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Seeking justice 3 years after Beirut blast

August 4, 2023

Three years after the explosion killed nearly 220 people and displaced tens of thousands from their homes, the family of one of the youngest victims is still seeking answers and fighting for justice.

A crowd holds a large Lebanese flag above them with writing on it
Three years after the massive explosion, relatives of the victims are still demanding accountabilityImage: Kameel Rayes/AFP

As August 4 comes around again, so do the memories for the Naggear family. On that date in 2020, the windows in the Naggears' apartment, located in the Beirut neighborhood of Gemmayzeh, just up the hill from the port, shattered and burst following a huge explosion in the Lebanese capital.

Tracy Naggear and 3-year-old Alexandra were badly injured. A few days later the preschooler, nicknamed Lexou, died in hospital.

"We are not good because it's been three years now and it's as if nothing has had happened, as if our daughter was just taken like this by chance, and nobody cares," Paul Naggear says.

The child was one of the youngest victims of the explosion, which eventually claimed the lives of more than 220 people. Thousands more were injured and 300,000 people were displaced after 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate blew up in what was one of the largest nonnuclear explosions ever recorded. The ammonium nitrate had been improperly stored in a Beirut port warehouse for six years.

Blast investigation stalled

For a long time, the Naggears found it impossible to return to their apartment in Beirut because of the emotional pain, fear and memories; everything about the place hurt for them.

So they moved to Beit Mery, in the hills east of Beirut. On top of the anguish that the explosion had caused, the family has also had to deal with worsening political and economic chaos in Lebanon. The country is dealing with an economic crisis that the World Bank classifies as one of the 10 worst in the world since the 19th century. Lebanon also doesn't have a president right now. 

Tracy and Paul Naggear with daughter Alexandra, who was killed by the explosion.
Tracy and Paul Naggear with daughter Alexandra, who was killed by the explosionImage: privat

The Naggears eventually moved back into their Beirut apartment at the end of 2022. "We've been trying to put our life back together for a while," says Paul Naggear, an architect. "And I think we're doing better now."

The couple are still fighting for accountability for Alexandra, though. Hardly a day passes when the Naggears don't meet with the relatives of other victims also engaged in the same fight.

"You have to find your own ways to get justice," Naggear says. "It's not a human right in Lebanon. So it's very, very tough for us to bear."

Blaming political elites

Three years on, nobody has been held accountable despite the fact that there is evidence that Lebanese officials and politicians were implicated in the root causes of the explosion.

"Unfortunately the investigation into the port explosion has been suspended for a long time in Lebanon," says Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East Institute at SOAS University in London and an associate fellow at Chatham House.

Khatib is talking about the investigation into the explosion led by Judge Tarek Bitar. Families like the Naggears were optimistic that Bitar, who comes from Akkar in the north of Lebanon and who had a reputation for being incorruptible, would help them. Lebanon doesn't have a good track record of holding criminals to account, but Bitar's investigations had seemed to be moving in the right direction. In a rare February 2021 interview with the French-language Beirut newspaper L'Orient-Le Jour, Bitar had said the investigation was a "sacred" cause for him.

But there have been many obstacles for Bitar. The investigation was suspended in 2021, after complaints were filed against Bitar by officials who had been summoned for questioning. However, the complaints could not be heard at the court of cassation because the relevant judges retired and were not replaced.

Hundreds of supporters of the Shia group Amal Movement and Hezbollah gather during a protest held to demand the dismissal of judicial investigator Tarek Bitar.
In 2021, supporters of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement in Lebanon protested BitarImage: Houssam Shbaro/AA/picture alliance

In October 2021, the case caused protests in Beirut, some of which became violent. "Judge Tarek Bitar is being attacked because he was clearly indicting and incriminating members of the political elite in the August 4 blast," Diana Menhem, head of Kulluna Irada, an advocacy group for political reform that is supported financially by Lebanese people from both inside and outside the country.

When Bitar tried to restart the investigation in January 2023, Lebanon's top prosecutor, another judge, Ghassan Oweidat, said Bitar was doing so despite the unresolved legal challenges. Oweidat also said Bitar was overstepping his judicial authority and issued a travel ban against him. Oweidat also ordered that everyone detained in connection with the investigation so far should be set free again.

Threats to Bitar 

"The investigation is stalled because of politically motivated judicial delays that aim to absolve members of the political establishment from accountability," Khatib says. "Leading political figures in Lebanon from across the spectrum do not want to see the investigation yield fruit. And that is because most people who have links with the port explosion, whether directly or indirectly, happen to be from this circle of political leaders."

There are also increasing concerns about threats to Bitar's life. Lebanon has a long history of politically motivated assassinations that have never been cleared up.

Paul Naggear also hopes that Bitar can continue his investigations without being targeted. "That would be terrible," he says.

Families and relatives of victims of the Beirut port explosion, gather in front of the Justice Palace to support the judge investigating the blast, Tarek Bitar, after he was forced to suspend his work.
Victims' relatives have staged several protests in support of BitarImage: Houssam Shbaro/AA/picture alliance

Families of victims, rights groups and some politicians are pursuing multiple routes in their quest for justice. For example, they have requested that the United Nations set up a special international investigation into the exposition.

"An international investigation could establish the facts and circumstances, including the root causes, of the explosion," Human Rights Watch wrote in February 2023. "It could also establish state and individual responsibility and support justice efforts and reparations for the victims."

Another possibility for justice involves civil lawsuits against the responsible parties. One in the United Kingdom has already been successful. It charged a London-registered chemicals trading firm, Savaro Ltd., that was suspected of having chartered the 2013 shipment of ammonium nitrate that ended up exploding in Beirut in 2020. In February 2023, a British court decided in favor of the three families of victims who were involved.

"The ruling gives us hope because it's been the only first step towards getting some justice in this case," Naggear says.

There may be more to come. The Swiss foundation Accountability Now and other victims' families have filed a lawsuit against the US-Norwegian geophysical services group TGS. The company reportedly owns the firm that subchartered the ship carrying the ammonium nitrate back in 2012. The lawsuit was filed in Texas.

'State of despair'

Three years ago, Lebanon's relatively well-off middle class might have been able to focus on pursuing justice. But now many Lebanese people are fighting for economic survival. 

A view onto Beirut's port with graffito: "My government did this"
Most Lebanese people have given up on the idea that the state will do anythingImage: D. Hodali/DW

"Lebanon is currently in a state of despair," Khatib says. "People have almost lost hope that the state will be able to deliver on even their most basic needs."

The Naggears feel that way. They have since welcomed a baby son to their family, but they no longer feel safe in Lebanon and are trying to spend as much time as possible in nearby Cyprus. They say they will keep fighting for justice for their lost daughter even though they know that will be difficult to achieve as long as the corruption and cronyism in Lebanon's political system continues. They also still want to win more supporters to their side in their struggle.

"Of course, we will continue our fight indefinitely," Naggear says, "until we get truth and justice for our daughter."

This article was originally written in German.