One year after the Beirut explosion, families of victims continue to press for justice: NPR

One year after the Beirut explosion, families of victims continue to press for justice: NPR

One year after the Beirut explosion, families of victims continue to press for justice: NPR

Tracy and Paul Naggear, the parents of 3-year-old Alexandra, who died in last year’s massive explosion, raise their fists during a protest outside the home of Interior Minister Mohamed Fehmi in Beirut on July 13. One year after the deadly explosion, the families of the victims seek justice for their loved ones.

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One year after the Beirut explosion, families of victims continue to press for justice: NPR

Tracy and Paul Naggear, the parents of 3-year-old Alexandra, who died in last year’s massive explosion, raise their fists during a protest outside the home of Interior Minister Mohamed Fehmi in Beirut on July 13. One year after the deadly explosion, the families of the victims seek justice for their loved ones.

Bilal Hussein / AP

BEIRUT – George Khnaisser came to life on the same day that more than 200 people lost theirs in the Lebanese capital. Her mother gave birth in a destroyed Beirut hospital room strewn with blood, glass and pieces of roof, cared for by overwhelmed doctors and nurses, some of them injured, working by the light of their cell phone flashlights.

One year after the Beirut explosion, families of victims continue to press for justice: NPR

It was shortly after 6 pm on August 4, 2020. Hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate had caught fire in a dilapidated warehouse in the port of Beirut. The resulting explosion ripped apart the capital in seconds, leaving a trail of destruction, even inside Saint George Hospital, two miles away, where baby George was born.

At least 217 people were killed in the explosion, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. Twisted metal, collapsed debris and dried blood would mark Beirut’s houses and roads for weeks to come. A Reuters investigation later revealed that Lebanon’s top politicians, including the president and prime minister, I had known about the explosive substance stored randomly, but did not take measures to prevent the disaster.

One year after the Beirut explosion, families of victims continue to press for justice: NPR

Angry Lebanese accused the nation’s leaders of crimes for allowing this to happen, allegations backed by a report released Tuesday by Human rights observer. The group found evidence of criminal negligence, amounting, it says, to possible intentional or unintentional homicide under Lebanese law.

The public reaction to the explosion was swift, with massive demonstrations against the political class and demands for an international investigation. The backlash prompted the resignation five days after the Lebanese government, including then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab, and promised a swift internal investigation.

But those promises never fully materialized, and now, a year after the explosion, the investigation has stagnant and justice continues to evade the families of the victims.

One year after the Beirut explosion, families of victims continue to press for justice: NPR

Edmond Khnaisser holds his son George at his home in the northern Beirut city of Jal el-Dib on July 10. Khnaisser’s wife, Emmanuelle, was in labor when the explosion on August 4, 2020 tore apart the hospital where she gave birth to George.

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One year after the Beirut explosion, families of victims continue to press for justice: NPR

Edmond Khnaisser holds his son George at his home in the northern Beirut city of Jal el-Dib on July 10. Khnaisser’s wife, Emmanuelle, was in labor when the explosion on August 4, 2020 tore apart the hospital where she gave birth to George.

Bilal Hussein / AP

Baby George’s father, Edmond Khnaisser, was present at his delivery. In a video that went viral on social media, Khnaisser filmed his wife Emmanuelle in labor as the powerful explosion ripped through the windows, throwing glass, debris and roof tiles onto her birthing bed. The force of the blast sent the bed across the room, with her inside.

George’s birth was miraculous, Khnaisser tells NPR, “a symbol of life.”

No closure for families

When the explosion occurred, Tracy Awad Naggear was at home with her 3-year-old daughter, Alexandra. After having lived through the 15-year civil war in Lebanon, he knew how to grab his son and run for shelter as soon as he heard the explosion. But a shock wave sent them flying across the room.

One year after the Beirut explosion, families of victims continue to press for justice: NPR

A view of the port of Beirut almost a year after the 2020 explosion.

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One year after the Beirut explosion, families of victims continue to press for justice: NPR

A view of the port of Beirut almost a year after the 2020 explosion.

Hussam Shbaro / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Awad Naggear, who tried to protect Alexandra from the force of the blast, landed on top of her daughter and later lost consciousness. Paul Naggear, her husband, rushed home to find his wife and daughter under the door and ceiling blocks, badly injured and unconscious, but alive.

Awad Naggear survived. Alexandra never regained consciousness. He died in a hospital three days later.

Since then, the couple have channeled all their pain and trauma into seeking justice for Alexandra and others who lost their lives in the explosion. They joined a coalition of victims’ families and have worked tirelessly to pressure Lebanese officials to cooperate with the investigation.

“We had to be quite strong from the beginning,” says Awad Naggear, “because we knew we had no other choice.”

As for Lebanon’s political leaders, he says: “If we didn’t lead this fight, no one would.”

One year after the Beirut explosion, families of victims continue to press for justice: NPR

Images of the victims of the Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020 hang on a Beirut street.

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One year after the Beirut explosion, families of victims continue to press for justice: NPR

Images of the victims of the Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020 hang on a Beirut street.

Hassan Ammar / AP

None of Lebanon’s leading politicians have met with the families of the victims. No formal apology or acknowledgment of responsibility has been issued. And the the investigation has dragged: No one has been prosecuted. Politicians and senior figures have not cooperated with requests for formal questioning by the lead investigator, Judge Tarek Bitar.

Bitar is the second investigating judge to take over the case. The previous prosecutor, Fadi Sawan, was removed from office after he accused the outgoing prime minister and three former ministers of negligence. Five months later, Judge Bitar is also struggling to move forward with officials.

Even most of the post-blast cleanup was done by volunteers who flocked to the streets of Beirut when the state was conspicuously absent.

“I mean, it’s their crime,” says Awad Naggear, referring to the country’s leaders. She is incredulous when she talks about the supposed role of politicians in the explosion. “The ammonium nitrate was there, it was theirs. They knew it was there. They didn’t do anything. They were months old, they were years old.”

Lebanon’s leaders have clung to power since the explosion

It refers to the seven years during which ammonium nitrate, commonly used in agricultural fertilizers and sometimes in pumps, was left forgotten or neglected in a port warehouse. It is unknown why such a massive shipment of highly explosive material was stored in the port after it was unloaded in 2013.

The Naggear’s lack of confidence in Lebanon’s leaders is neither unusual nor new. In October 2019, as Lebanon began to show signs of what would become a rapid decline into economic collapse, they joined hundreds of thousands of protesters who took to the streets to demand political reform. The protesters blamed politicians for bringing the country to the ground through corruption, neglect and cronyism.

The couple used to take Alexandra with them to the demonstrations, hoping that they would eventually lead to a better Lebanon. Dressed in a pink jumpsuit, Alexandra smiles and waves the national flag in family photos from that time.

But Lebanon’s politicians, many of them former warlords, holdovers from Lebanon’s brutal civil war that ended in 1990, have managed to hold on to power despite the scale of the port explosion and public anger at them. They still reign over the tatters of a country afflicted in an economic collapse that, according to the World Bank, has left more than Half of the population impoverished. Meanwhile, severe shortages of basic goods such as medicine, electricity and fuel remain a burden on daily life.

Hopes for a new Lebanon

The Naggears’ home was destroyed by the explosion. They have rebuilt the house, and seven years of marriage and memories there cannot be undone. But the couple still can’t sleep there, preferring to stay for now in a second home in the mountains outside of Beirut.

Awad Naggear says that he returns to the old place from time to time and spends a few hours walking around Alexandra’s room seeking comfort. Then the pain becomes too heavy. She is preparing for the day when they finally return.

Unlike many others, they have no plans to leave the country. They are determined, they say, to fight for a better Lebanon. “They took my son,” he says. “I will not let them take my life with my husband in this house, Alexandra’s house as well.”

She insists that something beautiful was born on August 4.

“A new Lebanon,” he calls it, which he hopes citizens will win back from their corrupt political leaders.

On Wednesday, she and her husband are meeting with other families in the destroyed port of Beirut to continue demanding justice.

Edmond Khnaisser, George’s father, says his son’s life has given his family strength through a difficult year.

“I want to give him a bright future,” says Khnaisser. “I hope he is a really happy boy.”

But it feels bad to celebrate George’s birth on August 4, Khnaisser says, knowing that at least 217 other people will never have their birthday again.

Instead, out of respect for the lives lost, the family will celebrate George’s birthday this year on August 8.

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