They are easily startled by the slightest sound.

"It is hard enough to heal from trauma with a shock accompanied by so much loss," Shabb said. "In order to heal the wounds, you need to know how it happened and why... We don't have any of the basic answers .. or basic assurances about the future to be able to go back to a life and safety."

Anniversary protests

Thousands of angry, tearful people, clad in white and black, waving Lebanese flags and carrying pictures of the victims, called for justice and truth as they flocked to the explosion site on Wednesday to mark the anniversary.

A minute of silence was observed at 6:07 p.m., the time of the blast. Verses from the holy Koran were recited at a memorial service at the port, followed by a mass held by Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai.

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Protesters, who gathered in front of parliament in the nearby downtown area, soon started to throw stones and clashed with security forces, which fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse them. At least six protesters were injured.

"To grief and reach acceptance, you have to rationalize and give a meaning to what has happened... Someone should be held accountable and if no one is held accountable, there is no justice," Sassine said.

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