On 10 March 2021, I spoke on a panel for a high-level side event to the 46th Human Rights Council. Hosted by Legal Action Worldwide and Human Rights Watch, the topic of the panel was “The 4 August Beirut Explosion: Can the Lebanese Investigation Deliver Justice?”
Panelists included Ralph Tarraf, Ambassador of the European Union to Lebanon; Najat Rochdi, UN Deputy Special Coordinator for Lebanon; Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch; Agnes Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions; and Nada Abdelsater, international lawyer. Paul Naggear and Tracy Awad, parents of 3 year old Alexandra, and Mireille Bazergy, mother of 15 year old Elias, the other two children killed in the blast, also shared powerful testimony. A link to the full recording is below, as well as my remarks on the panel.
Remarks as Delivered
Question: Sarah, you are fighting for justice for your dear son Isaac, who was two years old when he died in the 4 August Beirut explosion. Can you tell us why justice is so important for you and your family, and why you think an independent and impartial fact-finding mission is the way to pursue it?
I would like to start by thanking Legal Action Worldwide and Human Rights Watch for hosting this important event, and particularly for giving victims and survivors of the explosion an opportunity to tell their stories.
Before I get to the heart of your question, I want to start by telling you a little bit about Isaac, what happened to him and the impact his death has had on our family. At two years old, Isaac was the youngest victim of the Beirut blast. He was an outgoing, confident, brave, incredibly intelligent and affectionate little boy. He was thriving in Beirut. He loved to talk to people and as we walked around the city he would wave at the locals, many of whom would stop and have a chat with him, which he loved. He constantly astounded my husband and I with his fierce intelligence. He was a master at puzzles and was quickly picking up Arabic and French, despite the fact that my husband and I are fluent in neither, and at two years old could already count to 20 in French, a feat that astounded his teachers at his beloved daycare. He loved cats, lizards and butterflies, which he called butter-lowers, and we spent many happy hours at a garden near our apartment searching for all three. But above all, Isaac was loving and affectionate. I feel a physical pain at the thought that I will never receive one of his hugs again.
Now let me tell you how this beautiful little boy was killed. Isaac was sitting in his highchair having dinner at home, in the place where he should have been the most safe, singing along to his favourite nursery rhymes when the explosion hit. I was thrown to the ground, but Isaac in his highchair was like a sitting target. A large piece of glass pierced his tiny chest. Not knowing what had happened, my husband and I raced to get help, but the closest hospital, St George, had been destroyed in the blast. A good Samaritan, who I flagged down on the street, raced us to Rafik Hariri hospital, where Isaac died shortly afterwards. The glass had pierced his heart and his lungs and he died of massive internal bleeding and cardiac arrest. I was almost seven months pregnant at the time, and we were three weeks away from leaving Lebanon to return to Australia to have the baby. Instead of taking Isaac home to see his grandparents and cousins, and to meet his new baby brother, we had to accompany his casket back to Australia.
I have struggled to come to terms with what happened to Isaac, not only because losing a child is the worst pain imaginable, but also because of how it happened. It seems incomprehensible to me that my son was killed in the largest non-nuclear explosion in history. In addition to losing our son, we lost our home, our belongings, our future, and our sense of security. I suffer anxiety and flashbacks, loud sounds leave me paralysed in fear, the sounds of children squealing bring back the blood curdling screams that filled the hospital that night. A quiet moment brings to mind my last image of Isaac’s face, scared and confused. I now have my newborn son, Ethan, and I find it impossible to lose myself in the joy of being a mother again because everything reminds me of Isaac and what I have lost, and that is so unfair to Ethan.
The death of a child brings also with it an enormous amount of guilt. My husband and I have questioned every little thing we did in the aftermath of the explosion, as well as every decision that we took, big and small, in the lead up to the explosion. I repeatedly ask myself, why did I take up my job at the United Nations? Why did we pick that apartment? Why did we put his highchair in that part of the room? Why, when the blast occurred, was I standing next to Isaac and not in front of him where my body could have shielded his?
But these, and the many more decisions I question, should not have been life and death decisions. I shouldn’t have been put in a position where I feel guilty about the fact that if I had been standing one step to the right, my son might be here today. I can tell you what WERE life and death decisions. The decision on behalf of multiple authorities to do nothing about the ammonium nitrate stored unsafely in a residential area, despite clear warnings it posed a threat to the city. The decision authorities took to not warn the people of Beirut of the danger when the fire at the port broke out. A simple warning to stay away from windows could have saved countless lives, including Isaac’s. And the decision after the explosion to not provide guidance to the population on which hospitals were destroyed and which could accept patients, meaning people wasted precious minutes and hours trying to seek medical care. These were life and death decisions taken on behalf of the authorities, and in each case they made the wrong one, knowing they were putting innocent lives at risk. People have called the explosion an accident. My husband and I say that Isaac was murdered, because negligence on this scale is absolutely criminal.
After the explosion, I felt so defeated, so beaten down that I could not see a path to justice. I recall telling my husband in those early days that we will never see justice for Isaac, so it is probably not worth fighting for. How do you even begin to hope that those with the power and resources to cover their tracks will be held accountable? I knew decades of United Nations reporting has shown that the Lebanese justice system lacks independence, is inefficient, lacks necessary resources and is weak to corrupt practices. Why should I expect that to change now, particularly when it is well known that senior officials all the way up to the President knew the ammonium nitrate was there and knew it posed a threat to the city.
While initially I felt the fight for justice was pointless, over time I have come to realise that if I don’t take up this fight, it is essentially saying that what happened to Isaac, and to three-year-old Alexandra, and fifteen-year-old Elias and all the other victims, doesn’t matter, that their lives had no value. My son loved life, to watch the world through his eyes was pure joy, yet one of his last sights in this world before he lost consciousness was of me, his mother, the person he always turned to for comfort, drenched in blood, glass embedded in my face, screaming for help. His last feeling in this world was of intense pain. And make no mistake, Isaac died a painful death. That is not ok. What happened to Isaac is not right. He deserved more from this world and if we do not fight for justice, we are essentially saying that what happened to this two-year-old innocent child, being brutally killed in his own home, doesn’t matter. But it does matter. I want those responsible for his death to know his name, to know his face and I hope that what happened to him haunts their dreams.
Now unfortunately my fears about the Lebanese justice system are bearing fruit. We have all seen the delays, the due process violations, the political leaders’ attempts to stop the investigation and other political interference. Now let me tell you what it is like from a victims’ perspective. In the seven months since Isaac was killed, not a single person in authority has contacted my husband and I to express their condolences. Not a single person has contacted us to inform us of our rights, of the investigation process, or to take a witness statement. It is like we do not exist. This is not acceptable.
It is for this reason that I believe an independent and impartial fact-finding mission is the only way forward. Now having worked for both the International Criminal Court and the United Nations, I know that the international system of justice has its flaws and challenges. But I also know, that when there is the political will and when members of the international community work together, positive changes, as well as justice and accountability, can be achieved. So, my question to the international community is this. Are you going to confirm my initial fears that there is no path to justice for my son Isaac? Or are you going to recognize that his life had value, that he deserved a chance at life and that was taken from him, not by an accident, but by criminal negligence? Are you going to stand up and say that what happened to him and all the other victims was wrong, and they deserve justice? Are you going to take up the cause on Isaac’s behalf?