Beirut explosion: A Lebanese-Canadian family still searching for answers

If you think about the last two years, the news cycle has been crazy. COVID-19 has grabbed the headlines, world wars are at stake, and food on the table in an unstable economy is a priority for ordinary Canadians. In the midst of the madness, so many great stories flew past us, without even a second glance.

One visual that has been imprinted in my mind is a monstrous explosion on August 4, 2020. I remember seeing the first videos emerging on Twitter from our National Newsroom in Ottawa.

At the time, I was a national reporter, covering federal politics. I remember seeing the huge plume of smoke and the colossal force of the explosion devastate the capital of Lebanon.

I figured it must be a nuclear bomb. I was wrong. Nearly three tonnes of ammonium nitrate were somehow left in a warehouse near homes, a ticking time bomb in the heart of the city. In the days that followed, the human toll emerged.

More than 218 people died, 7,000 were injured and 300,000 were left homeless. For my national history, I met Michele Awad, the grieving grandfather of a three-year-old Lebanese-Canadian girl who lost her life in the explosion.

Michele Awad with her granddaughter Alexandra Naggear (Photos provided)

Alexandra Naggear was her grandfather’s best friend. Michele cried during our Zoom interview. Even across borders and through a shoddy connection, the grief and agony was palpable. He explained how his daughter, Tracy, tried to completely cover Alexandra, to shield her from the impact. But it wasn’t enough. The interview was so moving that I knew I couldn’t do it justice in a two-minute story.

Michele and I have been exchanging messages for over two years now. Very early on, he introduced me to his daughter Tracy and her husband Paul, Alexandra’s parents. The couple describe the past few years as excruciating, barely able to get up on some days. But they rallied, becoming one of the most outspoken advocates for justice in the country, raising their voices at every march, demonstration and anniversary.

Tracy, like so many others who survived the explosion, is still processing the pain. We chat on her couch with her psychologist Ray Aoun, a Lebanese-Canadian like Tracy, who became a dear friend to Tracy after this disaster. Aoun talks about how the whole country is learning new ways to grieve in healthier ways thanks to the Naggear family.

“They didn’t silence their grief. And they shared some of what they were going through,” says Aoun.

Aoun says speaking publicly about his grief is rare in Lebanon. She explains that after the civil war, political assassinations, political insecurity and economic crisis, the Lebanese have learned to calm their emotions and say nothing.

« It’s part of the defense mechanism that the Lebanese have developed over the years, » says Aoun.

Tracy is also preparing to one day tell her baby boy what happened to his older sister.

“I always thought about what I was going to say to him,” Tracy says. “His sister is in heaven, she is next to Jesus, she has traveled and then Ray told me that you don’t have to lie… because if you tell him that she has traveled, he will be afraid of to travel. If you travel, he will be afraid that you will not return.

naggear family w5 1 6257408 1675368354616(Photo credit: Tracy Awad Naggear)

But psychological help is only part of their healing journey. The family needs answers. Tracy and Paul are also leading the campaign for accountability in Lebanon and abroad, publicly calling out politicians who were aware of the ammonium nitrate, stored unsafely in a warehouse in residential house blocks.

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

This is because two national investigations have come to nothing. A military judge, Fadi Sawan, was first appointed to investigate the explosion. He has accused several high-profile politicians of criminal negligence, but many have filed lawsuits against him, claiming he was biased because his house was damaged in the blast. He was fired.

Another national judge, Tarek Bitar, intervened. He handed down even more serious charges, including homicide with probable intent, but many of the same politicians filed court complaints questioning his authority and credibility.

Another obstacle faced by Bitar: the government had refused to appoint new judges to adjudicate the complaints against him, so his investigation was blocked. After 13 months, in early 2023, Judge Bitar unexpectedly reopened the case citing new legal grounds to do so, but Lebanon’s attorney general immediately discredited his investigation saying it was « non-existent ».

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

Years later, there are few answers for grieving families. Tracy and Paul would like the UN to command an international mission to investigate the explosion in Beirut.

“The truth will definitely not bring my daughter back…but the truth will give us a chance to grieve, the truth will give us a chance to close the page on August 4th,” Tracy says.

Watch CTV W5’s documentary « The Explosion » on Saturday, February 4 at 7 p.m.


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