Beirut Port Explosion Killed Their Daughter, But Rather Than Returning To Canada They Stayed For A Better Lebanon

Paul Naggear and Tracy Awad-Naggear live in Beit Mery, Lebanon. They chose to stay in Lebanon even after the explosion at the Port of Beirut killed their daughter Alexandra and triggered a political and economic crisis in the Middle Eastern country.

Rafael Yaghobzadeh / The Globe and Mail

When Paul Naggear and Tracy Awad-Naggear learned that their daughter Alexandra had passed away, becoming one of more than 200 victims of last year’s explosion in the port of Beirut, their first instinct was to abandon the Lebanon. Leave this deeply troubled country and move to Canada.

They talked about leaving immediately and settling in Montreal, where Ms. Awad-Naggear spent part of her childhood and where both still have parents. But they decided to stay a few months. It would be just long enough, they hoped, for justice to be done for Alexandra, a Canadian citizen like her mother, who was three years old when a shed filled with ammonium nitrate burst, sending a shock wave through the capital. Lebanese woman who destroyed thousands of houses, including the apartment of the Naggear family.

Ms Awad-Naggear, who suffered multiple injuries including broken ribs, tried to protect her daughter’s body with her own, but Alexandra died six days later.

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Alexandra waves a Lebanese flag on Mr. Naggear’s back.

Family photo

“We decided first to stay two or three months, then to leave,” Ms Awad-Naggear told The Globe and Mail in an interview in an apartment in the mountains above Beirut where the couple moved in after lost his home.

“Then we saw all these [non-governmental organizations], all those Lebanese working, rebuilding, making Lebanon a better place – and all these people messaging us… saying ‘wow, you do a good job, you give us hope.’ Young Lebanese say: “I wanted to leave the country and then I saw what you were doing, and I decided to stay and fight for this country.” So again, we decided to stay.

The couple’s year-long struggle for justice has at times seemed hopeless, as the Lebanese ruling elite has continued to shy away from responsibility for its role in the August 4 port disaster. Today the country is plunged into a devastating economic and political crisis, with only an interim government in place as the country’s currency has lost more than 90% of its value, causing hyperinflation and shortages of fuel, medicine. and other essential goods.

Lebanese financial crisis leaves doctors and patients paying the price in this Beirut hospital

“God help this country”: political deadlock in Lebanon accelerates financial collapse

But the decision to stay resulted in some big wins – giving the Naggears enough optimism to keep fighting.

The most significant breakthrough came last month when Mr. Naggear was elected to the top of a list of independent candidates who took control of the governing board of the professional union of engineers and architects of Beirut, which is normally controlled. by the main political parties in the country.

As a sign of the anger of the Lebanese professional middle class against the country’s ruling elite, Naggear won over 70 percent of the vote. Despite the pandemic, the turnout was three times the previous union elections.

“I didn’t think it would be such a big thing, but I just think it gave people hope to see that Tracy and I are still here, and we’re fighting where we can,” M said. Naggear, as the couple’s dog. Sia was playing at her feet on the balcony of their apartment in Beit Mery. The 37-year-old’s face is still marked by the cuts he suffered in the explosion, and it makes it clear that his entry into politics is deeply personal. “When we saw the results, we were both very happy – that we could fight them and that we could win.”

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In Beit Mery, above, the Naggears say that staying in Lebanon has given them hope for a change in the country. Below, a portrait of Alexandra is displayed on a construction fence in Beirut on July 12.

Photos: Rafael Yaghobzadeh / The Globe and Mail

When the Naggears and other members of the young Lebanese professional class refer to ‘them’, they mean the country’s sectarian leaders, a group of warlords turned politicians who destroyed the country during a civil war from 1975 to 1990. .

Many young Lebanese accuse these leaders of ruining the country a second time by creating a post-war state based on nepotism and kleptocracy.

In 2019, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese – including little Alexandra, who attended the protests perched on her father’s shoulders – took to the streets for months, demanding the resignation of the entire ruling class. Instead, the warlords clung to power even through the port disaster and now the financial collapse.

With the country set to hold parliamentary elections next year, Mr Naggear’s victory has rekindled hope among 2019 revolutionaries – a post-sectarian mix of Sunnis, Shiites, Christians and Druze – that the change can perhaps be brought about by the ballot box. .

Although unions cannot pass laws, Mr Naggear said gaining control of the body – which must approve any new construction project in Beirut – means he and other independents would be able to end the a culture of ancillary payments, and enforcing environmental and other standards. “It’s a big obstacle to corruption in infrastructure,” he said.

“The elections are a battle in a very, very long mission to take back the country,” said Sarah el-Yafi, a 36-year-old political activist and the granddaughter of Abdallah el-Yafi, a former prime minister. civil war. to whom the right to vote is attributed to Lebanese women. “We have this inherent belief that we are here to disrupt the status quo – and that it can be done.”

Graffiti is found near the damaged port of Beirut on August 11, 2020, a week after the explosion.

Hannah McKay / Reuters

But the obstruction of the official investigation into the August 4 disaster shows why Lebanon will not be easy to change. The first judge assigned to the case, Fadi Sawan, was removed from his post after trying to accuse Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three senior ministers of negligence after it was revealed that Mr. Diab’s government had been warned about the dangerous reserve of ammonium nitrate in the Port.

The official logic behind Judge Sawan’s dismissal was that he had a bias because his home, like hundreds of thousands of others in Beirut, was damaged in the blast.

The second judge appointed for the case, Tariq Bitar, has already encountered the same obstacles, the interior ministry refusing his request to question Abbas Ibrahim, the powerful head of the country’s General Security.

Hinting at who is really behind the move, billboards supporting Mr. Ibrahim suddenly appeared in parts of the country controlled by Hezbollah militia, which also support Mr. Diab and President Michel Aoun. Judge Bitar has promised to continue his investigation.

“We don’t have a government. What we have is a bunch of gangs. Like rosaries, if one of them falls, they will all fall, ”said Ibrahim Hoteit, whose firefighter brother Tharwat was among the first to die in the port explosion.

Mr Hoteit was one of the leaders of a small protest outside the Justice Department last week which the Naggears joined. “Hit, hit, oh Bitar!” Lebanon is proud of you! Mr Hoteit shouted into a megaphone as a few dozen other survivors joined in the chant. “Down with the politicians! Down with immunity!

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Relatives of victims of the port explosion gather near the Justice Ministry building in Beirut on July 14.

IBRAHIM AMRO / AFP via Getty Images

Gaining something like a majority in parliament – which has seat quotas for each of the country’s 11 religious groups, strengthening the power of sectarian warlords – will also be much more difficult than winning a union election. Currently, all but a handful of the 128 MPs owe their allegiance to a sectarian leader.

While many Lebanese have urged one or both of them to take the next step and run for the legislative elections, Mr Naggear and Ms Awad-Naggear say they are not interested in getting involved. in high-level politics – at least not so long as they ‘focused on the fight to make sure someone is held responsible for the port blast and the death of their daughter, who they knew under the name “Lexou”.

Becoming an MP “would take a long time and we would not be fully focused on [getting] justice, ”said Ms. Awad-Naggear, 35. “We’re not the right people for this. For the time being.”

Almost a year after the explosion that changed their lives forever, their Beirut apartment has finally been repaired and is waiting for them to move there again. But emotionally, they’re not quite ready.

” We went down [to Beirut] every now and then, just to get used to being home. We haven’t slept there yet, but we plan to return, perhaps at the end of the summer, ”said Ms. Awad-Naggear. “On the one hand, it’s hard because it’s Lexou’s house, and being there without her and remembering what happened that day is pretty hard. On the other hand, being at home is actually heartwarming because we have so many memories of Lexou there – because it’s his home and we feel his presence there more than anywhere else.

For now, they are staying in Beit Mery’s apartment, going through the financial crisis with the rest of Lebanon. Like most homes, their building receives only a few hours of electricity a day from the utility grid, forcing them to rely on a fuel-powered generator even as gasoline prices skyrocket. Water is now delivered to the city’s 13,000 residents by truck, as the lack of electricity means only a trickle pumps the mountain from Beirut.

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All of this reminds the Naggears that the system they accuse of their daughter’s death is still in place.

“For us, justice is being able to live in this country again,” Naggear said. “Suppose we get justice, a few people are put behind bars, and the system stays the same, we won’t feel safe. Today we are not safe when we are in Beirut, and we will not feel safe having children in the country. And we want, we want to stay here. It’s our right, it’s our land.

Rafael Yaghobzadeh / The Globe and Mail

The Decibel: a view of Lebanon

In this episode of The Globe and Mail’s Daily News podcast, Tamara Khandaker asks senior international correspondent Mark MacKinnon to explain the Lebanese financial crisis. Subscribe here for more episodes.

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