Families of Beirut blast child victims demand justice a year on

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Beirut, Lebanon – August 4, 2020, began as a mundane morning for Samer Tibati, a Syrian worker from Lattakia, living in the semi-industrial Karantina neighbourhood near the Beirut port.

“My daughter Bissan came up to me, told me she loved me, and asked me for some money,” Tibati told Al Jazeera. “She then bought chocolate and gave it to everyone living on our street.”

Later that day, the devastating Beirut port explosion tore through the neighbourhood, badly wounding the seven-year-old girl. He ran to her, cradled her in his arms, and tried to find someone to take them to a hospital.

Tibati hopped on the back of a motorcycle driver who offered them a ride. It took hours until they found a hospital that had room for Bissan.

“It looked like pieces of shrapnel from a bomb pierced into her,” Tibati recalled. “The doctors said it was critical, but I would keep asking every day if she could get better.”

Seven days later, Bissan died.

The explosion killed more than 200 people, wounded thousands and flattened several neighbourhoods in the Lebanese capital. Bissan was one of at least seven children killed in the disaster; the youngest was just five months old.

“I have a portrait of her on the wall, and I look at her while I have my morning coffee,” Tibati said. “And then I hear her voice saying ‘Dad, please help me,’ but I can’t help her.”

One year later, Tibati is still in a world of pain. He still struggles to hold back his tears whenever he talks about his daughter. “Look how lovely she is,” he said as his voice trembled, scrolling through dozens of photos and videos of her on his phone. “She was just a child.”

Samer Tibati with a photo of daughter Bissan [Kareem Chehayeb/Al Jazeera]

Tibati had left Syria five years before the explosion to secure a safer life for Bissan and his two-year-old son Hassan. Instead, he faced one of the worst days of his life in Beirut. He is worried that his wife and Hassan could meet a similar fate, because he fears something similar could happen again.

“I already lost my daughter, and I’m not willing to lose the rest of my family,” he said.

As Lebanon marks the first anniversary of the port explosion on Wednesday, grieving families who lost their children continue to demand truth and justice in vain.

The explosion was caused by the ignition of tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, stored in a port warehouse filled with other hazardous material since 2014.

But rights groups and families of victims accuse officials of obstructing the probe into the explosion, which has so far been failed to hold high-level officials to account or reveal the exact causes of the disaster.

Officials have so far rejected lead investigator Judge Tarek Bitar’s requests to lift the immunity of several high-ranking lawmakers and security chiefs so they can be questioned on the suspicion of criminal negligence, as well as homicide with probable intent.

The officials include caretaker Prime Minister Hasan Diab, ex-Public Works and Transport Ministers Yousef Finianos and Ghazi Zeiter, ex-Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil, and ex-Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, as well as General Security chief Major-General Abbas Ibrahim.

Meanwhile, Lebanon has been without a full-fledged government for almost a year, after Diab resigned in the wake of the explosion.

And while political leaders wriggle their way out of accountability and bicker over ministries and political positions in almost a year of government deadlock, the families who lost their children and loved ones grieve their deaths.

‘I want everyone to know who Elias was’

“For me, life has stopped,” Mireille Khoury told Al Jazeera. Her 15-year-old son, Elias, was in his bedroom just a few hundred metres from the port as the building shook and glass blew out the windows. He succumbed to his wounds two weeks later.

“They destroyed our family,” Khoury said.

Elias’s classmates gathered at his high school and carried his coffin as they bid him farewell. They continue to pay tribute to him on social media. “Our grief is the price of loving such a beautiful spirit,” one post read.

Elias’s family was also wounded. Khoury is still recovering from fractures in her lower back.

Her 21-year-old daughter Nour badly injured her left hand and still needs surgery to fix her left eyelid, but she still completed her university degree, and got in to medical school.

“She did it for Elias,” Khoury told Al Jazeera. “He was so proud of her that she wanted to be a doctor.”

Elias and his friend Shady recorded and released a song together less than a month before the explosion. They had worked on a second song, which Shady released posthumously later in August 2020.

“I listened to the song once,” Khoury said. “I miss his voice, so I start listening to the song, but then I can’t continue.”

Elias was seen as the peacemaker among his friends, and his mother believes he would have dedicated his life to helping people.

“He would have created or done something to make a difference for humanity,” she said. “Everyone loved being around Elias, because you couldn’t talk to him without smiling or laughing.”

“I miss Isaac every second”

Sarah Copland and her husband left Beirut to return home to Melbourne, Australia, just a couple of weeks after the explosion took the life of their two-year-old son, Isaac Oehlers.

“The word that comes to mind to me is just ‘confusing’,” Copland told Al Jazeera. “I went from having Isaac, who was magically thriving and changing every day, and suddenly he was gone.”

Moments before the explosion, Isaac was sitting on his high chair in the living room next to her and her husband Craig.

The little boy was hit with glass, and passed away at the hospital.

Two-year old Isaac Copland, who passed away at hospital [Courtesy of Sarah Copland]

Isaac had been learning Arabic and French. “Everyone was so welcoming, especially to Isaac. Everyone loved him. He was an outgoing kid.”

Copland’s second son Ethan was born in late October 2020, almost three months after the explosion. “He is what keeps me putting one foot ahead of the other,” she said. “He is my coping mechanism.”

One year on, she said much of the shock has now turned into anger.

The family is outraged that the investigation remains stalled, and they continue to support families back in Lebanon demanding justice. Copland says the world has “moved on” far too quickly, and is among many families and human rights organisations calling for an international investigation to end the impasse.

“When you’re a mother, nothing stops,” Copland explained. “I want to always do things for Isaac, and it gives me purpose that I can continue to do something for him.”

Fighting for justice

In October 2019, when mass protests swept Lebanon demanding their rulers step aside, Paul Naggear carried his three-year-old daughter Alexandra on his shoulders to show her the sea of protesters in central Beirut’s Martyrs Square.

It was a time of hope that Lebanon, troubled throughout its history with conflict, political crises and rampant corruption, could soon change for the better.

But nine months later, the Beirut port explosion destroyed their home in Gemmayze, and took little Alexandra away from him.

“This past year was the most difficult in our entire lives,” Naggear told Al Jazeera.

“We miss her all the time.”

Tracy, Paul and Alexandra Naggear [Courtesy of Paul Naggear]

Paul and his wife Tracy have been extremely outspoken since the explosion, demanding a thorough investigation into how the explosive substances arrived into the capital’s port, and which officials were responsible for not removing them for more than half a decade.

“Every day, you wake up, you cry, then you’re taken back to the reality that you have to fight for your daughter and the other victims.” He said. “We haven’t stopped since the funeral.”

There are several committees formed by families who lost loved ones during the explosion that mostly campaign and pressure the authorities to stop stalling the investigation.

Some of the groups have lobbied state institutions to compensate families, and have rallied behind Judge Bitar. However, Naggear’s is calling for an international investigation.

“Tracy and I first focused on awareness in the international community, but now we’re pushing for international justice,” he explained. “We anticipated that the criminals will protect themselves.”

A handful of civil society and human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, have called for an independent United Nations-mandated investigation, citing Lebanon’s corrupt leadership and the fact that its judiciary is not administratively or financially independent from the government.

Victims’ families have cooperated in calls for justice, most recently at the residence of caretaker Interior Minister Mohamad Fahmi, who refused to lift the immunity of General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim.

Naggear and other families held white coffins to stage a mock funeral, but met a large group of security forces in riot gear. “We did this mock funeral to show the treason happening to us,” Naggear said.

“We wanted to shun him (Fahmi) as much as possible, and the fact he had to escape with the security forces to a secure location like a rat was mission accomplished for us.”

The activism is what keeps Paul and Tracy Naggear going, but it is exhausting on top of grieving the loss of Alexandra, and sometimes they simply burn out.

The family is hopeful that the truth will be revealed and that justice served for all the victims – but not with Lebanon’s traditional governing parties at the helm.

“They are inhumane and illegitimate, and need to be treated as such,” Naggear said.

“As you can see, the path to justice isn’t easy, and so we pushing for an international fact-finding mission adopted by the UN.”

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