Collective memory at stake two years after Beirut Blast

In 2020, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history severely damaged Lebanon’s capital city Beirut, killing over 200 people. To date, no justice has been granted to the families of the victims and the people who were affected by this traumatic event.

The grain silos that absorbed the blast, built in 1968, have become a symbol embodying the image of a city aggrieved by the explosion. Calls have been made by the families of the victims, activists, civil society organisations and some public influential figures, including newly elected independent members of parliament, to preserve and rehabilitate the silos in order to reconstruct the social fabric of areas affected by the explosion, and to serve as a reminder of the justice that has so far been obstructed. The silos are now referred to by victims as the “Silent Witness” of the blast.

Image shows a partially collapsed silo in the background with grain growing in the foreground
Photo from “Support Beirut, save the silos from demolition”, shared on May 18, 2022 in the campaign to save “an architectural monument, a shield for the city and a memorial for survivors.” Photo credit: Sophie Woeldgen, 2021.

Revisiting the Past – Collective memory instead of collective amnesia

Since the end of the Lebanese civil war, it has become standard practice to disfigure and erase the marks of crimes committed against the country’s civilian populations. Some political parties’ persistence in promoting biased and incomplete historical narratives that deepen communal and sectarian divides have prevented paths of serious reconciliation, leaving limited space for a post-war healing process. This fabricated cultural memory serves to conceal internal strife and division.

The heart of the city went under reconstruction that erased history, leaving each community to its own demons and memories. History books ended with the period of the country’s independence, leaving little space for young people to reflect on the impacts of the war and the lessons’ learnt. Without a collective memory and a tangible resolution, the Lebanese fell blind to the haunting possibility for differences to re-emerge and ignite yet another war. This creates a story of pain that keeps returning, every time an incident shakes the city.

The authorities are accused of demolishing the silos, removing any visual representation of the blast memory that would only accelerate the forgetting of this tragic event. The Lebanese are angry to see the silos burning every day without reasonable justification. A few days before the second anniversary of the blast, part of the silos collapsed. To counter this and to instead emphasise Beirut as a locus for the collective memory, rather than the collective amnesia, the Lebanese have turned towards preserving a common space they wish to protect in protest to what is perceived as the demolition of memory by the authorities.

Peacebuilding in the making, restoring trust and cohesion

A new memory and a collective narrative are essential for restoring trust with empathy. By stalling the judiciary process, not starting an accountability process and silencing the crime, the ruling class is failing the people who lost so many loved ones. Selecting landmarks to immortalise life changing events would include narrating what happened in the aim of building a memory where “them” and “us” can accept reality, after acknowledgement of the crime, and reparation.

The grain silos site needs to be preserved for the Lebanese people to take ownership of their city, prevent a relapse into violence, and remind them of what happened, empowering them to demand their right for justice to be served. Developing a collective narrative could bring together divided communities, and perhaps help build an inclusive economy in a country that has been devastated by an economic collapse. It could help people have a say over their needs and future. Reversing the common state practice of deliberate or forced amnesia alongside conducting reforms and a transparent procedure for justice can help build a national identity that agrees with finding common ground.

A petition for an international investigative mission from the Human Rights Council has been launched to stop the obstruction of justice and allow the city to grieve. For security, for justice and accountability, and for history, the silos are memorialising the Lebanese post-war era. It comes 30 years late but is much needed before we can promise “never again”.

On the second year of mourning, the silos provide yet another milestone in the Lebanese memory and dream of justice. Watching them collapse would only bring people closer as one, and farther away from a ruling elite that is undermining the power of history and retraumatising people who have been through since the 4th August 2020.