ROME – As Lebanon marks the second anniversary of a devastating explosion in Beirut’s port, observers say little progress has been made on an explanation and many citizens are angry at the lack of answers. Meanwhile, the country’s social and economic crises are worsening.
Pope Francis referred to the blast during his Wednesday general audience, noting that Aug. 4 marks two years since a massive explosion erupted in a warehouse in the port of Beirut containing hundreds of tons of poorly stored ammonium nitrate.
The blast, which took out entire neighborhoods, left 220 people dead and around 6,500 others injured. Some 300,000 people were left homeless, and more than 160 schools were destroyed, impacting the education of over 85,000 students.
In his remarks, Pope Francis said his thoughts are with “the families of the victims of that disastrous event,” and with the entire people of Lebanon, which for years has been crippled by a worsening economic and political crisis, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I pray so that each one of you may be consoled by the faith and comforted by justice and truth, which can never be hidden,” the pope said, voicing hope that Lebanon, “with the help of the international community, will continue to walk the path of ‘rebirth,’ remaining faithful to its vocation of being a land of peace and pluralism, where different religious communities can live in fraternity.”
Lebanon will hold a National Day of Mourning on Thursday to commemorate the anniversary. However, despite the mass devastation of the blast, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, a judicial probe has so far failed to hold any senior official responsible for the tragedy.
The investigation has been stalled for months leaving many Lebanese angry. They see the delay as yet another example of the impunity of the country’s political elites and the rampant corruption and poor governance that led to Lebanon’s rapid financial demise.
In a statement Wednesday, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has said a group of UN human rights experts have called on the Human Rights Council to launch an international investigation into the Beirut blast, arguing that victims deserve justice and accountability.
“This tragedy marked one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in recent memory, yet the world has done nothing to find out why it happened,” the experts said in the statement.
“On the second anniversary of the blast, we are disheartened that people in Lebanon still await justice, and we call for an international investigation to be initiated without delay,” they said.
Not only does responsibility for the explosion have yet to be established, but the affected areas remain in ruins and funds for reconstruction provided by the international community are only starting to reach beneficiaries, the statement said.
Access to food is also an ongoing concern, since Lebanon imports up to 80 percent of its food items, and the blast damaged the port’s main entry point. A large grain silo, which caught fire last month, collapsed just a few days ago, adding to the destruction.
The World Bank has described Lebanon’s crisis as a prolonged and “deliberate depression” caused by political authorities, throwing much of the Lebanese population into poverty as they struggle to access electricity, medicines, and clean water.
Over the past two years Lebanese currency has lost over 90 percent of its value, and inflation as of June was rated at roughly 210 percent.
With no improvement in the situation, the OHCHR said an international investigation into the explosion is needed now more than ever.
Speaking to Asia News, Father Michel Abboud, president of Caritas Lebanon, said there is currently a climate of division in the country due to the government’s perceived inaction on the blast.
“The memory of the event is causing so much suffering, coming on top of the country’s severe economic crisis, the worst in its history, and general distrust towards politicians,” Abboud said, adding that many people feel hopeless and overwhelmed.
When it comes to the country’s political leadership, “People are so distrustful that many won’t even take to the streets to protest, and those that do, do so without much enthusiasm. They are not into it,” he said, saying a sense of general fatigue has washed over much of the population.
As the people of Lebanon “go from one crisis to another, we are losing many people” due to either death or immigration, Abboud said.
“Every week, we hear that two or three people have died because they couldn’t get to a hospital, depriving them of the right to treatment. As Caritas, we try to make some contribution, but we cannot pay for everyone’s expenses and needs,” he said.
Speaking of the education crisis due to the loss of so many schools in the explosion, Abboud said roughly 70 percent of Lebanese schools, including Catholic schools, are private and get no help from the state.
“Many teachers have left and are out of work, because wages are low and they can’t pay for fuel or transport. The same goes for many students, boys and girls who dropped out in the last year because they cannot pay,” he said.
To help Lebanon, “we do not need large sums, but a small contribution from many people,” he said. “The Lebanese people are accustomed to wars and suffering, but today trust between people has been lost and only faith in God seems to have remained.”
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