Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Beirut’s Collapsing Grain Silos Are a Symbol of Lebanon’s Dysfunction

Exactly two years after a deadly blast, the capital was again enveloped in dust.

By , a freelance journalist reporting on stories from the Middle East.
Clouds of dust rise as damaged grain silos collapse near shipping containers and cars.
Clouds of dust rise as damaged grain silos collapse near shipping containers and cars.
Heavy dust rises as part of the grain silos collapse in the port of Beirut on Aug. 4. Ibrahim Amro/AFP via Getty Images

BEIRUT—On Aug. 4, 2020, in one of the most powerful non-nuclear blasts ever recorded, a massive cache of ammonium nitrate suddenly exploded in Lebanon’s capital of Beirut. It devastated the city and killed 218 people. Two years to the day this August, as hundreds of mourners and protesters gathered near the site to mark the anniversary of the blast, a pair of 157-foot-tall grain silos on the port collapsed before their eyes. A cloud of dust enveloped Beirut once again.

The collapse was precipitated by fires that had been raging in the northern block of the 16 silos, which hold most of the country’s grain reserves and dominate the port. In early July, according to Lebanese officials, some of the grain ignited after fermenting in the summer heat. Firefighters tried for weeks to contain the flames but could not extinguish them fully. Then, the silos, which were already heavily damaged from the 2020 explosion, began to buckle. Four fell on July 31. The next two fell as the demonstrators gathered.

No one was physically harmed, but the experience was still distressing for Beirut residents. “Seeing the silos getting burned is really heartbreaking,” said Rhea, a 30-year-old woman who attended the demonstration. “[Politicians] don’t want to do anything about it.”

BEIRUT—On Aug. 4, 2020, in one of the most powerful non-nuclear blasts ever recorded, a massive cache of ammonium nitrate suddenly exploded in Lebanon’s capital of Beirut. It devastated the city and killed 218 people. Two years to the day this August, as hundreds of mourners and protesters gathered near the site to mark the anniversary of the blast, a pair of 157-foot-tall grain silos on the port collapsed before their eyes. A cloud of dust enveloped Beirut once again.

The collapse was precipitated by fires that had been raging in the northern block of the 16 silos, which hold most of the country’s grain reserves and dominate the port. In early July, according to Lebanese officials, some of the grain ignited after fermenting in the summer heat. Firefighters tried for weeks to contain the flames but could not extinguish them fully. Then, the silos, which were already heavily damaged from the 2020 explosion, began to buckle. Four fell on July 31. The next two fell as the demonstrators gathered.

No one was physically harmed, but the experience was still distressing for Beirut residents. “Seeing the silos getting burned is really heartbreaking,” said Rhea, a 30-year-old woman who attended the demonstration. “[Politicians] don’t want to do anything about it.”

“I feel a mix of anger, unfairness, injustice,” said Rafic, a 35-year-old man who did not provide his surname, as he stood with the families of the blast’s victims, many of whom held up posters of the victims or wore T-shirts with their faces. “We are here today because we have been traumatized about what happened two years ago.”

Since the blast, no one has been held to account; the investigation into its causes has stalled. “[Politicians] try to hide evidence. We are here because we want justice,” said Rhea, who also did not provide her surname.

Many Lebanese—including survivors, the families of the victims, and civil groups such as Legal Agenda and Live Love Beirut—are not only calling to resume the investigation but are also fighting to preserve the silos as a memorial. For them, the silos have become a symbol of the disaster and the ruling class’s lack of accountability. Preserving the silos, they say, is a way to commemorate the blast’s victims and demand justice.

The silos have become a symbol of the disaster and the ruling class’s lack of accountability.

In Lebanon, political accountability has been one of the main demands of the ongoing anti-government protests. The demonstrations began in late 2019 as a response to the country’s economic crisis that has left more than 80 percent of the population affected by poverty as of 2021. But the corruption that has long been endemic to Lebanese society, along with the sectarian political system, has provided a serious barrier to change and accountability.

The domestic investigation into the blast, which began in August 2020, has been suspended since last December. Members of parliament put it on hold several times after Tarek Bitar, the head of Beirut’s criminal court, asked the legislature to lift immunity to prosecute top officials. Bitar was the second judge to lead the investigation—the previous judge, Fadi Sawan, was removed from the position in February 2021 after he charged two former ministers with criminal negligence.

Nizar Saghieh, a founder of Legal Agenda, a Beirut-based nonprofit research and advocacy organization, said that several former ministers and MPs filed more than 30 cases against Bitar to obstruct the investigation and remove him from the post.

The victims’ families, meanwhile, have regularly taken to the streets since the blast while also fighting to bring the case to international institutions. They have called for a United Nations Human Rights Council investigation and a U.N. fact-finding mission, but their demands have not yet been met.

There have been similar roadblocks to making progress on preserving the silos. At first, things looked promising: The government decided to rebuild the silos after the explosion. But there wasn’t much progress on that front. In 2021, French environmental engineering company Recygroup International was tasked with clearing up 30,000 tons of leftover grain through a contract funded by the French government. Yet this wasn’t enough to clear the silos, which hold over 130,000 tons of grain.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February and the wheat crisis that followed prompted the Lebanese government to change its plans and look for alternatives for grain storage to address food insecurity. It planned to build grain silos in the northern city of Tripoli—a quicker solution than rebuilding the ones in Beirut.

In March, Culture Minister Mohammad Mortada listed the ruined silos, which were inaugurated in 1970, as historic buildings, saying that they are the symbol of a city afflicted by the explosion, but he reversed his decision the following month. Mortada was one of the MPs who criticized Bitar’s investigation, Saghieh noted, adding that “his actions go in the same direction as those who want to cancel the memory of the blast.”

In April, the Lebanese government approved plans to demolish the silos, though it did not specify a date, despite objections from activists and victims’ families. The government justified the decision by saying the silos would be expensive to repair and cited a technical report by engineering firm Khatib & Alami warning that the silos might collapse. Yet as Mariana Fodoulian, a spokesperson for the families of the victims, pointed out in April, the report did not indicate an urgent need for demolition. Instead, it said the site would need to be monitored.

Activists and the victims’ families are pushing back. On April 14, the same day as the government announcement, around 30 relatives of the victims gathered near the port to protest the demolition plan. Then, on July 4, civic groups, experts, and victims’ families launched “The Silent Witness,” a campaign to preserve the silos and designate them a cultural heritage site with the help of lawyers and engineers.

“A memorial is needed to remember the tragedy, such as Berlin Wall Memorial or the memorial at Hiroshima,” said Rodolphe Haddad, a Lebanese architect who collaborates with families of the victims.

Activists and families are turning to the southern portion of the silos, which weren’t as heavily damaged by the blast, as their last hope, said Fodoulian, who lost her sister, Gaia Fodoulian, in the explosion.

“The southern portion of the silos is the best memorial possible to remember what happened on Aug. 4, 2020,” said Saghieh, noting that several reports by experts say it could be preserved. “But if the fires extend, it will be dangerous.”

It’s unclear whether the fires have damaged the southern silos, said Haddad, since civilians don’t yet have access to the site. If fire does spread, “the government has to take full responsibility,” Fodoulian said, since it had two years to remove the grain and neglected the project.

Another major concern, aside from fire damage, is that the government could use the northern silos’ collapse to justify proceeding shortly with the demolition of the entire complex. But that would be costly, and pressure from victims’ families may delay the government’s plans.

Yet even as the government poses challenges to the silos’ preservation, many Lebanese believe the victims’ families should dictate what becomes of the site. “I agree with whatever the families of the victims want. They are the owners of this decision,” said a demonstrator who wished to remain anonymous.

Tina Hamdan, a 27-year-old protester, also said she “totally agree[s]” with the victims’ families. “[Preserving silos] is a reminder for everyone today and for Lebanese of the future to see what happened and what might still happen.”

As for the victims’ families, they have no intention of forgetting what happened, said Fodoulian, and are even angrier after the silos’ collapse. The battle to preserve the southern part of the silos only keeps the victims’ families committed to holding Lebanon’s political class to account.

“We will continue to fight the government standing against our justice,” Fodoulian said. “We want to know the truth and see them punished.”

Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist reporting on stories from the Middle East. Twitter: @DarioSabaghi

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