Few bits of infrastructure are as unremarkable as grain silos. No one paid much attention to the ones looming over Beirut’s port, the rows of tubes inside a hulking white edifice that held 120,000 tonnes of grain. Drivers zipped past on the coastal road en route to the mountains or the beach. Locals with a sea view (and your correspondent) took no notice of them while sipping coffee on their balconies. Until the port exploded, that is.
The blast on August 4th 2020, caused by thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored improperly for almost seven years, turned the silos into both shield and symbol. They served as a giant blast wall, absorbing some of the fury and sparing west Beirut the level of devastation wrought in the east. It left them almost unrecognisable, an iconic image of that day, a drooping monolith that resembled a cake melted by too long in the sun.
The government wanted to demolish the silos. Many Lebanese thought them a symbol worth saving. Families of the more than 200 people killed lobbied to preserve them as a memorial.
As ever in Lebanon, the state did nothing. Entropy won out. Last month the silos started to burn: grain trapped inside for two years and fermented in summer heat caught fire. As the anniversary neared, residents who survived the explosion were made to relive their trauma, watching as smoke again billowed over the port. On July 31st, four of the silos collapsed. Engineers say more will follow. Experts worry this will spew a plume of fungus-laden dust over the city.
The explosion came one year into a grinding economic crisis caused by decades of a state run like a giant Ponzi scheme. Thousands of homes and offices were destroyed; their owners struggled to get access to cash to rebuild. Hospitals were wrecked. Streets that were hubs of Beirut’s once-vibrant nightlife became corridors of mangled rubble. For many citizens it was a breaking point that helped trigger an exodus to the Gulf states, Europe, Canada—anywhere without a government so negligent as to leave a massive bomb lying around the capital.
Two years later, no one powerful has been held to account. Tarek Bitar, the judge leading an official investigation, has had his work repeatedly obstructed by politicians, most vocally those from Hizbullah, the Shia militia-cum-political party, and Amal, a faction that is a byword for corruption. Everyone has a theory about what happened. No one expects to receive a satisfactory answer.
The economic crisis grinds on. The currency is all but worthless, the banks zombies. Shortages of fuel and, more recently, bread recur. Around 80% of Lebanese now live in poverty. The government is discussing a $3bn loan with the imf but has failed to act on most of its demands for reform. Parliament has legislated just one, passing amendments to the banking-secrecy law last month. Even this fell short of what the imf had requested.
The politicians who oversaw all this are still in charge: in Lebanon, the past is not even past. Though parliamentary elections in May brought a crop of independent lawmakers, the legislature is still dominated by the warlords and crooks who have dominated it for decades. The central-bank governor who supervised the economic collapse still has his job. Nothing has been fixed; no one has been punished.
Ghosts loom everywhere in the Middle East, recent horrors unacknowledged by governments that prefer to forget. Bahrain bulldozed the monument at the centre of the Pearl roundabout in Manama, site of anti-government protests in 2011, pour décourager les autres. Tahrir square, the beating heart of Egypt’s revolution that same year, has been transmogrified into a sterile space where citizens are not allowed to linger.
Stroll through Rabaa al-Adawiya square in Cairo, where in 2013 security forces massacred hundreds of protesters after a coup, and you will at least find a monument—built by the army, which did much of the killing on that day. Its two arms are meant to symbolise the army and police, cradling an orb that represents the Egyptian people, a grotesquerie that is less memorial than victory sign.
Soon after the Beirut explosion, graffiti started to appear on the concrete traffic barrier outside the port. The most poignant slogan, scrawled in both English and Arabic, was simple: “My government did this”. It was photographed countless times, with the ruined silos in the background offering their own silent rebuke. Given the proper motivation, the Lebanese government is not totally supine: it painted over the graffiti. The silos are slipping into the sea. The ghosts will remain. ■
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