Beirut blast survivors lose hope as Lebanon lurches from one crisis to another

Images of victims of the Beirut blast displayed near the port. (Supplied)
Images of victims of the Beirut blast displayed near the port. (Supplied)
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Updated 09 August 2021

Beirut blast survivors lose hope as Lebanon lurches from one crisis to another

Images of victims of the Beirut blast displayed near the port. (Supplied)
  • The disaster of Aug. 4, 2020, befell a population already reeling from months of hardship
  • Survivors look back on the past year with a mixture of sadness, bewilderment, anger and grief

DUBAI: A year has passed since an explosion devastated Beirut and the lives of its inhabitants. More than 200 people died and tens of thousands were left homeless when a huge cache of improperly stored ammonium nitrate ignited inside a warehouse at the Port of Beirut, triggering a blast from which the shockwave was felt as far away as Cyprus.

The disaster befell a population already reeling from months of hardship following the collapse of Lebanon’s banking system, multiple waves of COVID-19 outbreaks, and a government too paralyzed by infighting to respond.

Baydzig Kalaydjian, a Lebanese-Armenian teacher and journalist, was in Cyprus when the blast occurred. She quickly returned to Beirut and now volunteers at DAFA, a campaign group that provides food parcels, clothes, and helps renovate homes. 

“That day, as Lebanese, we were brutally killed,” said Kalaydjian, one of whose friends lost both eyes during the explosion. “No matter how much time passes, we still carry with us the need for truth, justice and accountability. What else can we do? We continue to fight for justice and demand for real change in the Lebanese political system.”

Indeed, to mark the first anniversary of the August 4 blast and to reaffirm their demand for justice, thousands of Lebanese spilled onto the streets of the capital, calling for the removal of the caretaker government.

In scenes reminiscent of the 2019 social movement known as the “thawra” — or “revolution” in Arabic — protesters once again clashed with security forces in downtown Beirut.

Survivors look back on the past year with a mixture of bewilderment, anguish, anger and even guilt. Marwa Darazi, 25, left Beirut and moved to Dubai in January 2021, where she works in public relations. The guilt of leaving her country behind weighs heavily on her conscience. “It doesn’t get any easier,” she told Arab News on the anniversary of the blast.

“August 4 changed the definition of what I thought life was. I was 24 and on the right career path. I had just rented my first apartment overlooking the port. I had my car, my freedom, my family – and my friends were around. I felt stable.

“Even though I knew my country wasn’t safe, the idea of it being my home automatically made me feel safe. But, in just seconds, it betrayed me.”

Darazi, who was seriously injured in the blast, was working for a luxury PR company in Beirut. But after the disaster, she began volunteering for Beb w Shebbek, a local charity launched by Beirut residents Mariana Wehbe and Nancy Gabriel to help rebuild people’s homes.

“I gave everything to Beirut,” Darazi said. “Every flight back I cry as if it is the first time I am leaving. There’s also the guilt of living here (in Dubai) while my parents are suffering without electricity in the heat, with rotting food in the fridge.

“Food is super-expensive now given the devaluation of the currency. Nothing seems right, no matter what I do or where I am. All I can do is sleep another night and pray the windows don’t explode. Is this normal?”




One year later, no politicians held to account and the country facing soaring poverty, a plummeting currency, angry protests and shortages of basic items from medicine to fuel, many blast survivors are simmering in the lead up to the tragedy's first anniversary.  (AFP/File Photo)

Annie Vartivarian, a Lebanese-Armenian gallerist and art collector, lost her daughter Gaïa Fodoulian, 29, in the blast. Vartivarian chose to stay in Beirut and continue her daughter’s work by launching AD Leb, an online platform for art and design that Fodoulian had been working on at the time she died.

Vartivarian held its first big exhibition in Beirut in April titled “Everyone is the creator of one’s own faith” — a reference to a Facebook post her daughter had published just hours before she was killed.

“After one year, I am not surprised we haven’t got anywhere,” Vartivarian told Arab News. “As a person who was born and raised in Lebanon, and lived through the whole civil war here, I know how the country operates, how things are done and how officials hide themselves.

“But this doesn’t mean I don’t have hope that things will change, especially with what Judge Tarek Bitar is doing.”

Bitar, the head of the Beirut Criminal Court, was appointed to lead the investigation into the blast in February 2021 following the removal of Judge Fadi Sawan. In early July, Bitar announced that he intended to question senior politicians and security chiefs and has requested their immunity be lifted. So far, officials have rejected his appeals.

Amnesty International, the international human rights-advocacy group, has accused Lebanese authorities of “shamelessly obstructing victims’ quest for truth and justice” in the months since the blast, actively shielding officials from scrutiny and hampering the course of the investigation.




Gaia Foudalian, the daughter of Annie Vartivarian, killed in the blast. (Supplied)

“I know that, whatever we do, Gaia will not come back,” said Vartivarian. “As a mother who wants her children to be happy, I just hope she is happy now wherever she is. But I think she will rest when there is justice for what happened, when the reality is known.”

Other survivors have chosen to leave Beirut behind. Walid Alami, a cardiologist at Beirut’s Clemenceau Medical Center, has decided to emigrate to the US. He recalls the carnage of that night one year ago.

“Within 10 seconds, the degree of destruction and the loss of life was something we hadn’t experienced even during the civil war or the Israeli invasions,” Alami told Arab News. “I was taking care of minor cuts, but my brother Ramzi, who is a surgeon, was also working throughout the night and the days and weeks that followed.”

Ramzi recently relocated to Washington D.C. “He is among thousands of doctors who have left,” said Alami. “Personally, I am working on moving back to the US because it is hard to live in Lebanon right now under these circumstances, not to mention our financial issues. Our salaries are now a tenth of what they used to be.”

He added: “It’s a dire situation and I don’t see a glimmer of hope. It will take a long time to work our way up from this deep, deep hole that we are in.”

Artist, curator and publisher Abed Al-Kadiri moved from Beirut to Paris in January 2021, but returned to Beirut to join commemorations of the anniversary.

“I wanted to be with my friends, colleagues and survivors,” he told Arab News. “We haven’t had the time or the circumstances to consciously face what happened and what we lost. I left. I was traumatized and broken. I haven’t been able to work much since leaving. I have been trying to heal. But it was really important for me to come back.”

Sarah Copland got a posting to Beirut to work in the Center for Women at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) with a focus on gender equality and women’s rights.

She was just weeks away from leaving Lebanon to return to her native Australia to give birth to her second child when the explosion happened. It killed her son, Isaac, who was just two years old.




The explosion killed the son of Sara Copeland, Isaac, who was just two years old. (Supplied)

“Isaac was struck in the chest by a piece of glass,” Copland told Arab News. “We rushed him to Rafik Hariri Hospital. I was also injured and had a lot of glass embedded in me, including in my face. Being heavily pregnant, they took me away to see to my injuries. My husband stayed with Isaac, but he died a few hours later.”

Copland is still with the UN but currently on leave in Australia. She does not plan to return to Beirut, as much as she loves Lebanon and the Lebanese.

“We don’t plan to go back to Lebanon. I don’t know how most Lebanese experience the trauma of seeing the remnants of the explosion every day. It just adds to so much trauma and I don’t think we can inflict that on ourselves.

“Lebanon has quickly declined since the explosion. It was already on the way, but now everything has gotten worse so much faster.”

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor


Arab Coalition carries out 15 strikes against Houthi militants in Marib

Arab Coalition carries out 15 strikes against Houthi militants in Marib
Updated 6 sec ago

Arab Coalition carries out 15 strikes against Houthi militants in Marib

Arab Coalition carries out 15 strikes against Houthi militants in Marib

RIYADH: The Arab Coalition on Monday said it carried out 15 attacks against the Houthi militia in Yemen’s Marib and al-Jawf over the past 24 hours.

At least 85 Houthi members were killed and 12 vehicles were destroyed in those attacks, Al Arabiya TV reported.  


Iran ‘determined’ to salvage nuclear deal

Iran ‘determined’ to salvage nuclear deal
Updated 29 November 2021

Iran ‘determined’ to salvage nuclear deal

Iran ‘determined’ to salvage nuclear deal
  • The landmark 2015 agreement offered a lifting of some of the array of economic sanctions Iran had been under, in return for strict curbs on its nuclear program
  • Iran has in recent months restricted the activities of inspectors from UN watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

TEHRAN: Iran is 'determined' to reach an agreement with major powers on salvaging its 2015 nuclear deal at talks that resume Monday in Vienna, its foreign ministry spokesman said.
“The delegation of the Islamic Republic of Iran is in Vienna with a firm determination to reach an agreement and is looking forward to fruitful talks,” Said Khatibzadeh told reporters.
“The government has shown its willingness and seriousness by sending a quality team known to all. If the other side shows the same willingness, we will be on the right track to reach an agreement.”
The landmark 2015 agreement offered a lifting of some of the array of economic sanctions Iran had been under, in return for strict curbs on its nuclear program.
But the deal began falling apart in 2018 when then US president Donald Trump pulled out and began reinstating sanctions.
The following year, Iran retaliated by starting to exceed the limits on its nuclear activity laid down in the deal.
Since the last Vienna talks were paused in June, the ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi has taken over, and his new government for several months ignored appeals to restart the talks.
According to local media, the Iranian delegation now in Vienna, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri, has been greatly expanded for the new round of negotiations.
“If the United States comes to Vienna with the determination to break the deadlock and overcome the problems on which we did not agree in previous rounds, the path of dialogue will certainly be easier,” said Khatibzadeh.
Khatibzadeh signalled Iran’s distrust of longtime foe the United States.
“We are looking for practical verification of the implementation of American commitments under the nuclear agreement,” he said, adding that was one of their “main focuses in continuing the talks.”
Talks are to resume between Iran and the other parties Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, while the United States is set to participate indirectly.
“With serious will, real determination and good faith, we hope to be able to take steps to reach an agreement as soon as possible to lift the sanctions, provided that the other parties come to Vienna with a change of approach,” said Khatibzadeh.
“If that happens, the results can be announced quickly.”
Iran has in recent months restricted the activities of inspectors from UN watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Its head Rafael Grossi visited Tehran last week, but said on his return that “no progress” had been made on the issues he raised.
Khatibzadeh, asked about the visit, said: “Good talks took place at different levels. These talks remained unfinished because we did not reach agreement on some words and concepts that are important to both sides, but the terms of the agreement were almost finalized.”
He added that the Iranian delegation would have meetings with the Vienna-based IAEA in coming days “regarding the finalization of the text” and that “relations between the two sides will continue at different levels.”
The Iranian spokesman also criticized Britain after its Foreign Secretary Liz Truss pledged in a newspaper article co-written with Israel’s Yair Lapid to work “night and day” to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.
“You will find that at least some European countries are not coming to Vienna with the necessary will to lift sanctions,” Khatibzadeh said.
“This shows that not only are some of these countries not serious, but they want to prolong the talks and delay the lifting of sanctions.”


Human rights commission calls for end to Israeli occupation of Palestine

Human rights commission calls for end to Israeli occupation of Palestine
Updated 29 November 2021

Human rights commission calls for end to Israeli occupation of Palestine

Human rights commission calls for end to Israeli occupation of Palestine
  • Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes and forced evictions of residents in Jerusalem and other areas was also slammed by the commission

JEDDAH: An influential watchdog body of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has called for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine as the only way to stop ongoing human rights abuses against Palestinians.

The OIC’s Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission made its appeal on Monday to coincide with the UN-run International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People 2021.

In a statement, the IPHRC pointed out that the solidarity day highlighted the urgent need for the global community to recognize the inalienable right to self-determination of Palestinian people.

“Today is not only an opportunity for the international community to remember that the question of Palestine remains unresolved, but it is also an opportunity to focus attention on the increasing suffering of the Palestinian people, under the Israeli occupation, and to unify all efforts for assisting them to attain their fundamental rights, including the right to self-determination and the right to return for Palestinian refugees to their homes and property, from which they have been displaced,” the commission said.

It also expressed grave concerns over the increasing, “range of violations committed by Israel … particularly the recent draconian measures against Palestinian prisoners and detainees as well as the harassment of Sheikh Jarrah (neighborhood of East Jerusalem) families who remain under the threat of eviction from their houses under baseless and illegal arguments.”

The IPHRC statement urged all human rights groups to raise awareness of what it described as “egregious human rights violations” aimed at “separating Al-Quds (Jerusalem) from its original inhabitants, which is yet another vicious attack on the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people.”

In addition, commission members condemned the recent Israeli designation of six Palestinian human rights and civil society groups as terrorist organizations, a move the IPHRC claimed represented Israel’s misuse of counterterrorism and security legislation to silence opponents and innocent Palestinians.

Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes and forced evictions of residents in Jerusalem and other areas was also slammed by the commission.

It added that there was a “need to investigate these abuses by relevant international mechanisms with a view to holding Israel, the occupying power, accountable for violating international human rights and humanitarian laws.”


Lebanon’s president in Qatar for talks over Gulf crisis

Lebanon’s president in Qatar for talks over Gulf crisis
Updated 29 November 2021

Lebanon’s president in Qatar for talks over Gulf crisis

Lebanon’s president in Qatar for talks over Gulf crisis
  • Saudi Arabia, a traditional backer of Lebanon, withdrew its ambassador from Beirut and asked the Lebanese envoy to leave last month following televised comments by Lebanon’s information minister
  • Aoun’s visit came as scores of protesters blocked major roads in Lebanon Monday to express anger against the country’s political class

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s president arrived in Qatar Monday for the opening ceremony of an Arab soccer tournament amid — and for talks on an precedented diplomatic crisis between Beirut and oil-rich Gulf nations.
President Michel Aoun’s face-to-face meetings with the emir of Qatar and other Qatari officials come as Lebanon is sinks deeper into its economic crisis, the worst in its modern history. The country’s financial meltdown, coupled with multiple other crises, has plunged more than three quarters of the nation’s population of six million, including a million Syrian refugees, into poverty.
Aoun is expected to discuss the tense relations between Lebanon and gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia during his meetings in Doha. Aoun has repeatedly said that Lebanon wants excellent relations with Saudi Arabia, which lists Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Aoun is a political ally of the Shiite militant group.
Saudi Arabia, a traditional backer of Lebanon, withdrew its ambassador from Beirut and asked the Lebanese envoy to leave last month following televised comments by George Kordahi, Lebanon’s information minister. Kordahi said the war in Yemen was futile and called it an aggression by the Saudi-led coalition.
Yemen’s war began with the 2014 takeover of Sanaa by the Houthi rebels, who control much of the country’s north. The Saudi-led coalition entered the war the following year, determined to restore the internationally recognized government and oust the rebels.
Aoun told Qatar’s Al-Raya daily that in face-to-face meetings, he will call on the country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to invest in the reconstruction of Beirut’s port that was destroyed last year in a massive blast. Aoun also said he would seek an investment in other infrastructure projects, including electricity, that is cut for much of the day in Lebanon.
Qatar has one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world and had been a major investor in Lebanon in the past.
However many countries have refused to invest in Lebanon or offer assistance to its government before it implements major reforms to fight the corruption and mismanagement that sparked the economic meltdown in 2019.
On Tuesday, Aoun will attend the opening ceremony of the FIFA Arab Cup in which 16 teams will compete. The 19-day tournament is an opportunity for the world to witness Qatar’s new stadiums that will host the World Cup next year.
Aoun’s visit came as scores of protesters blocked major roads in Lebanon Monday to express anger against the country’s political class for the worsening economic crisis and harsh living conditions.
The road closures with burning tires were mainly in the capital Beirut, the northern city of Tripoli, the southern port city of Sidon and the eastern Bekaa valley.
Lebanon’s economic crisis deteriorated in recent weeks with the Lebanese pound hitting new lows of 25,800 to the US dollar eradicating purchase power of most the country’s residents who get paid in pounds. The minimum monthly wage is 675,000 pounds or ($27).


West asks whether Iran is serious or stalling as talks set to resume

West asks whether Iran is serious or stalling as talks set to resume
Updated 29 November 2021

West asks whether Iran is serious or stalling as talks set to resume

West asks whether Iran is serious or stalling as talks set to resume

VIENNA: Iran and world powers will meet in Vienna on Monday to try to salvage their 2015 nuclear deal, but with Tehran sticking to its tough stance and Western powers increasingly frustrated, hopes of a breakthrough appear slim.
Diplomats say time is running low to resurrect the pact, which then-US President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, angering Iran and dismaying the other powers involved — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
Six rounds of indirect talks were held between April and June. The new round begins after a hiatus triggered by the election of hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi in June as Iran’s president.
Tehran’s new negotiating team has set out demands that US and European diplomats consider unrealistic, Western diplomats say.
“Our demands are clear. Other parties and especially Americans should decide whether they want this deal to be revived or not. They abandoned the pact, so they should return to it and lift all sanctions,” an Iranian official close to the talks told Reuters.
Iran’s demands include the dropping of all US and European Union sanctions imposed since 2017, including those unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program, in a verifiable process.
Iran’s foreign ministry ruled out the possibility of direct meeting between Iranian and US officials in Vienna. Talks between Iran and world powers will resume at 1300 GMT on Monday.
In parallel, Tehran’s conflicts with the UN atomic watchdog, which monitors the nuclear program, have festered.
Iran has pressed ahead with its uranium enrichment program and the IAEA says its inspectors have been treated roughly and refused access to reinstall monitoring cameras at a site it deems essential to reviving the deal.
“If Iran thinks it can use this time to build more leverage and then come back and say they want something better, it simply won’t work. We and our partners won’t go for it,” US envoy Robert Malley told BBC Sounds on Saturday.
He warned that Washington would be ready to ramp up pressure on Tehran if talks collapse.
Iranian officials have insisted in the run-up to Monday that their focus is purely the lifting of sanctions rather than nuclear issues. Highlighting that, its 40-strong delegation mostly includes economic officials.
“To ensure any forthcoming agreement is ironclad, the West needs to pay a price for having failed to uphold its part of the bargain. As in any business, a deal is a deal, and breaking it has consequences,” Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani said in defiant column in the Financial Times on Sunday.
“The principle of ‘mutual compliance’ cannot form a proper base for negotiations since it was the US government which unilaterally left the deal.”
Diplomats have said Washington has suggested negotiating an open-ended interim accord with Tehran as long as a permanent deal is not achieved.
Failure to strike a deal could also prompt reaction from Israel which has said military options would be on the table.
“The talks can’t last forever. There is the obvious need to speed up the process,’ Moscow’s envoy, Mikhail Ulyanov, said on Twitter.