Beirut blast survivors say demolishing grain silos an ‘injustice’

The 50-metre tall iconic grain silos shielded several Beirut neighbourhoods from the explosion that killed more than 200 people.

A view of the grain silo that was damaged during the Beirut port blast
The grain silo at the port miraculously shielded several Beirut neighborhoods from the blast [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Beirut, Lebanon –  “Without the grain silos, I would not be speaking to you, neither would my wife,” says Paul Naggear.

The Lebanese engineer and his wife Tracy survived the devastating Beirut Port explosion on August 4, 2020, thanks to the mammoth grain silos which shielded their apartment from the powerful blast that killed more than 200 people. Unfortunately, their three-year-old daughter Alexandra could not survive the explosion.

“It’s an urban witness to the crime which should not be removed.”

Last August, Swiss engineering firm Amann Engineering GmbH concluded that the iconic grain silos are at risk of collapsing as they slowly tilt. “We fully understand and share all the emotions expressed by so many stakeholders in Lebanon and beyond,” the report, obtained by Al Jazeera, concluded.

“However and as much as the structure can be iconic, facts do show there is no way to ensure safety on even the medium term with a north block remaining as is.”

The Lebanese government, notably Economy Minister Amin Salam who is in charge of the silos, has echoed similar sentiments, which has angered the families of the devastating blast’s victims.

Mireille Khoury, whose 15-year-old son Elias lost his life in the explosion, said demolishing the silos would be an injustice.

“They can’t just take down the silos and start reconstruction as if no explosion happened … As if we didn’t lose our children, as if nothing has happened in this city,” she told Al Jazeera. “They can’t just start building on our corpses and agonies.”

Largest non-nuclear explosions in human history

The Beirut Port explosion tore through the heart of the Lebanese capital, killing more than 200 people, wounding at least 6,500 others, and flattening several neighbourhoods. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history.

Barely standing at almost 50 metres tall, the port’s grain silos boasts a capacity of some 100,000 tonnes of grain, the largest in the country. It miraculously shielded several Beirut neighbourhoods, and thousands of people from the blast.

The Lebanese government on February 8 formed a ministerial committee to prepare a report about the grain silos by the end of the month. They have not met yet.

Economy Minister Amin Salam told Al Jazeera that the families will be taken into consideration.

“No decision has been made and no decision will be made without first utmost consideration to the families of the victims, [and] two, full compliance with the proper legal and technical measures,” Salam said.

However, it seemed the authorities had already made a decision. Salam said in an interview earlier this month that the government will open bids for companies to demolish the silos and clear the area, and that they commissioned consultancy Khatib & Alami to conduct a study to determine the costs and procedure to destroy them.

Khatib & Alami did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the matter.

But engineers, including those in Lebanon’s Order of Engineers and Architects, disagreed with the assessment and have called for stabilising the silos and keeping them as a memorial for the city.

“After a series of seminars and discussions, we concluded there is no structure that cannot be supported, practically and scientifically,” Soha Mneimneh, an architects’ representative at the syndicate and an urban planning researcher at the American University of Beirut’s Urban Lab told Al Jazeera.

“Whenever I see the silos, like just everyone else, we continue to relive the trauma. And we will continue to live this trauma if there is no accountability.”

‘A cover-up’

Meanwhile, the port blast investigation has continued to stall. In fact, it was suspended for a fifth time on Monday, as charged officials continued to lodge legal complaints against the judge overseeing the blast investigation.

A growing number of families are calling for international support, and have called out the authorities for obstructing lead investigator Judge Tarek Bitar’s probe.

The families are now actively campaigning against demolishing the grain silos. “Instead of detaining the criminal, they are killing the witness,” they said in a social media post.

No officials have been convicted so far, though Bitar has charged former ministers with criminal negligence and has tried to summon senior political and security officials.

Naggear said it is a cover-up. “It’s as if the government was trying to wash their hands off the crime and try to erase the memories of the Beirutis and the Lebanese,” he said.

For others, it reminded them of the end of the country’s 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, when Lebanon’s powerful militias and political parties agreed on a general amnesty law rather than holding militias and political leaders accountable for possible war crimes. The post-civil-war period saw a massive reconstruction project in Beirut.

“For those who are those enthusiastic to [re]build, the sequence is that you first uncover the truth, you hold those responsible to account, you take lessons learned, then you start building,” a distressed Mireille Khoury said. “The Lebanese wars have proven that if you just build without taking these steps, it doesn’t work. Today’s situation proves it.”

Source: Al Jazeera