Beirut explosion: Lebanese-Canadian family still searching for answers

If you think about the past two years, the news cycle has gone bad. COVID-19 has dominated the headlines, the world wars have been in balance, and getting food on the table in an unstable economy is a priority for Canadians. In the midst of a hurricane, so many great things pass by us, without even looking back a second time.

One image that has been imprinted in my mind is a terrible explosion from August 4, 2020. I remember seeing the first videos pop up on Twitter from our national newsroom in Ottawa.

At the time, I was a national reporter covering federal politics. I remember witnessing the huge plume of smoke and the enormous destructive power of the explosion that devastated the Lebanese capital.

I thought to myself, this must be a nuclear bomb. I’m wrong. Nearly three tons of ammonium nitrate had somehow been left in a warehouse near a house, a ticking time bomb in the heart of the city. In the days that followed, numbers of people showed up.

More than 218 people died, 7,000 were injured and 300,000 were left homeless. For my national story, I came across Michele Awad, the grieving grandfather of a three-year-old Lebanese-Canadian girl who was killed in that explosion.

Michele Awad with her niece Alexandra Naggear (Photo provided)

Alexandra Naggear is her grandfather’s best friend. Michele broke down in tears during our Zoom interview. Even across borders and through a shoddy connection, grief and pain are palpable. He explained how his daughter, Tracy, tried to completely shield Alexandra, to protect her from impact. But it’s not enough. The interview was so moving, I knew I couldn’t do justice to a two-minute story.

Michele and I have been texting for over two years now. Early on, he introduced me to his daughter Tracy and her husband Paul, Alexandra’s parents. The couple describe the past few years as very difficult, barely getting up for some days. But they have regrouped, becoming one of the strongest advocates of justice in the country, speaking out at every march, protest and celebration.

Tracy, like so many survivors of the explosion, is still dealing with grief. We chat on her couch with her psychologist Ray Aoun, a Lebanese-Canadian like Tracy who became Tracy’s best friend after this disaster. Aoun explains how the whole country is learning new ways of grieving in a healthier way because of the Naggear family.

“They did not silence their pain. And they shared a part of what they went through,” Aoun said.

Aoun says that talking publicly about one’s pain is rare in Lebanon. She explained that after the civil war, political assassinations, political turmoil and economic crisis, the Lebanese people have learned to suppress their emotions and not talk about anything.

“It’s part of a defense mechanism that the Lebanese people have developed over the years,” Aoun explained.

Tracy is also preparing herself to one day tell her little son what happened to his sister.

Tracy said: “I was always thinking about what I was going to say to him. “His sister was in the sky, she was with Jesus, she was traveling and then Ray told me you don’t have to lie… because if you tell him that she has traveled, he will be scared to travel. If you go on a trip, he’ll be afraid you won’t come back.

(Image credit: Tracy Awad Naggear)

But psychological help is only part of their healing journey. Families need answers. Tracy and Paul are also leading the push for accountability in Lebanon and abroad, openly calling out politicians to know about ammonium nitrate, which is stored unsafely in a warehouse inside residential blocks. .

But even with the public outcry, critics say justice has been ignored in Lebanon.

That’s because two national surveys went nowhere. A military judge, Fadi Sawan, was first appointed to investigate the explosion. He accused several prominent politicians of criminal negligence, but many filed lawsuits against him, claiming he was biased because his home was damaged in the blast. He was fired.

Another national judge, Tarek Bitar, intervened. He brought even more serious charges, including attempted murder, but many politicians have also filed legal complaints questioning his authority and credibility.

Another hurdle Bitar faces: the government has refused to appoint new judges to hear the claims against him, so his investigation has stalled. After 13 months, in early 2023, Judge Bitar unexpectedly reopened the case citing new legal grounds for doing so, but Lebanon’s top prosecutor immediately denied his investigation and says it “doesn’t exist”.

In a shocking twist, that same prosecutor, who was charged in Bitar’s latest findings, accused the judge of mishandling the case.

As the years passed, there were few answers for grieving families. Tracy and Paul want the United Nations to commission an international truth-finding mission about the Beirut explosion.

“The truth certainly won’t bring my daughter back… but the truth will give us a chance to mourn, the truth will give us a chance to close the page on August 4th,” Tracy said.

Watch CTV W5’s documentary ‘The Explosion’ on Saturday, February 4 at 7pm

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