Isaac, 2, Elias, 15, and Alexandra, 3, were all killed in the Beirut port explosion.
Isaac, 2, Elias, 15, and Alexandra, 3, were all killed in the Beirut port explosion.
11 min read

Middle East

These three children were killed in the Beirut blast. Their parents want to know why

Political interference is stalling an investigation into last year's explosion at the port of Beirut. The families of those killed - including an Australian toddler - say they won't rest until they get answers.

Published Saturday 23 October 2021
By Claudia Farhart
Source: SBS News

Fourteen months have now passed since the largest non-nuclear explosion in history killed Mireille Khoury’s 15-year-old son Elias in the place where he was supposed to be safest.

“My son was killed in his own room,” she tells SBS News.

“He was full of life, full of happiness, with big dreams. Full of potential. He was so creative. He could have made the world a better place. He would have done something important for the world and humanity, and they just killed him in his own room.” 

For almost half of Elias’s life, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was being improperly stored just down the road from his home at the port of Beirut. Senior officials were aware of it and the danger it posed but failed to secure or destroy it.

On 4 August last year, Elias messaged his friends saying he could see a fire had broken out at the port. He did not survive the explosion that followed.

Elias Khoury, 15, with his sister and parents.
Source: Supplied

“They knew about them and they did nothing, and they didn't even warn us even in the last 40 minutes when the fire started. They could have warned the people in the area, they could have evacuated us,” Ms Khoury says.

“Part of our hearts have gone forever. We are like breathing dead people, and dead people have nothing to lose. We will continue fighting to get justice, to get accountability.

Part of our hearts have gone forever. We are like breathing dead people, and dead people have nothing to lose.

- Mireille Khoury

The explosion killed 219 people and injured 7,000, but their families still don't have answers.

“That's why I appeal to the whole world, to everyone listening to me,” Ms Khoury says.

“Put yourself in my shoes. Suppose it was your son, your daughter, your brother that was killed in such a way in their own houses - in his own room. How would you feel? Don't we deserve support? Don't we deserve justice?”

Investigation interference

An investigation was called in the days following the explosion, with Lebanon's then-caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab promising to deliver its results within five days. 

But almost 450 days have now passed, and no senior official has been held accountable.

The first judge leading the investigation was removed in February after he tried to charge four former ministers, including Mr Diab, with criminal negligence. The four men denied any wrongdoing and refused to be questioned as suspects.

Mr Diab, who was one of those warned about the risk the chemicals posed, said his conscience was clear.

The destroyed Beirut port.
Source: AAP

The judge's replacement, Tarek Bitar, has since tried to summon high-ranking officials for questioning, only to be blocked by the government.

He has had to issue arrest warrants for former ministers who refuse to attend court and has been temporarily stood down twice amid unfounded allegations of bias by those he is investigating. 

Judge Bitar has also been the subject of threats by those who would rather the investigation go away.

Earlier this month, he was reportedly passed a message from a senior Hezbollah official via a journalist at the court saying “we will remove you”.

The campaign against him came to a head last week, when Shia allies Hezbollah and Amal held protests calling for his resignation. The protests eventually turned violent, and seven people were killed.

Judge Tarek Bitar is leading an investigation into the port explosion.
Source: Twitter

The next day, the spokesman for the families of those killed in the explosion took everyone by surprise, when he released a video demanding Judge Bitar stand down.

Reading from a script and glancing off-camera, the other families believe he may have been speaking under duress.

“We don't have any proof. They can't talk ... but we think so, yes,” says Tracy Naggear, whose three-year-old daughter Alexandra was killed in the blast.

“Even us, we’re being very careful nowadays. We’re not going out late at night alone, talking on the phones, we’re being very careful.

“The problem is that the government knows this, and the government isn’t doing anything to make us feel more secure. Unfortunately, that’s the country, and that’s why we’re seeking international justice and security, because we have a government that doesn’t care about us.” 

Paul Naggear carrying his daughter Alexandra.
Source: Supplied

Alexandra was playing in her family’s home near the port when it exploded. She did not survive the blast.

“She was a very easy child actually, she was very social, she loved people, she never nagged, she was always happy. She was super active. She was a hurricane at home. Moving all day long, dancing, singing, playing,” Ms Naggear says.

“We miss her a lot. We are enraged. We haven’t had time to mourn in a proper way. It’s the sadness, the rage, the fact we’re not getting justice, we’re not getting help from our government or anybody else. We’re alone in this.”

We haven’t had time to mourn in a proper way. It’s the sadness, the rage, the fact we’re not getting justice.

- Tracy Naggear

Like many of the families of those killed in the explosion, the Naggears are now speaking up in the hope those responsible for the explosion will be found and prosecuted.

But Alexandra’s father Paul says they’re having to battle Lebanon’s long-divided political elite every single day.

“They are split in different parties, sure, but they managed to unite in this case in crime, obstructing justice in any way they can,” Mr Naggear says.

“And they are willing to go to war, as we have seen, to stop the investigation. Last week, it was not only legal routes to obstruct justice, now it's bullets and weapons and missiles against justice. And they're willing to go all the way - but we are as well.” 

Paul and Tracy Naggear carry an empty coffin bearing the victims' portraits at a protest demanding justice.
Source: Supplied

Political corruption in Lebanon’s is well-documented; the country is now in the midst of one of the world’s worst economic collapses since the 1800s due to decades of chronic mismanagement following the civil war.

Mr Naggear believes Judge Bitar’s investigation has shaken the ruling classes, which have long operated with nobody holding them accountable.

“If something happened to an Australian, would they expect justice? Where are we living? In what world are we living where justice doesn’t exist? If that's the case, then let the rapers and robbers roam the street freely,” he says.

“Justice is our right. It's nothing else. It’s our basic right to have justice for our daughter, so we can move on, so we can continue, so the criminals are behind bars and this doesn’t happen again.

“It’s the most basic human right, which we don’t have.”

Calls for the UN to investigate

Many of the families’ last hope for justice is an international, independent investigation, and Sarah Copland is one of the people leading the charge from her new home in Melbourne.

Her two-year-old son Isaac Oehlers was one of the youngest victims of the explosion, and the only Australian to die that day.

Australian toddler Isaac Oehlers was one of the youngest victims of the Beirut port explosion.
Source: Supplied

“None of this takes away any of the pain or brings Isaac back - no answers, no results will ever change that,” she says.

“But I think it is so important for me as a mother to fight for this, because if I don't, then it's basically saying that what happened to Isaac is OK, and I will never accept that. 

“He was an innocent child, sitting in his home, having dinner - the place where he should've been the safest - when he was taken in a really brutal and horrible matter.” 

It is so important for me as a mother to fight for this, because if I don't, then it's basically saying that what happened to Isaac is OK.

- Sarah Copland

Isaac’s parents want the Australian government to take a leading role in establishing an UN-led investigation.

As a member of the UN, Australia can put forward a resolution at the Human Rights Council when it convenes again in March.

“Isaac was an Australian citizen, so I think they have a duty of care to Isaac to fight for justice on his behalf,” Ms Copland says.

“This was not just an unfortunate accident. We all know that members of the Lebanese government right up to the president as well as members of the security forces and other bodies knew that the ammonium nitrate was there, they knew it posed a risk to the city, they were warned multiple times, and nobody did anything. 

“It's so important for us to just say, ‘That's not OK’, because if we accept that, what else are we going to accept?” 

The Department of Foreign Affairs did not respond to questions from SBS News about whether it would commit to asking for an international investigation.

Isaac Oehlers with his parents Craig and Sarah.

Legal Action Worldwide’s executive director Antonia Mulvey has been advising some of the victims’ families since September last year.

She says they are not calling for an international investigation to replace Judge Bitar’s domestic probe, but would like to see the two work side by side.

“It's not going to muddy the waters or meddle in state sovereignty - quite the opposite, we would argue.” 

“Families, the Lebanese population, we've seen them on the streets; they're demanding justice. We need to help them to do so, and Australia has a very important role to play in that.

“They haven't had time to grieve for the loss of their children and loved ones; that's shocking. We need to give them that opportunity to grieve instead of fighting every day for justice and the truth.”

A turning point for Lebanon

The families’ search for truth and accountability has now become symbolic of something much larger in Lebanon; the long-lasting culture of impunity in which its rulers have operated. 

Human Rights Watch’s Lebanon researcher Aya Mazjoub says Judge Bitar’s probe is shaking that culture to its core.

“This judge was a surprise. Instead of falling in line, he really started going after some of the politicians that he thought were responsible for the Beirut blast. He has requested to charge former ministers and current parliamentarians who belong to some of the most powerful parties in Lebanon - parties that, before this, were untouchable.” 

“If he is successful in charging and prosecuting high-level officials in the government and in parliament, that sets a very positive precedent for future judges. It would show future judges that there is a way to use the judiciary for the public good.”

But while the families have support from much of the Lebanese public in their search for justice, political analysts say last week’s violent protests show there are equally powerful forces working to prevent it.

Middle East Institute Lebanon analyst Christophe Abi-Nassif says some factions have even threatened to destabilise the country’s newly appointed government to have the judge removed.

“There's the threat, or at least the likelihood, for the Mikati government to fall. I think we're still far from that, but this is definitely a threat that Hezbollah and Amal have either put explicitly on the table or have as a card up their sleeves to arm-twist the Mikati government,” he says.

“Mikati might end up caving to the demands of Hezbollah and Amal under the threats potentially of the cabinet imploding from the inside.

“This is typically how Lebanese politics are played, but this one will not be easy to pass, and I think Mikati knows it.”

For the families, they can do nothing but keep fighting for justice. 

"They blew up a city," Ms Copland says. "There has to be some point where we say they can't get away with this anymore."