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Beirut silos at heart of debate about remembering port blast

A government-commissioned study in the wake of the disaster says the 50-year-old silos could collapse at any moment and should be demolished, sparking an emotional debate among the city's residents over how to preserve the memory of the tragedy.

By: AP | Beirut | December 10, 2020 5:07:56 pm
Beirut Silos, Beirut Blast, BeirutDamaged containers remain in front of towering grain silos gutted in the massive August explosion at the Beirut port that claimed the lives of more than 200 people, in Beirut, Lebanon. The massive, 48-meter-high silos absorbed much of the explosion's impact, effectively shielding the western part of the city from the blast that damaged or completely destroyed thousands of buildings. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Ghassan Hasrouty spent most of his life working at the silos in Beirut’s port, unloading grain shipments to feed the country even as fighting raged around him during the 1975-90 civil war.

Decades later, he perished under the same silos, their towering cement structure gutted by the force of the August 4 explosion at the port, when 2,750 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrates ignited in what became one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

In a horrific instant, a burst of power ravaged Beirut.

More than 200 people died and the horror and devastation scarred the survivors.

Hasrouty’s son, Elie, wants justice for his father and thinks the silos should stay as a “mark of shame” and reminder of the corruption and negligence of politicians that many Lebanese blame for the tragedy.

A government-commissioned study in the wake of the disaster says the 50-year-old silos could collapse at any moment and should be demolished, sparking an emotional debate among the city’s residents over how to preserve the memory of the tragedy.

In Lebanon, where a culture of impunity has long prevailed and where those behind violent attacks, bombings and assassinations have rarely been brought to justice, the debate is steeped in suspicion.

Sara Jaafar believes the government wants to obliterate the silos and move on as if nothing happened.

“It is a reminder of what they did”, said Jaafar, an architect whose apartment overlooking the silos was destroyed in the explosion. “I never want to lose the anger that I have”, she said.

Just days after the catastrophic blast, as public outrage mounted, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab stepped down, saying the country’s endemic corruption was “bigger than the state”.

The massive, 48-meter-high silos absorbed much of the explosion’s impact, effectively shielding the western part of the city from the blast that damaged or completely destroyed thousands of buildings.

The investigation into how such a large amount of dangerous chemicals was poorly stored for years under the nose of the port authority and the wider political leadership has dragged on. Rights groups and families are concerned it’s a tactic to protect senior officials, none of whom have so far been detained or charged with any wrongdoing.

More than four months later, rotting wheat is dripping from the shredded but still-standing silos, which stored up to 85 per cent of Lebanon’s grain. Pigeons and rodents have found home among the wreckage.

Emmanuel Durand, a French civil engineer who volunteered for the government-commissioned team of experts, spent several weeks using a laser scanner to gather digital data for an analysis of the silos’ structure after the explosion.

Though they may look structurally sound from afar, the silos are tilted and their foundation is broken, which has caused vertical cracks in two of them. They could collapse at any moment, Durand said, although it is impossible to calculate when.

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