After Beirut blast, winning justice becomes a life's mission

August 3, 2021 GMT

BEIRUT (AP) — After the massive explosion at Beirut’s port a year ago, only a small part of Ibrahim Hoteit’s younger brother was identified: his scalp. Hoteit buried his brother — a large man, a firefighter, a martial arts champion — in a container the size of a shoebox.

Since then, Hoteit has sold his business, a perfume and accessories shop. He sleeps only a few hours a night. Black circles ring his eyes.

One thing drives him now: winning justice for the victims of the Aug. 4, 2020, explosion that killed more than 214 people and punishing Lebanon’s political elite, blamed for causing the disaster through their corruption and mismanagement.

“I don’t see a minister or president or parliament speaker. I am seeing the person who killed my brother and others with him,” said Hoteit, who says he gets anonymous threats. “This is what gives me strength. I see that I have nothing to lose.”

Hoteit and his wife, Hanan, have built an association of more than 100 families of those killed. They are waging a campaign of protests and rallies trying to shame, pressure and force politicians to allow the truth to come out.

A year later, critics say the political leadership has succeeded in stonewalling the judicial investigation into the explosion.

President Michel Aoun has said no one will have political cover if they are found negligent or guilty, but has not addressed accusations that officials are obstructing the investigation.

Hoteit and other families say they are up against not just a government but the political system that has ruled Lebanon for more than 30 years. It’s a system that protects itself so intensely it seems invulnerable, even as many Lebanese say it has led the country into ruin — pointing to both the explosion and a financial meltdown that is one of the world’s worst in the past 150 years.

Even the current caretaker premier, Hassan Diab, has acknowledged this, saying weeks after the explosion that corruption in Lebanon “is bigger than the state.”

___

Black and white portraits of each of the blast’s victims, commissioned by Hoteit’s group, hang from the walls of a central square near the port. Painted on a wall opposite the still mangled port, a large slogan declares, “My government did this.”

The blast was preceded by a fire that broke out at the port, and hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a hangar along with other highly combustible materials exploded.

It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. Along with the dead, thousands were injured. Some 300,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.

It soon emerged in documents that the ammonium nitrate had been stored improperly at the port since 2014 and that multiple high-level officials over the years knew of its presence and did nothing.

But a year after the government launched a judicial investigation, nearly everything else remains unknown — from who ordered the shipment to why officials ignored repeated internal warnings of the danger. Multiple government agencies have a role at the port, but all of them have said the ammonium nitrate was not their responsibility.

Hoteit’s brother Tharwat was among the group of firefighters who rushed to battle the initial blaze. All were killed.

Hoteit and his wife spent the next 12 days searching through hospitals for his brother. It was harrowing. They turned over bodies to see their faces. Doctors notified them when they identified Tharwat’s remains.

Along the way, they met other families on the same grisly search. Hoteit and Hanan saw one man carrying his dead son’s hand in a plastic sack. The families continued to communicate, first through a WhatsApp group, trading stories of their loved ones.

Then they organized to fight.

___

With his black T-shirt, jeans and hair slicked back, Hoteit has become synonymous with calls for justice. The 51-year-old-father of three is unforgiving, determined — and a clear-eyed strategist.

He coordinates with local groups to document and archive every piece of information on the blast. He has met with several of the politicians he has led protests against, as well as repeatedly with investigators.

At first, the group held vigils outside the port on the 4th of every month. But as the investigation stalled, the group changed tactics, targeting specific officials with protests.

At a protest last month, hundreds carried empty coffins outside the acting interior minister’s home.

At first, Hoteit tried to keep the group orderly, while Hanan and others shouted angrily at the minister inside. The protest got tense as numbers swelled and the minister never came out to talk to them. Protesters tried to make their way through the gates.

Police fired tear gas and pushed them back.

___

The biggest challenge has been trying to ensure the investigation moves forward.

The first lead investigator was Fadi Sawwan, a former military judge. When the families felt he was dragging his feet, citing coronavirus restrictions, they protested outside his home.

When he did act, they couldn’t protect him.

Sawwan named three former government ministers and Diab, the caretaker prime minister, to be charged with negligence leading to death. Diab has dismissed the allegations as “diabolical.” The political class united and won Sawwan’s removal by court order in February.

That’s when the families staged their first angry rally, burning tires, blocking roads and warning they may storm the Justice Ministry. A replacement for Sawwan was swiftly named: Tarek Bitar, a younger judge with no clear political affiliations.

Bitar cast a wider net, pursuing even senior military, intelligence and security officers. In February, he asked the government and parliament to lift immunity from the heads of two main security agencies and two lawmakers so he could question them.

The families were elated.

But the political elite again closed ranks. Lawmakers and government officials refused to lift immunity. The interior minister said his legal department advised against it, reportedly because the security agency in question was not responsible for the shipment.

So the families took aim at parliament members and officials they accuse of burying the truth. In TV ads and social media posts, they branded those who opposed lifting immunity as “the ammonium nitrate lawmakers.”

___

The same group of politicians have run Lebanon since its long civil war ended in 1990.

They head the same sectarian-rooted factions that fought the conflict. They have divvied government offices up among themselves, and their patronage system has fomented widespread corruption.

Dozens of political assassinations have never been properly investigated. Corruption has gone unpunished despite widespread documentation.

Impunity is entrenched in the system. Though rivals, the factions close ranks to prevent accountability.

That impunity translated into stunning callousness by politicians in the wake of the explosion.

No one deployed security around a city thrown into chaos. No authority took charge of the crime scene or search and rescue. No politician visited damaged areas. No state agency offered aid or shelter to those left homeless, and none cleaned up the rubble — all was left to volunteers.

The state never offered an apology or condolences to families. Even declaring Aug. 4 a National Day of Mourning took months of pressure.

“The state didn’t care for anything at all. If we didn’t follow up on everything big and small, nothing would happen,” Hoteit said, speaking at his home in the mainly Shiite southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh.

Like many Lebanese, Hoteit had long been resigned to the system. It was dictated by fate and geopolitics, he felt.

He can abide it no more.

“If the judiciary doesn’t give us our right, I will take vengeance for my brother with my own hands.”

___

The families’ lives have been consumed by the fight for accountability.

Salam Iskander, a mother of four whose younger brother Hamzeh was killed, comes from her home in northern Lebanon to Beirut to participate in every activity organized by the group. Her father was furious, saying she was endangering her family by taking on the politicians.

The memory of her brother drives her. Hamzeh, a soldier, supported her and her children, since her husband has a disability that prevents him from working. Her mother died a few months after Hamzeh — killed by grief, Iskander believes.

“Hamzeh is not coming back. Nothing will cool my heart,” she said. “But I want to be able to say I did something for him. .... Maybe I can do something as simple as punish those who did it.”

Tracy and Paul Naggear lost their only child, 3-year-old daughter Alexandra. Lexou, as they call her, was one of the youngest killed in the blast.

They can’t bring themselves to return to live in their home near the port. Tracy has grown thin with stress. After Lexou’s funeral, they thought about leaving Lebanon — Tracy has Canadian citizenship — but then they started working with others campaigning for justice. Now they regularly participate in Hoteit’s protests.

“This government killed my daughter, and it’s my right and my duty to seek justice, and I will,” Tracy said. “They can try and block the truth as much as they want ... They will get exhausted before we do.”

The Naggears are also part of another network of families asking the U.N. Human Rights Council to establish a fact-finding mission into the blast. Proponents hope that could circumvent politicians’ obstructions.

A third group, made up of families of killed firefighters, has focused on lobbying Lebanese security agencies.

Families have had to fight over and over for even the smallest help for the victims.

Parliament stalled when they asked that the victims be considered military martyrs, which would secure them and their families a pension and assistance. So Hoteit called a strike outside the home of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

Eventually they won the declaration. But Hoteit said the speaker’s allies in the government social insurance agency, feeling slighted by the protest against Berri, retaliated by slowing delaying payments to the injured. So Hoteit held a news conference naming and shaming those responsible. The payments resumed.

___

On Monday, Hoteit and the families gave officials 30 hours to lift immunity on the officials the lead investigator wants to question — or else face a “bone-crushing” response. They didn’t elaborate.

Breaking the wall of impunity means more than achieving justice, Hoteit says. A domestic reckoning may be the only way to break the system.

“If this doesn’t bring about change, nothing will.”