BEIRUT — George Khnaisser was brought into life on the same day that more than 200 others lost theirs in Lebanon’s capital. His mother gave birth in a destroyed Beirut hospital room strewn with blood, glass and bits of ceiling, attended by harried doctors and nurses — some of them injured — who worked by the light of their cellphone flashlights.
It was just after 6 p.m. on Aug. 4, 2020. Hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate had ignited in a dilapidated warehouse in the Beirut port. The resulting explosion shredded through the capital in seconds, leaving a trail of destruction — including inside the Saint George Hospital, two miles away, where baby George was born.
At least 217 people were killed in the blast, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. Contorted metal, collapsed rubble and dried blood would mark Beirut’s homes and thoroughfares for weeks to come. A Reuters investigation later revealed that Lebanon’s top politicians, including the president and prime minister, had known about the haphazardly stored explosive substance but failed to take measures to prevent the disaster.
Furious Lebanese accused the nation’s leaders of crimes for allowing this to happen — accusations supported by a report issued Tuesday by Human Rights Watch. The group found evidence of criminal negligence — amounting, it says, to possible intentional or unintentional homicide under Lebanese law.
Public reaction to the explosion was swift, with massive demonstrations against the political class and demands for an international investigation. The backlash resulted in the resignation five days later of Lebanon’s government, including then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab, and promises for a swift domestic investigation.
But those promises never fully materialized, and now, a year after the blast, the investigation has stalled and justice continues to evade the victims’ families.
Baby George’s father, Edmond Khnaisser, was present at his delivery. In a video that went viral on social media, Khnaisser filmed his wife Emmanuelle in labor when the powerful blast ripped through the windows, shooting glass, rubble and ceiling tile onto her delivery bed. The force of the explosion sent the bed across the room, with her in it.
George’s birth was miraculous, Khnaisser tells NPR, “a symbol of life.”
No closure for families
As the explosion hit, Tracy Awad Naggear was home with her 3-year-old daughter, Alexandra. Having lived through Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, she knew to grab her child and run for shelter as soon as she heard the blast. But a shockwave sent them flying across the room.
Hussam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Awad Naggear, who tried to shield Alexandra from the force of the explosion, landed on top of her daughter, then lost consciousness. Paul Naggear, her husband, hurried home to find his wife and daughter under blocks of door and ceiling, badly injured and unconscious — but alive.
Awad Naggear survived. Alexandra never regained consciousness. She died in a hospital three days later.
The couple have since channeled all their grief and trauma toward seeking justice for Alexandra and others who lost their lives in the explosion. They joined a coalition of families of victims, and have worked tirelessly to pressure Lebanon’s officials into cooperating with the investigation.
“We had to be pretty strong since the beginning,” Awad Naggear says, “because we knew we didn’t have any other choice.”
As for Lebanon’s political leaders, she says, “If we didn’t lead this fight, nobody would.”
None of Lebanon’s senior politicians have met with the families of the victims. No formal apology or acknowledgement of responsibility has been issued. And the investigation has dragged: No one has been prosecuted. Politicians and senior figures have failed to cooperate with requests for formal interrogation by lead investigator Judge Tarek Bitar.
Bitar is the second investigative judge to take over the case. The previous prosecutor, Fadi Sawan, was removed after he charged the outgoing prime minister and three ex-ministers with negligence. Five months later, Judge Bitar is also struggling to make headway with officials.
Even the bulk of the post-explosion cleanup was handled by volunteers who flocked to Beirut’s streets when the state remained conspicuously absent.
“I mean, it’s their crime,” says Awad Naggear, referring to the country’s leaders. She is incredulous when discussing politicians’ alleged role in the explosion. “The ammonium nitrate was there, it was theirs. They knew that it was there. They didn’t do anything. They had months, they had years.”
Lebanon’s leaders have clung to power since the explosion
She is referring to the seven years during which the ammonium nitrate — commonly used in agricultural fertilizer and sometimes bombs — sat, forgotten or neglected, in a port warehouse. It remains unknown why such a massive shipment of highly explosive material was left stored in the port after it was unloaded in 2013.
The Naggears’ lack of confidence in Lebanon’s leaders is not unusual, nor is it new. In October 2019, when Lebanon began showing signs of what would become a rapid descent into economic collapse, they joined hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who streamed into the streets to demand a political overhaul. Protesters blamed politicians for running the country to the ground through corruption, negligence and cronyism.
The couple used to bring Alexandra with them to the demonstrations, hoping they would eventually lead to a better Lebanon. Clad in pink overalls, Alexandra smiles and waves the national flag in family photos from that time.
But Lebanon’s politicians — many of them ex-warlords, holdovers from Lebanon’s brutal civil war, which ended in 1990 — have managed to cling to power despite the magnitude of the port explosion and public anger toward them. They still reign over the tatters of a grieving country in an economic meltdown which the World Bank says has left more than half the population impoverished. Meanwhile, severe shortages of basics such as medicine, electricity and fuel continue to burden daily life.
Hopes for a new Lebanon
The Naggears’ home was destroyed in the explosion. They have rebuilt the house, and seven years of marriage and memories there cannot be undone. But the couple still cannot bring themselves to sleep there, preferring to stay for now at a second home in the mountains outside Beirut.
Awad Naggear says she goes back to the old place from time to time, spending a few hours walking around Alexandra’s bedroom, seeking some solace. Then the grief becomes too heavy. She is steeling herself for the day when they eventually move back in.
Unlike many others, they have no plans to leave the country. They are determined, they say, to fight for a better Lebanon. “They took my child,” she says. “I won’t let them take my life with my husband in this house, the house of Alexandra, as well.”
She insists that something beautiful was born last Aug. 4.
“A new Lebanon,” she calls it, which she hopes citizens will take back from its corrupt political leaders.
On Wednesday, she and her husband are gathering with other families at the destroyed Beirut port, to continue to demand justice.
Edmond Khnaisser, George’s father, says his son’s life has given his family strength throughout a difficult year.
“I want to give him a bright future,” Khnaisser says. “I hope he’ll be a really happy kid.”
But it feels wrong to celebrate George’s birth on Aug. 4, Khnaisser says, knowing that at least 217 others will never have birthdays again.
Instead, out of respect for the lives lost, the family will celebrate George’s birthday this year on Aug. 8.
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