Lebanon on Wednesday marked a year since a cataclysmic explosion ravaged Beirut, with a mix of grief over lost lives and rage at the impunity for its worst peacetime disaster, which occurred at a time when the economy was already in tatters. While a memorial service took place at the port, thousands of protesters gathered in the city's centre to demand accountability for the blast.
Shortly after 6:00pm on August 4, 2020, a stock of ammonium nitrate fertiliser haphazardly stored at the city's port exploded and left swathes of the Lebanese capital looking like a war zone. What went down as one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history killed at least 214 people, levelled entire neighbourhoods and irreparably scarred the nation's psyche as well deepening the country's economic abyss.
Thousands of people, many holding pictures of the dead and waving Lebanese flags, gathered near the port, a few hundred metres from an official memorial service where attendees sat in rows of plastic chairs cradling pictures of their slain relatives, as Lebanon's Maronite patriarch conducted a mass that began shortly after 6:08pm, the time last year when the blast occurred.
Army helicopters flew overhead giving off red and green smoke - the national colours - as koranic verses were recited at the start of the service and the victims’ names were read.
A huge banner on a building overlooking the port said: "Hostages of a Murderous State."
As the memorial service was getting under way, security forces used water cannon and fired tear gas at another group of protesters near parliament who threw stones towards them. Angry over a lack of justice for the blast's victims and a severe deterioration in living conditions in Lebanon, the protesters had been throwing stones at the building, with some trying to climb its gate.
Six people were wounded, a security source said. The Red Cross said that more than 50 people had been injured, AFP reported.
The damage from the port blast is still visible in much of the capital, particularly the predominantly Christian districts of east Beirut that were most badly affected. The port itself resembles a bomb site, its huge grain silo still unrepaired.
According to foreign and Lebanese intelligence reports seen by AFP, hundreds of tonnes of the fertiliser were carelessly stored in the same warehouse as tonnes of fireworks and rolls of detonating cord, among other dangerous materials.
The country's already reviled political class has hidden behind its proclaimed immunity to avoid prosecution for the explosion, stalling a lead investigating judge's work at every turn. Initial shock at the disaster has evolved into anger that has only grown as the crime stays unpunished.
Amnesty International has accused the Lebanese authorities of "shamelessly obstructing" justice, while Human Rights Watch accused them of "criminal negligence".
On Monday, relatives of blast victims called on authorities to lift the immunity of ex-ministers within three days, warning they were willing to "break bones" in upcoming protests.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)