For a year now, David Mellehe has carried his dead brother Ralph’s cell phone alongside his own. He pays the monthly charges. He keeps its battery full. Ralph’s rosary beads drape around David’s neck. Ralph’s watch is on one wrist. On the other is his black bracelet, as well as a replica of a tattoo of their parents’ names Ralph had inked on his skin one Mother’s Day. After Ralph died, David got the same tattoo.
“I'd pay with my life, if I could just see Ralph again, just for a few minutes not more,” David says. “Just for two minutes.”
Ralph left some of the items David now wears at the headquarters of his firefighting brigade when he and nine colleagues were dispatched before the explosion happened shortly after 6 p.m. on August 4, 2020, to extinguish a blaze at the Port of Beirut in the Lebanese capital. He was just 23 years old when he died with his co-workers in an inferno that ignited one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. The blast that lofted a white mushroom cloud over Beirut that day killed at least 216 people, injured more than 6,500, forced hundreds of thousands from their ruined homes, and left entire neighborhoods looking like war zones.
It happened because a portion of some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used as fertilizer but also in explosives, blew up. The combustible material had been improperly stored in the port’s Warehouse 12 since 2014, with the knowledge of a handful of senior political, judicial, customs, and security officials, but unknown to the public.
A year after the tragedy, nobody has explained yet how the ammonium nitrate ignited, or why it was even there. Nobody has been held accountable for keeping the deadly cargo within walking distance of residential neighborhoods, or for the catastrophe that ensued. There have been no answers, no justice, and no peace for grieving families such as David’s, and they are enraged about it.
“They sent my brother to his death,” David says. “I blame those who sent them, who let them go there knowing what was there. I didn't know, you didn't know, but some people knew.”
Ralph and other first-responders like him, as well as soldiers stationed at the port, could have died at any time in the line of duty. Instead, they perished in an avoidable tragedy, one many blame on the country’s leaders. For their families, the senselessness of their children’s deaths while in service to their country is particularly agonizing and heightens their rage at Lebanon’s dysfunctional ruling class.
People at the port that day weren’t the only ones to die. In Beirut, grief and anger are widespread. Many of the dead were simply going about their lives. They died in their workplaces, in their cars, in restaurants, in the streets, in their homes, or later succumbed to wounds. Toddlers and teenagers were killed in their bedrooms.
Instead of pushing for the truth and accountability, Lebanon’s corrupt entrenched ruling class has protected its own, stymieing an ongoing judicial investigation by refusing to lift the immunity of officials whom the judge wants to question. The politicians and their cronies in the judiciary collaborated to oust the first judge investigating the case after he dared to charge several ministers and the prime minister, demanding they appear for questioning as suspects. The judge who replaced him has focused on some of the same officials. He could face the same fate as his predecessor.
For David Mellehe and many other Lebanese who survived the trauma, the explosion is not in the past, it’s still with them, part of their present, a bleeding wound that won’t heal. It was not just one tragic day, it’s an ongoing tragedy, one made worse by a ruling class of politicians and security and judicial officials who not only refuse to take responsibility for failing to protect Beirut, but who for decades have failed to effectively manage the country.
To the Lebanese, the explosion is the gravest manifestation of how they have suffered under the country’s dysfunctional leadership. The oligarchy has so severely mismanaged the state that it has pushed Lebanon into what the World Bank has called “a deliberate depression,” a crisis that ranks “in the top 10, possibly top three, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-19th century.”
It has been a nightmarish year in what has become a rapidly failing state. The country has been rudderless since the prime minister and his cabinet resigned after the explosion. A new government hasn’t yet been formed due to political infighting and petty personal disputes. The currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value, plunging more than half of a once-middle income country into poverty. Banks have imposed strict monthly withdrawal limits that have left depositors watching the value of their trapped money melt away. People have lost their life savings. Triple-digit hyperinflation has taken hold. The price of bread (set by the Ministry of Economy) has increased at least half a dozen times this year. A third of the children in Lebanon are going to bed hungry, according to UNICEF.
Long snaking lines at gas stations have become common sights due to crippling shortages that are made worse by smuggling across the border into sanctions-stricken Syria. Electricity outages have become so severe that state power rarely comes for more than an hour or two a day. Private generators that fill in the gaps can’t keep up. In some areas, there is no power (state or private) for extended periods, or people simply go without electricity because they can’t afford the exorbitant rates demanded by generator operators. Forget about air conditioning. On a recent weekend, the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 vaccination drive was cancelled due to the unreliability of electricity as well as internet outages, which meant health facilities couldn’t access the national online platform. Pharmacies are out of basics, such as infant formula and Panadol. Thousands of doctors, nurses, and other professionals have fled, while others are looking for any way out. Desperation has driven up petty crime. Even the Lebanese army has had to put its hand out to the international community for help to feed its troops. And then, almost as an afterthought given the enormity of all the other problems, lurks the coronavirus pandemic.
There is a heaviness, an exhaustion, a humiliation to what passes for everyday life in Lebanon these days, fueling a seething hatred of the political class and dread of what new or deeper crisis tomorrow will bring. After the explosion, Lebanon’s president said matter-of-factly that if the country didn’t quickly form a government and correct course, it was headed to hell, and that’s where it seems to be going. But hell, it turns out, isn’t a single destination. It is a bottomless pit, with every new crisis revealing another deeper level of misery, and still the Lebanese state continues its descent.
In blast-ravaged areas of Beirut, much has been repaired thanks to NGOs and private initiatives, not the absent state. But some buildings still look like they were destroyed yesterday. Many apartments haven’t replaced windows that were blown out a year ago. But that is just material damage.
The more profound impact is often invisible. It can manifest in actions such as a protective older brother keeping his dead sibling’s phone line alive because he can’t stand to let something so closely tied to his brother die.
At times when I talk with David, who is 30, he speaks of his younger brother Ralph in the present tense. “I have a brother who is beautiful,” he tells me, describing a handsome blue-eyed man who wanted to be a firefighter because he loved a challenge and hoped to rescue people. “I’m still waiting for Ralph to put his key in the door and come home,” David says. “Ralph is still alive. He still lives with me. Ralph is here near me.”
At other times, the sharp pain of reality and the untempered anger it invokes cut like stab wounds. “They deprived me of saying, ‘brother.’ Who will be the best man at my wedding? Who will stand near me? Do I put a photo of my brother? No. I can’t accept it,” David says. “If you're thirsty, you can drink water. If you're in pain, you might say it hurts. If you’re happy you smile, but there is no relief for this feeling.”
The only thing that might come close to cooling his burning heart, he says, is to “take justice for my brother with my hands.” Ralph’s body, like that of many who died at the port, was torn apart by the force of the blast. “My brother shouldn’t have died like that. He was young and strong. I can’t accept that I received my brother in pieces, and not all of him. His coffin was weighed down with bricks and bags of sand and bolted shut,” David says. “I can't stay silent about that, and I don’t care who is found responsible, even if it's my own father. God forbid, I will kill my father to take justice for my brother.”
Justice is rarely present in Lebanon. It barely even visits. Countless tragedies over the decades, including bombings and political assassinations, have gone unresolved and unpunished in this land of impunity. And so it’s no surprise that some Lebanese fear that the investigation into the Beirut explosion will also fail to identify the perpetrators or deliver justice. Many are calling for an independent international investigation.
The family of Hamze Eskandar, a 25-year-old soldier stationed at the port who was killed in the explosion, say that while they trust the judge in charge of the investigation, they’re not hopeful that he will be able to work unimpeded by powerful political interests. “Everything is politicized here. They won’t let anybody do what needs to be done and work properly on this case,” Hamze’s eldest sister, Salam says.
“They can’t even form a government,” her father Hussein tells me from a living room turned into a shrine. Images of Hamze, including a poster about four feet long, adorn the room. “Nobody cares that people died, or if people live, they don’t care.”
“We wake up and turn on the TV and wonder what problem is waiting for us today,” Salam says. “We are in Lebanon. You can’t anticipate anything. Today we’re alive; tomorrow we might not be.”
The country’s decay at the hands of the same leaders who failed to prevent the explosion only adds insult to the Eskandars’ deep injury. “We didn't expect to reach a point where ministers and members of Parliament are pretending that none of them know anything. Two hundred and sixteen martyrs. Nobody asked, nobody cares,” Salam says. Her brother and others, she says, “were sacrificed for nothing, for the lies and corruption of them. They set the city on fire. Hamze left us and tore our hearts out.”
The Eskandars are a family blighted by the intergenerational trauma that haunts many Lebanese. The patriarch, Hussein, lost his father in the 15-year civil war between Christians and Muslims that ended in 1990. He disappeared at a Christian militia checkpoint. “We never found him,” Hussein says. Hussein served in the Lebanese army, which split along sectarian lines in the war. He still has shrapnel in his body from wounds he received during the conflict. In the 1980s, he was kidnapped by a Palestinian armed faction and presumed killed. His parents even held a funeral for him. He was eventually released and returned home. “So when Hamze was missing, we thought he might return, the way baba did,” Salam says. Hamze did return, four days after the blast, after his body parts were identified from his parents’ DNA samples.
“When my son entered the army, I knew that we might lose him at any time. You don't know when his time is up, he's a soldier, but I didn't expect to lose him like this,” Hussein says. “If he'd died in battle, I wouldn't be this upset.”
As the eldest of two sons with three older sisters, Hamze felt a responsibility to provide for his parents and siblings. His dream, Salam says, was to get his parents out of their cramped apartment in an overcrowded, impoverished neighborhood of Beirut and to build them a house in their hometown of Hermel, a three-hour drive outside Beirut. “He never let us down. He always supported us all even though he was younger than most of us,” Salam says. The family’s heartbreak wasn’t confined to Hamze’s passing. “Hamze was my mother's greatest happiness, and Hamze took her away. His death broke her. She died two months after him.”
The family’s matriarch, Sabah, contracted COVID-19 and died of a heart attack. “After he was martyred, mama stopped taking her medications and going to her medical appointments. She stopped everything. She surrendered,” Salam says.
“She'd pray, 'Dear God, take me to him, don't keep me apart from him,’ ” Hussein says.
“Mama was very strong, we didn't expect her to break and die,” Salam says. “She was our strength, but we didn't know how to help her cope with Hamze's passing.”
In the town of Ablah in the Bekaa Valley, an hour and a half’s drive out of Beirut, the parents of another young man in the Lebanese military who was killed at the port, George Maalouf, are also struggling to cope with the loss of their middle child.
George was 32 when he died. He was supposed to get married that September. The apartment he’d been saving money to build since he was 18 is finished and empty above his parent’s. Outside, at the entrance to their home, George’s parents Elias and Rita are building a memorial in the spot where they all used to enjoy their morning coffee. It’s a little white stone chapel.
“I talk to Joujou all the time,” Rita says, using her son’s childhood nickname. “I was talking to him before in the kitchen. I lit a candle for him and told him that he melted my heart like this candle. I swear, may they be deprived of their children the way they deprived me of mine.”
“May they all get sick, all of them, and suffer,” her husband Elias says through tears.
“Those traitors in Parliament,” Rita says, “those deaf-blind mutes who don't want to see us or hear us, they have no conscience.”
A year on, and the Maaloufs, like other families, are drowning in a deep pain. They keep replaying George’s last weeks, recognizing signs they believe foretold their unfathomable loss, such as George’s response to the sudden death of a young neighbor. “He said, ‘Death comes for all of us, but Jesus was resurrected,’ ” Rita said. “I swear to God, it was as if God was preparing me. Joujou said, ‘Mama, don't be afraid, every person dies at his time.’ He was so calm when he said it.”
Rita remembers how she couldn’t take her eyes off her son the night before the explosion, before he returned to the port the next day. “It was the last time I saw Joujou. I didn’t see him the next morning.” She blames herself for missing his call that morning. She was hanging the laundry and didn’t hear the phone. “I could have heard his voice one more time.”
“The day of the explosion,” Elias says, “the weather was like this, calm. No wind. If I tell you, you won't believe me; there was a small whirlwind in front of our house. It lasted a few minutes, and then it disappeared.”
Rita and Elias start to sob. “It was Joujou's soul. For sure, it was Joujou,” Rita says. “I am certain of it, certain of it! I am certain of it!”
“You know, when I'm really in pain, when I'm really, really hurt, and I feel like I can't control myself anymore,” Rita says, struggling to speak, “I tell myself, it's not just your heart Rita. The hearts of 216 other mothers are also hurting like you. I am not alone. That's what I tell myself to keep going. There are 216 other hearts that feel the same pain, that share the same beat. That's what I tell myself.”
And they all want justice.
Rania Abouzeid is a Beirut-based journalist, a frequent contributor to National Geographic, and the author of No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria and Sisters of the War: Two Remarkable True Stories of Survival and Hope in Syria. Follow her on Twitter @raniaab
Rena Effendi is an Azerbaijani photographer whose work focuses on post-conflict societies, the environment, and social justice. She is a regular contributor to National Geographic and is based in Istanbul. To see more of her work, follow her on Instagram.