BEIRUT — For almost two years, the grain silos of the Port of Beirut stood as a grim reminder of Aug. 4, 2020, when 2,750 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate caused the largest non-nuclear explosion in history, killing over 200 people. A further 7,000 were injured, and 300,000 were displaced when their homes were destroyed.
Just days before the two-year anniversary, the northern section of the damaged silos suddenly collapsed, reigniting the fierce debate in Lebanon between those wishing to tear down the damaged structures and those calling for them to be preserved as a monument to the deceased.
On the day of the anniversary, another large section of the silos fell as protesters gathered to mourn and demand justice. For many in Lebanon, especially those who lost loved ones during the port explosion, the irony is almost too much to bear.
The handling of the silo issue "is a reflection of the chaos and failure Lebanon is facing,” Tania Daou-Alam, whose husband was killed in the blast, told Al-Monitor. “There is a problem between the ruling class and the citizens, because we don’t believe what they say."
The ruined silos, she said, "symbolize the atrocity of the crime and the ongoing impunity [of] the government. What [they were] promoting, when the decision not to preserve them was taken, was collective forgetting. The lack of decency is unbelievable.”
In April, the Lebanese government officially drew up plans to demolish the silos. However, they suspended the decision after protests from survivors and families of victims, who argued the silos may still contain evidence related to the judicial investigation.
Several current and former senior politicians who might have known about the improper conditions at the port have been called for questioning. However, none have been prosecuted, and the investigation has been effectively stalled since December.
The Lebanese Parliament also failed to ratify a new law that would have protected the silos from demolition by designating them as a heritage site. Many have demanded that the silos be preserved at least until justice is served.
With the state failing to act, the pursuit of justice has fallen to civilian bodies, such as the Order of Engineers and Architects (OEA). Divina Abou Jaoude, head of the architects’ branch of the OEA, told Al-Monitor, “Our main purpose is to prevent the demolition of the silos, study structural solutions and [raise] funds to prop and protect the silos.” The group believes the south portion is stable, "while the north part was leaning but not dangerous, on the condition of working to find solutions to stabilize it.”
However, little to no such work was actually undertaken. “Authorities could have found solutions with specialized entities from all over the world, if there was a will,” said Abou Jaoude. “What caused [this] is the neglect of the authorities.”
The collapse was further hastened by a fire, caused by high heat and fermentation of spoiled grain, that has been burning since early July. Firefighters were unable to extinguish it after moisture from their earlier attempts exacerbated the blaze.
In response, the government told nearby residents to remain indoors in well-ventilated spaces. The Lebanese Red Cross also distributed K-N95 masks in areas close to the port site. These measures, combined with the smoke and glow from the fire itself, left citizens nervous, frightened and in many cases, angry. There are also worries about potential toxic fallout due to residual chemicals and mold spores.
Lebanese Civil Defense experts have confirmed that eight silos have fallen, with another eight from the northern block remaining at risk. The 12 silos in the southern portion of the structure are believed to be stable, but warnings that the remaining silos could collapse "at any moment" are being widely circulated.
Regardless, many in Lebanon, including the OEA, remain adamant that the site should be preserved, even if the silos themselves cannot be saved.
“We are still trying to contact NGOs to find funds to preserve whatever is left," Abou Jaoude said. "Even if the whole structure falls, we will still struggle to keep it, as a witness of the crime and as a memorial for the deceased, for future generations to know what happened.”