Beirut port blast anniversary: Calls for truth and justice

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Beirut port blast anniversary
Families of victims of the 2020 Beirut, Lebanon, port blast mark the third anniversary of the Aug. 4, 2020 tragedy by attending a Mass at St. George Maronite Cathedral, celebrated by Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of Maronite Catholics. (OSV News photo/Doreen Abi Raad)

BEIRUT (OSV News) — It is the inner wounds that are the most painful, still festering in the aftermath of the horrific Beirut port blast three years ago.

There is still no accountability or justice for the Aug. 4, 2020 massive explosion in the Lebanese capital, with the investigation obstructed by legal and political wrangling.

Caused by the detonation of a stockpile of ammonium nitrate improperly stored at the port for years, the disaster is considered one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in global history.

Commemorative Mass

During a commemorative Mass on the eve of the blast anniversary, Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of the Maronite Catholic church, said he joined those “who cry until today for their loved ones and cry out for truth and justice.”

The Mass at St. George Maronite Cathedral in Beirut was attended by family members of the blast victims, the injured and those whose homes and livelihoods had been destroyed. Many family members, dressed in black, held photos of their deceased loved ones.

Melvine Khoury, communications manager for the Beirut Maronite diocese, who was injured during the blast and endured seven surgeries, opened with a prayer as the cardinal was presented with symbols of the disaster. They included a damaged clock frozen at 6:07 p.m., the time of the blast; poster of images of all those who were killed entitled “waiting for justice” and a nurse’s dress representing medical personnel for their humanitarian dedication, some of whom were killed in their service.

“We light a candle of hope in Lebanon that it will arise from the death of injustice and darkness,” Khoury said.

In his homily, Cardinal Rai assured all with the gospel passage: “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known” (Lk 12:2).

The head of the Maronite church cited the ravages of the tragedy: 235 dead; about 5,000 wounded and handicapped, and thousands of homes, churches, places of worship, institutions and shops destroyed, with half of the capital affected. With disintegrated state institutions, however, even the final death toll remains disputed, with some victims unrecognized officially.

“Faced with such a catastrophe, it is unacceptable to remain silent,” Cardinal Rai said, adding that “what hurts these families and hurts us the most is the indifference of state officials who are preoccupied with their cheap interests.”

The Lebanese cardinal denounced “political figures who pretend to be innocent while evading appearing before the investigative judge.”

“If you are innocent, why are you running away and obstructing the investigation?” he asked.

Cardinal Rai called on world powers to hand Lebanon the information and satellite images they have to facilitate the truth of the blast and to “put an end to the political interferences” in the investigations.

Lives changed by the blast

“We are living the 4th of August every day. Our lives have changed forever,” Helene Ata told OSV News.

Ata’s twin brother Abdo was killed in the blast. Her younger brother Issam, who was in the same building as Abdo, was trapped beneath rubble for 18 hours, one of his legs crushed. Even after several operations, he can still barely walk.

A month before the blast, Issam, now 36, had made the choice to move back to his homeland after living in the United States for more than a decade, and had just opened a restaurant that was destroyed in the blast.

For the third year in a row, on Aug. 13, Ata will not blow out candles on a birthday cake with her twin brother. “I never imagined that I would stop celebrating.”

“He was a gentleman,” Helene said of Abdo. “He was generous, caring and loving.”

“It’s the worst thing that can happen to a dad and a mother, to bury their son,” she said of telling her parents of Abdo’s death.

Faith helps families carry on

A Maronite Catholic, Ata said that “without faith, I could not bear what happened that day.”

Ata was one of the victims’ family members who presented the prayers of the faithful during the commemorative Mass.

“We raise to you, our Heavenly Father — who overshadows all your children with the warmth of your tenderness — all those who have been displaced and lost their homes. Put safety and hope in their hearts so that they may return to their homes in peace and dignity,” was the plea of her intention.

Ata expressed the sentiment of victims’ families and all of Lebanon: “We’re feeling that justice is in a total coma after three years. It’s like we don’t exist,” in the eyes of the government, she said.

“We will never give up until justice is served,” Ata told OSV News. “We believe in God’s justice. If justice will not be served on earth, we surely believe that they will get their punishment” in the end, she said.

Families of the victims called for massive participation in a protest near the Beirut port under the theme “for justice and accountability: we persevere,” on Aug. 4, a national day of mourning.

Cardinal Rai expressed his gratitude to Pope Francis for remembering the 2020 port tragedy at the conclusion of the Angelus on July 30 at the Vatican.

“I renew my prayer for the victims and their families, who are seeking truth and justice, and I hope that Lebanon’s complex crisis may find a solution worthy of the history and values of that people. Let us not forget that Lebanon is also a message,” Pope Francis said.

Doreen Abi Raad

Doreen Abi Raad writes for OSV News from Beirut, Lebanon.