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1 Year After Beirut Explosion, Lebanese Push For Government Accountability

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

A look at two children and their families tells a lot about the story of Lebanon in the year since a huge explosion ripped through Beirut. It was a year ago this week that a huge blast at a warehouse at the capital city's port killed more than 200 people and destroyed homes and buildings, leaving tens of thousands displaced. NPR's Ruth Sherlock talked with two families about that terrible day and the time since.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: At first, the video of his son's birth looks like that taken by any expectant father. Edmond Khnaisser follows nurses as they wheel his wife on a hospital bed to the delivery room. Then this...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

EDMOND KHNAISSER: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

SHERLOCK: An explosion shatters the room, and everything goes dark.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are you OK? Are you OK?

KHNAISSER: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He speaks now with my colleague, Nada Homsi, reporting for NPR and recalls what happened next.

KHNAISSER: The whole room was destructed, and debris was everywhere. Window frames were on my wife, curtains, lighting, ceiling. I was pushed back around three meters. Doctors were injured. Medicine was all over the floor.

SHERLOCK: Medical staff, some of them injured, delivered the baby, named George, by the light of their iPhones in the destroyed ward. Baby George has been called a miracle or Lebanon's light in the darkness, his healthy birth a bright moment on a day when more than 200 others lost their lives. About a mile away from where George was born, Tracy Awad Naggear lost her 3-year-old daughter, Alexandra, when the shock wave of the explosion hit their home.

TRACY AWAD NAGGEAR: The bomb explodes. And so we flew, actually, Alexandra and I, from the power of the blasts. We flew, like, five or six meters.

SHERLOCK: Tracy tried to shield her child, but Alexandra suffered a brain injury. She died three days later. Since that day, the Naggears have channeled their suffering into a search for answers and for justice. We now know that political leaders, including the prime minister and the president, had been warned that there could be a massive explosion at the port. There were hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, an explosive compound, stored there beside fuses, fireworks and hydrochloric acid.

NAGGEAR: The pain is just impossible. So from the first day we actually buried our child, we started this fight. And we started trying to be strong and to fight this government, these criminal people that are ruling us.

SHERLOCK: The dangerous ammonium nitrate was stored in a warehouse at the port right next to Beirut's population for six years. Naggear wants to know why officials didn't remove it. And why didn't they urge people to take shelter after smoke started rising from the port?

NAGGEAR: They knew that it was there. They didn't do anything. They had 40 minutes to just send a message, a notification, put it on the news, say, you know, big fire at the port. Some chemicals are there. Be careful. The city could explode. Just open the windows or go hide or - I don't know - go under the tables. They didn't do this.

SHERLOCK: Rights groups say that according to Lebanese law, the country's leaders could be charged with intentional or unintentional homicide. But one year on, not a single senior official has been prosecuted. Politicians seem to be stonewalling. And Human Rights Watch says the investigation is now not able to, quote, "credibly deliver justice."

This all comes as there's a crippling economic crisis that the World Bank says is also made by Lebanon's leaders. This has many Lebanese choosing to leave the country. But Naggear says the explosion has also encouraged others to remain and push for accountability.

NAGGEAR: When I see these people, I can't just leave this country and leave these people, you know, fighting all alone and knowing that this government killed my daughter. I cannot just pack my stuff and leave.

SHERLOCK: She says she needs to see those responsible behind bars. The Khnaisser family say they want to see justice, too. George is a 1-year-old now. They share with us videos of him in a ball pool at home, laughing as he plays with his mum.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD'S LAUGHTER)

SHERLOCK: George's father, Edmond Khnaisser, says the birth of his son gave him and his wife the strength to get through this year with Beirut still half destroyed and the population sinking further into poverty. But he says there's also a terrible guilt and confusion and asks why so many souls had to go to heaven while they were receiving new life on Earth.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.