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Lebanon mourns victims of Beirut blast with sorrow and anger

Protesters carry flags and banners as they march in Beirut on Aug. 4 to mark the first anniversary of Beirut's devastating port blast. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

BEIRUT — Lebanon held a day of mourning Wednesday to mark the first anniversary of the huge explosion at the Beirut port that destroyed much of the city, wrecked the lives of tens of thousands of people and helped propel Lebanon's economy further toward collapse.

The day also quickly turned into one of anger as Lebanese gathered near the port to protest the authorities’ failure to offer an explanation of the cause of the blast or to hold anyone to account.

At 6:08 p.m., the precise moment of the explosion, a minute’s silence was held in honor of the victims. A bell tolled as the names of the dead were read over a loudspeaker to family members seated in plastic chairs at the site, clutching photos of their loved ones.

In streets nearby, clashes erupted between police and demonstrators who were attempting to march on the nation’s parliament to protest the failure of the authorities to properly investigate the blast and to take action to halt the country’s spiraling economic decline. Police fired tear gas and water cannons as the demonstrators attempted to break through barricades blocking roads leading to the parliament. Dozens of injuries were reported.

More than 200 people died, 7,000 were injured and tens of thousands of homes were damaged in what has been ranked as one of the biggest nonnuclear explosions in history. The blast was caused by a fire that ignited a stash of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate left unattended for more than six years in a warehouse.

A year later, many questions remain unanswered, including what caused the fire, who owned the ammonium nitrate, why it had languished for so long at the port and why no one has been held responsible. An official investigation has stalled many times, and politicians representing the country’s various factions have rallied to thwart efforts to interrogate senior figures.

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“Given the scale of this tragedy, it is astounding to see how far the Lebanese authorities are prepared to go to shield themselves from scrutiny,” Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said in a report highlighting the lack of accountability.

“Revenge, revenge, until the regime falls,” chanted protesters as they marched through one of the badly damaged neighborhoods en route to the port. “The people want the fall of the regime,” said another group, echoing the calls of a protest movement that began in 2019 but has since fizzled as political elites have refused to heed calls for reforms.

Many homes and buildings remain in ruins because their owners don’t have the money for repairs, or in some cases have left the country, a daily reminder of the trauma that still haunts the city’s residents.

“It’s been a year and still we don’t know anything,” said Randa, 41, who gave only one name. She said her family members were injured when their home in the Ashrafiyeh neighborhood was destroyed in the blast.

For some, the occasion brought back terrifying memories. Sister Marie-Joseph Salameh, 57, was at the Rosary Sisters Hospital when the explosion brought ceilings, masonry and glass cascading onto patients and staff, badly injuring her arm. She said she has been reliving the moment over and over, especially as the anniversary approached.

“The wound cannot be removed. You keep reliving this memory,” she said.

Amar Suliman, 23, a medical student, said she hoped the anniversary would prove to be an opportunity to revive popular pressure on the Lebanese authorities.

“It’s also a day to remember that at any given moment, these people are willing to kill us, to injure us, just so that they continue with their rule and preserve their corruption,” she said. “It’s a political fight, and not just on August 4.”

Initial hopes that the explosion would jolt the country’s squabbling politicians toward a solution to an economic crisis brought on by years of corruption and ineptitude have faded. Instead, a year later, the country still has no government to replace the one that resigned in the wake of the blast, because politicians have been unable to agree on how to distribute posts among the country’s competing sects.

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In the meantime, Lebanon’s decline has accelerated. Its currency has more than halved in value in the past year, and is now worth less than 90 percent of what it was on the eve of the financial crisis in 2019. More than half the population now lives below the poverty line, according to a report published in the spring by the World Bank, which cited fears that the country could see civil unrest.

In a reminder that Lebanon also risks becoming ensnared in escalating tensions between Israel and Iran, rockets were firedWednesday across the Lebanese border into Israel, prompting volleys of Israeli artillery fire and airstrikes into Lebanon. Southern Lebanon is controlled by the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, which Israel said it held responsible for the attack.

“Lebanese leaders seem bent on a stalling strategy, which I regret and I think is a historic and moral failure,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking at the launch of an international donors conference in Paris that aims to raise at least $350 million in humanitarian aid for those Lebanese most in need.

But Lebanon needs billions of dollars to resolve its financial crisis, funds that the international community has made clear will not be forthcoming until there is a government that can implement political and economic reforms.

The work of forming a government that will combat corruption and stem the decline “has to start now,” President Biden told the conference in a videotaped address, announcing $100 million in U.S. assistance. “If the leaders of Lebanon make that choice, the United States will be here every step of the way to support your efforts,” he said. “We’re there to help, if you do it.”

Sly reported from London.