Beirut, Lebanon: As thousands of Lebanese stood solemnly facing Beirut port on Wednesday to honour lost relatives and friends, their minute of silence was soon followed by wailing sirens and revolutionary slogans.
Even as candles were being lit and the names of those killed by last year’s monster blast readout, protesters a few hundred yards (metres) away tried to force a barrier leading to parliament.
Marches, concerts, prayers, protests, flags, vigils and statues: the cacophony that gripped central Beirut reflected how torn many were on the anniversary of Lebanon’s worst peacetime tragedy.
While some remained haunted by the unfathomable loss and destruction that the August 4 port explosion wreaked last year, others saw their revolutionary fervour reignited.
The chants of “thawra, thawra” (revolution, revolution) had not been shared by such a large crowd on the streets in months despite Lebanon’s spectacular financial and social collapse.
The sun setting on the Mediterranean, a bright red shipwreck and the gutted grain silos whose gloomy silhouette has become an emblem of the wounded city provided a striking background for the official ceremony.
Victims’ families sat on neat white plastic chairs, cradling pictures of their slain relatives, as Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch conducted a mass shortly after 18:07 — the exact time at which the explosion ripped through the city.
Sari Majdalani was busy in the kitchen of a nearby restaurant when disaster struck at that time last year. He escaped unharmed and has found a new job as a cook but morale is low.
“I try to lie to myself and pretend that everything will be alright. But right now, I don’t believe there’s any hope,” the young man said.
A far cry from the state funeral mood that cloaked the blast site and its surroundings, scenes reminiscent of an October 2019 protest movement that had kindled nationwide hope was playing out.
Bare-chested young men tried to scale a razor-wire-topped barrier blocking access to parliament, for many the seat of the blame for the blast and the rest of the country’s woes.
Baton-wielding security forces responded to stone-throwing with tear gas and pushed back dozens of protesters even as the Maronite patriarch, wearing his tall white mitre, continued his homily.
Praying and rioting
Meanwhile, hundreds gathered on Martyrs’ Square, which is located between the two sites and was the central hub for weeks of protests that rattled Lebanon’s reviled leadership nearly two years ago.
For many Lebanese, almost as traumatising as the deadly explosion itself has been the lack of justice that followed and the political elite’s attempts to dodge it.
Several victims’ organisations had warned that their anger had only grown more intense over the past year and signalled the anniversary should send a clear message they would not let the blast go unpunished.
As the praying and rioting continued into dusk, it was hard to tell which current would win the day, leaving those in the middle wondering where to go.
But for Nour, a 19-year-old high school girl, the only way is to abandon Lebanon.
“There is no hope in sight. I don’t want to leave this country but if nothing changes, I will leave when I finish my studies.”
Dozens hurt in Lebanon clashes on blast anniversary
Dozens were injured Wednesday when Lebanese police clashed with protesters demanding accountability for last year’s Beirut port explosion, a short distance from the main event marking the tragedy’s first anniversary.
Scuffles in central Beirut broke out between riot police and stone-lobbing protesters, who lit a fire and tried to storm the parliament’s headquarters, whose members have been accused of stalling a probe into the disaster.
Riot police responded by firing tear gas, rubber bullets and water canons, and urging “peaceful protesters” to leave.
“In light of repeated attacks on members of the Internal Security Forces, we will resort to legitimate and proportionate means … against non-peaceful demonstrators,” police said in a statement.
Shortly afterwards, Lebanese television appeared to show a tank moving into the area.
The Red Cross, which dispatched 21 ambulances and 100 paramedics, said it transported eight people to hospital and had treated dozens more on-site.
Survivors and relatives of blast victims carried flags and portraits of the dead, as prayers and mournful tunes rang out amid a mix of grief and anger.
There were no reports of violence there.
One year on, no senior official has been held to account. A local investigation has yet to yield major arrests or even identify a culprit, with political leaders widely accused of obstructing justice.