Explosions at the port of Beirut: threatened with demolition, the silos "must serve the memory"

The future of the grain silos in the port of Beirut, partially destroyed by the explosions of August 4, 2020, is at the center of a government cacophony. Two days after a decision by the Council of Ministers approving its destruction, the building was classified as a historic monument on March 18. For their part, the families of victims and survivors want to preserve what they consider to be “proof of the crime” and a symbol of “impossible mourning”.

Devastated by the double explosion that occurred on August 4, 2020 in the port of Beirut, which left at least 218 dead, more than 7,500 injured and ravaged the Lebanese capital, the gigantic grain silos still sit enthroned as witnesses to the tragedy of which they have become the symbol.

A symbol recognized even internationally, with the videos of the explosions that have gone around the world, in which the structure, built in the late 1960s (visible in the tweet below) and which could contain up to 120,000 tons of grains and cereals, is ubiquitous.

Located a few dozen meters from the epicenter of the explosions, located in hangar number 12, the iconic building was still threatened with demolition a few days ago, following a decision taken by the Council of Ministers.

Government discord

The government having taken note of the official green light granted, at the beginning of March, by Tarek Bitar, the investigating judge in charge of the investigation, who indicated that the conservation of the silos was no longer necessary “in the light of the state progress of the forensic investigation”.

But also a report submitted in April 2021 by the Swiss firm Amann Engineering recommending the partial demolition of the silos. The heavily impacted northern part is specifically targeted. In order to avoid a collapse considered inevitable because of its progressive inclination measured at two millimeters per day.

Except that two days after the Council of Ministers decided in favor of the destruction of the building, the Minister of Culture, Mohammad Mortada, announced, on March 18, its classification among the historical monuments.

“Given the need to preserve these historic silos and to consider them as part of a human heritage, since they are the emblem of a disaster-stricken city, but also given the need to preserve this image for future generations, I I took the decision to classify them among the historical monuments”, explained the minister in a press release.

The port silos have therefore obtained a reprieve thanks to this government cacophony which remains without official explanation. Interviewed by the French-language daily L’Orient-le-Jour, the Minister of Public Works and Transport, Ali Hamiyé, said he was “very surprised to learn” the classification of the structure. “I have no idea what could have motivated this decision and I was not consulted on it,” he explained.

“The symbol of impunity”

In the meantime, the approach of the Minister of Culture goes in the direction of the families of the victims and the survivors who are firmly opposed to the destruction of the silos and who plead to transform them into a place of memory. Even if they are not fooled.

“It’s misplaced opportunism in view of the legislative elections of May 15, a publicity stunt, especially since this ranking can be immediately returned to the Council of Ministers”, explains to France 24 Paul Naggear, who lost Alexandra , his then 3-year-old only daughter, and one of the youngest victims of the August 4, 2020 tragedy.

“The silos have a very strong symbolic importance and significance for us, he insists. They are above all the symbol of impunity which reminds us that a year and seven months later, we still have nothing: neither truth, nor justice”.

Confident that he could not mourn, he refused any idea of ​​demolishing the building, and campaigned for the site to become “a memorial, for meditation and a historical reminder of the liberation of our people from the criminal regime”, but only , when “justice will be done”.

The investigation into responsibility for the disaster has been suspended since December by a series of appeals against Judge Tarek Bitar, whom some of the political class are trying to challenge.

“As ugly as these silos are today, they are a symbol of impossible mourning, and they are there in the face of the entire capital to remind us that the fight for justice for our loved ones must continue, he continues. This is why it is strictly forbidden and unthinkable for us, parents of victims, that a millimeter be touched, in any case not before we have completely won our case, or before someone tries to make us turn the page.”

In mid-February, as part of a campaign on social networks, Paul Naggear had posted a message on Twitter, accompanied by a photo of the silos in which he lamented that after “every war, after every battle, after every crime … Power erases landmarks and destroys memory so that no one remembers and demands accountability.”

“Today, he wrote, they want to kill the witness to the crime and bury the mass grave and demolish what remains of the silos that remind them of their crime, until the criminals are found responsible! No to demolition silos in the port of Beirut.”

Waldemar Faddoul, a Franco-Lebanese architect, who “miraculously” survived the explosions of August 4, while he was in his car 250 meters from the port, shares this point of view.

“I am 100% against the demolition of the building, whatever the pretext, structural or not, because the explosion of August 4 is a unifying element, in its drama and in its magnitude, and of convergence in our history and our identity, and this structure represents one of the biggest scars in our history,” he told France 24.

And to add: “a normal society which honors the memory and the victims, which respects its citizens and its cities, could consider destroying these silos so as not to keep this scar on the seafront, except that in Lebanon we are not not in this situation. This is why, for the moment, it is our duty to keep these silos so symbolic as they are, so disturbing for the political class because they remind them of this indelible crime, at least until the day where justice will be done, which I highly doubt”.

Like many Lebanese, the gutted building reminds Waldemar Faddoul of the appalling moment when everything changed, precisely at 6:07 p.m. on August 4, 2020.

“Each time I pass by these silos, which have borne a monstrous explosive charge and saved the lives of hundreds of people by absorbing part of the explosion, I wonder how I was able to survive and each time I realizes the extent of the crime they incarnate in spite of themselves. This is why they must remain standing, a bit like the Barakat building [pour la guerre du Liban (1975-1990)]”.

Nicknamed the “House of Beirut” or the “Yellow House”, this building, an emblem of traditional architecture, which still bears today the scars of the war, during which it was notably occupied by snipers, was transformed into place of memory and museum.

Silos embodying “the collective memory of the city and its inhabitants”

Within civil society, cries are also being raised against the demolition of a place that has entered the history of the country. The Order of Engineers and Architects of Beirut thus pleads for the preservation of the building which embodies “the collective memory of the city and its inhabitants”.

In a press release published on March 9the Order affirms “that from a scientific and technical point of view, all damaged installations can be reinforced and restored, regardless of the extent of structural damage to which they have been exposed”.

According to Waldemar Faddoul, silos “must and are even intended to serve memory, since they are structurally speaking useless, in the sense that they are unusable as such, and it is impossible for them to become functional again or to demolish them to rebuild others in the same place”.

In cooperation with the World Bank, the Lebanese Ministry of Public Works and Transport launched, on February 11, a study aimed at reorganizing the country’s port infrastructure and defining a plan to rehabilitate the port of Beirut, the results of which are expected in July.

“Ideally, concludes Waldemar Faddoul, the entire port area should be rehabilitated and connected to the urban fabric of the capital as part of a comprehensive and thoughtful plan taking into account the opinion and needs of the population, but in the name of the memory, these silos must remain in place.”

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