The Symbolic Collapse of Lebanon’s Wheat Silos

Firefighters extinguish a fire at the silos in the north block of the Beirut Port in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, July 21, 2022. The silos were destroyed by a massive explosion in 2020 and the structure might have caught on fire due to fermented grains. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

This tragedy marked one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in recent memory, yet the world has done nothing to find out why it happened.”  

On Aug. 4, 2020, thousands of tons of haphazardly stored ammonium nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut. Upwards of 200 people were killed, and 7,000 people were wounded. 300,000 people were displaced, and 80,000 children were left homeless. 77 apartments were destroyed. In addition to the catastrophic human impact, the grain silos at the port, which absorbed most of the explosion’s impact, were heavily damaged. Stripped to their core, crumbling from the inside, but still standing, these grain silos came to symbolize the pain, destruction and aftermath of the explosion. 

On Aug. 4, 2022, exactly two years after the destruction, several of those wheat silos finally collapsed, paralleling the ongoing situation in Lebanon. 

The almost complete lack of reformative action from the political system has greatly distressed Lebanon’s people. The aftermath of the explosion shuttered half of Beirut’s healthcare centers, afflicted 163 private and public schools and impacted 56% of private businesses in Beirut. Damages are estimated to cost $10-$15 billion. 

This is even more disheartening given that Lebanon is also currently embroiled in what is estimated to be one of the most devastating economic collapses worldwide since the 1850s. 

Lebanon is experiencing record rates of poverty, unemployment and a rapid decline in education and quality of living. Today, 82% of the population lives in multidimensional poverty, 33% of households cannot access healthcare and 50% cannot access medicines; child labor is on the rise, and 30% of youths aged 15-25 have dropped out of formal education. Unemployment has soared to at least 30%. The collapse of the Lebanese pound — which has lost 90% of its value since Oct. 19 — has eroded people’s ability to access basic needs. 

Yet, as the country collapses, the political elite remain unperturbed. There still has been no formal apology or acknowledgment of responsibility from the government regarding the explosion. None of Lebanon’s senior officials have met with the victims’ families. While tens of thousands of volunteers took to the streets immediately after the explosion, sweeping glass and blood with their personal brooms, there was reportedly little to no support from authorities to aid recovery and rebuilding. 

The official response to the ongoing domestic situation has been equally unsatisfactory. The government has provided practically no relief or aid amid an economic crisis. The budget Lebanon’s parliament recently passed on Sept. 26, 2022, also falls short of the thresholds set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF had urged Lebanon to use a U.S. dollar-to-Lebanese pound exchange rate in the budget close to the current market rate that traders and sellers use. Instead, the budget used an officially set rate twice as strong as the reality of the Lebanese pound. Accordingly, the money the budget allocates for the crippled public sector will still be far below the necessary threshold, breaking a crucial agreement with the IMF. The withdrawal of support from the IMF strips away even more hope for a meaningful loan to rectify the situation.     

This governmental incompetence and negligence show little sign of being remedied. The domestic judicial investigation into the explosion has thus far been fruitless. The primary judge assigned to the case brought charges against four people and was promptly removed from the investigation when two of the four people, former ministers of the country, complained about bias. The current judge, Judge Tarek Bitar, faced massive resistance from government officials, who evaded questioning and prosecution in multiple ways. Consequently, his work has been suspended. The courts set to rule on complaints brought against the judge are on hiatus. 

Ergo, the investigation in its entirety has come to a screeching halt. Internationally, the call by UN experts for an investigation into the explosion has yet to receive a response from the Human Rights Council.

What comes next for Lebanon is unclear. With official corruption and negligence so systematically rooted, massive reform is necessary to shift the course of the country’s future. 

Yet, moderate improvements seen in the latest parliamentary elections held in May 2022 may indicate ongoing destruction is not necessarily inevitable. Voters elected 13 independent candidates to the parliament — 10% of the total. In 2018, only one independent member resided in parliament. This moderate increase is significant in a country where the kleptocratic elites have established a sectarian system that institutionalizes religious and ethnic divides. This system allows the elite to use fear-mongering and divisive propaganda to their advantage to remain in power and suppress independents from positions of authority. So small ripples of change, which could gradually shift cultural and social conditioning, are the more likely path to genuine amelioration of the crisis. 

However, while that potential change gradually actualizes, the families of the Beirut port explosion victims still remain without closure or justice to heal their wounds as the future of those grain silos continues collapsing around them. 

While the government had previously promised to memorialize the silos, they changed course in April 2022 and ordered their demolition. Reasons for this decision included the cost of rebuilding and the potential danger of more silos collapsing; protests immediately followed from families of victims, activists and civic groups. Those protests continue today, with citizens demanding that the last remaining silos maintain their position as historic and necessary monuments. 

Mirielle Khoury lost her 15-year-old son, Elias, in the explosion. On Aug. 4, 2022, as the silos burned behind her, she yelled at a protest for all to hear, “We want to know the truth. It’s our right to know those who are responsible for this horrendous crime are held accountable! … It was the right of my son and all the victims to live, and to be safe.” 

Mirielle then had the crowd join her in a communal promise, “​​I swear by their pure blood, by the tears of mothers and siblings and fathers and children and elders that we will not despair, we will not acquiesce, we will not comply, we will not retreat, we will not indulge, we will not underestimate. We are here, and here we will stay until the end of time.”