In Beirut, the remains of grain silos or the challenge of a collective memory

Part of the grain silos at the port of Beirut damaged by the deadly explosions on August 4, 2020 collapsed on Sunday due to fire. An episode that revived the wounds of the victims’ families a few days before the commemorations. These reservoirs represent for some a symbol of the tragedy that caused more than 200 deaths, while others hope to destroy them and a new memorial site.

Although damaged, they still stand in the center of the port of Beirut, remnants of the deadly explosions on August 4, 2020. But since Sunday July 30, the grain silos of the capital of Lebanon, symbols of a drama which caused more than 200 dead and more than 6,500 injured, one part collapsed after a fire that lasted for several weeks ended up weakening the tanks. As a sad reminder, it was also a fire in a warehouse – which housed hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate stored without precautions – that caused explosions in 2020.

“We are not done with the disasters in Beirut, this collapse must happen sooner or later,” complained Karina Sukar, architect and survivor of the 2020 explosions.

The fire – which started in early July in the most damaged part of the silos – was caused by a combination of fermentation in the remaining grain stocks and high temperatures in the Lebanese capital, the minister said in the middle of July. Lebanese Economy, Amin Salam. The latter also explained that attempts – by land, sea or air – to put an end to the fire carried a greater risk of collapsing the silos than the fire itself.

Some parts of the reservoirs currently contain about 3,000 tons of wheat and other grains that cannot be harvested, according to authorities.

“It’s shocking and sad to see this, we expected it (this collapse, editor’s note) because the fire has been going on for weeks”, reacted Paul Naggear, who lost Alexandra, his only daughter who was 3 years old, in the tragedy two years before. “This fire, as usual, is a symbol of the systemic bankruptcy of the Lebanese State which has never been able to act when necessary, as it already did on August 4, 2020. These silos remain a symbol of great importance to our fight for justice.”

“The visual imprint for everyone of what this explosion is”

The reservoirs at the port of Beirut, in fact, have been the subject of a struggle for months between the families of the victims and the Lebanese government. The Council of Ministers first decided, on March 16, to confirm the destruction of the silos, based on the green light given to this effect by Judge Tarek Bitar – who oversees the investigation of the explosions at the port of Beirut. – and in a study by Swiss experts recommending the partial destruction of the reservoirs – those that finally collapsed on Sunday.

But the situation was reversed on March 18: the Minister of Culture, Mohammad Mortada, classified the site of the silos among historical monuments, challenging a government government. He justified this choice in a press release by “it is necessary to preserve (them) and consider them part of a human heritage, because they are the symbol of a city hit by disaster, but also given the need to preserve this image for future generations.”

>> Beirut port explosions: threatened with demolition, silos “must serve as a memory”

Among the families of the victims, many of them are also against the disappearance of the grain silos, as Paul Naggear remembers: “At the beginning of our fight, we asked not to touch the integrity of the site. Then it was done a media campaign to preserve these silos. And if the state decides to send bulldozers to knock it down, we’ll be there to stop it. “

A position also shared by Waldemar Faddoul, who survived the explosions in 2020. Interviewed by France 24 in March, this Franco-Lebanese architect said that he is “100% against the demolition of the building, whatever the excuse, structural or not , because the explosion of August 4 is a unifying element, in its drama and magnitude, and in the convergence of our history and our identity.

For many families of the victims, the grain tanks are both a shield in the western part of Beirut – they absorbed part of the shock wave created by the explosion of the warehouse containing ammonium nitrate – and a symbol of memory for the Lebanese. “The silos became a visual imprint for everyone of what this explosion was, Paul Naggear explained. It was a symbol to remember and not forget the fight for justice, which had just begun.”

>> Explosions in Beirut: after the suspension of Judge Bitar, the bitterness of the relatives of the victims

The maintenance of these silos – even if weak – in their foundations is of real value for many families that have left visible scars of a tragedy, while the judicial investigation of the explosions continues for many months. Judge Bitar, who faced many obstacles in continuing his work, was again forced to suspend his investigations in November, for the third time since his appointment in February 2021. Since then, the investigation has been slowed down by several political maneuvers are currently suspended. .

Memory is torn apart by the future of silos

However, the preservation of the silos, despite all that they represent, is not the same for the families of the victims. Karina Sukar lost her best friend in the explosions in 2020 – “it was like my sister” – as well as her apartment, which was blown away by the shock wave. He wants these grain tanks to disappear from the Beirut landscape.

“I am one of the big losers at the human and material level, but I am against preserving these silos,” he explained. “I can’t see them anymore. I don’t like to rub the knife in the wound and I prefer it to heal to move on. By destroying them, we cannot destroy a memory. It is not the silos that raise the dead.”

Paul Naggear is also in the same line. “We see that these silos are terrible and at best, we don’t want to see them anymore”, he confirmed, before qualifying: “Except that we (some of the families of the victims, editor’s note) know that it is more important now to keep this crime still unpunished clearly visible and well anchored in the life of every Beiruti.”

The architect, on the other hand, said he was in favor of building a monument “that would better represent the victims” instead of the silos.

Several projects are on the table regarding the future of the current site. According to the Middle East Eye media, “once the destruction of the silos is finished”, the Lebanese executive will be able to build a new grain storage structure, but not in the same place as the current one. Another hypothesis is the distribution of these grain tanks in three places – in Beirut, Zahrani (in the South) and Tripoli (in the North). Finally, a monument for the victims will see the light of day, but in a location other than the current silo.

“The first thing, before there is a memorial, is to get justice for the people in this case (the investigation of the explosions in 2020, editor’s note)”, specified Karina Sukar, before concluding : “And if the people in power want to rebuild part of the port where the silos are now, then it will take a place in memory that is well done, at least, symbolically to do justice to all Lebanese.

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