Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 September 2020

Beirut blast shatters family’s decades-long relationship with city’s port

Ghassan Hasrouty's family feel let down by Lebanese leaders after his death at the port where he, like his father before him, had worked for nearly 40 years

Ghassan Hasrouty’s last call to his family was exactly 47 minutes before one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in recent history tore through his office at Beirut's port. Anticipating a long night of work, the 59-year old head of the operations unit at the port's gigantic silos asked his son-in-law, Tony Akl, for a pillow and blanket at 5.30pm on August 4. But Mr Akl, 35, made a life-saving decision by taking a nap first.

At 18.07pm, an explosion rocked Beirut, followed moments later by a second that let off a mushroom-shaped cloud of copper smoke above the city. The blast, caused by the improper storage of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at the port, traumatised the capital, destroyed tens of thousands of homes, killed nearly 200 people and injured more than 6,500.

Ghassan Hasrouty’s phone went silent. At 6.44pm, his daughter Tatiana, 19, sent out a tweet asking for help locating her father that went viral. Well-intentioned social media users answered, saying he was alive and in hospital. But he was not.

While his family waited for news, one of his three daughters, Ramona, 28, delivered her first baby on August 10. The next day, her father’s body was found in the silo operations room where he worked, close to six of his colleagues, also dead. His family was informed of his death on August 18.

For two weeks, they hoped he had found refuge in the underground emergency shelter where he slept, sometimes for weeks on end during the 1975-1990 civil war. He never made it.

One month after his death, Hasrouty's grieving children told The National that they feel betrayed by their country’s leaders, most them former warlords turned politicians. “He cared for the people and this country. And when it was time to care for him, there was no one,” said Tatiana.

“Even during the war, my father did whatever it took to fulfil his duty,” said her brother Elie, 35. In 1989, Hasrouty spent 15 consecutive days sleeping at the port during current president Michel Aoun’s “war of liberation” against Syrian troops.

“It was very dangerous for my father and his colleagues to leave the port because of attacks and bombardments. When there were breaks in fighting, they would unload ships so that they could provide wheat to the mills,” Elie remembered.

Hasrouty has a kind, round face, a balding head, and a white moustache in the photo that his family has pasted outside their two-bedroom ground floor apartment in the suburb of Sin-El Fil. Its caption reads: “Guardian of the wheat silos. Martyr of a wounded nation.” Like thousands of other homes, the small flat was damaged by the blast nearly 4 kilometres away. Doors were unhinged and glass shattered.

Hasrouty worked 39 years at the port, where an informal agreement gives preference to employees’ children. His father, Assaad, who is in his early eighties, spent four decades at the port.

When he was hired in 1981, Hasrouty had just dropped out of his studies in architecture and fled to Beirut with his pregnant wife, Ibtissam, from the mountainous Chouf region. At that time, various armed groups were massacring Christians in what came to be known as the “mountain war”. The 15-year civil war witnessed atrocities on all sides. The couple waited until 2015 to return and build a house in Ibtissam’s home village.

“He didn’t want us to be like him. He wanted us to be more,” said Tatiana, a third-year law student at La Sagesse University in Beirut. “He used to tell me all the time, 'I want to see you graduate'. It breaks my heart that he’s not going to be there, and they took him from me and from this opportunity,” she said.

Both Tatiana and Elie are vocal in their criticism of Lebanon’s leaders, who they believe are responsible for their father’s death.

The country’s security forces, as well as successive prime ministers and President Aoun, all admitted that they were aware of the danger of storing 2,750 tonnes of ammonium at the port since 2013. But they did not remove them. An investigation is ongoing.

“They wanted to kill us, in some way,” said Tatiana. “They invaded our security and our privacy and after all this, they still have the audacity to go on television and to say they don’t know, or to blame each other. They are moving on, but we can’t.”

Elie, a telecom engineer, hit out at Lebanese authorities for their "totally irresponsible and totally sick” disaster management. The authorities took 40 hours to start digging through the rubble for his father’s body, he said. Contacted by The National, an army spokesperson claimed that they started immediately.

“The management of the disaster was catastrophic,” said Elie, a PhD candidate in international relations and diplomacy at the Centre d’Etudes Diplomatiques et Strategiques in Paris. “We were doing all the work. I was contacted once, two weeks after the blast, to tell me that they found the body. This is the only official call that I received.”

Today, Elie is hoping that the local investigation into the blast, which Amnesty International described on September 7 as “neither independent nor impartial”, will yield concrete results.

The Lebanese judiciary is not fully independent from politics, which is why very few politicians or top officials have ever been jailed despite the small Mediterranean country consistently being ranked as one of the most corrupt in the world by international watchdogs.

“I don’t really want anything specific. We might see people in prison, or we might see people resigning,” said Elie. “It’s our battle now. Not our father’s battle. He died. We cannot make him alive again. Our action should now be directed towards having a nation in which we can live peacefully, securely and in dignity. I know it will be a lifetime of work.”

Updated: September 10, 2020 04:09 PM

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