One year ago, a devastating explosion ripped through the city of Beirut, killing over 200 people, including my two-year-old son Isaac Oehlers, the youngest victim of the blast. Every night since that horrific day, I have gone through the same ritual. Climbing into bed, I cuddle one of Isaac’s favourite teddy bears close to me – one of the two he always slept with, the other placed in this tiny coffin to keep him company – I inhale the fur, seeking any remaining hint of Isaac’s scent, and I whisper the following words: “Goodnight my sweet boy. Mummy and Daddy love you more than you could ever possibly know. We are here for you any time you need us. Sweet dreams my darling boy. Bonne nuit”.
Every night that Isaac spent on this earth, I said some form of these words to him. He never went to sleep without knowing how much he was loved and that his Mum and Dad were always there for him. And every night since he was killed in the Beirut Blast, starting with the moment I saw his little body in the morgue, I have said the same words. Now, as sleep eludes me, I have added another element to the ritual. As I lay awake, I ask over and over again, “Why Isaac?” I don’t know who I am asking, God, the universe, who knows? But the question is always the same “Why Isaac?” So many other people survived the explosion, why not him? Why was our gorgeous boy, who brought nothing but light and love into this world, taken in such a cruel way, while the perpetrators of this crime were spared?
Isaac was a kid who approached everything with wonder. Whether it was examining the small pink petals on the pot plant that my husband picked up at the supermarket on a whim or walking amongst the ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek, Isaac would drink it all in and then turn to me or his Dad with a look of amazement on his face and say “WOW!” He taught me, someone who has always been more of a glass-half-full type, to really notice the beauty in this world. To see the world through his eyes on a daily basis was pure joy and a real privilege. To know that the last thing those deep brown eyes saw was me, his mother, covered in blood, glass protruding out of my face, screaming for help, eats me up inside.
Isaac was a kid who took life by the horns, he wasn’t afraid of anything and approached each new challenge with gusto. I remember one day I took him to the “big kids” area of our local playground, instead of the usual area for toddlers. He held my hand and looked up at me as if to say “Mum, you’ve been holding out on me!” then he charged off ready to conquer the equipment. Climbing a big staircase up to the slide, Isaac was completely unperturbed by the other kids, some at least 12 or 13 years old, scrambling past him, shouting loudly, gangly limbs flailing. He was determined to make it to the top and these other kids weren’t going to faze him. Meanwhile, I nervously hovered closely behind him, giving him a little push when he needed it and standing guard to make sure a stray limb didn’t knock him over. At the top, he was firmly resolved to go down the slide by himself, not sitting on my lap as I would have preferred. So off he went. By the time I got to the bottom and picked myself off the floor, Isaac was already back climbing the stairs for a second go round. I remember thinking that Isaac, not yet two years old, was braver than me. But that was Isaac, confident, adventurous and brave. He loved life like no one else I ever knew, and yet that life was taken from him.
Over the past year I have been quite open about my grief over losing Isaac. I have found though, that as holidays and anniversaries loom – Christmas, Isaac’s birthday and now the one-year anniversary of his death – it becomes too much, too overwhelming. I cannot process my own pain, let alone share it with others. But as the one-year anniversary approaches, I have not lost my words for the anger I feel and my determination to pursue justice.
At first, I thought pursing justice was a fool’s game. 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. But over time, I realised that if I don’t take up this fight, then I am essentially saying that what happened to Isaac, what happened to all of the victims is ok. That a city could be decimated in an explosion and it doesn’t matter. But it does matter. Isaac’s life mattered.
I have been asked many times what justice means to me. It is a hard question, because no matter what answer I give, it doesn’t bring Isaac back. Nothing will make up for everything he missed out on. It is also not a simple case where one or two people can be deemed responsible, put in jail and voila, justice is served. Yes, punishing those responsible is a crucial part of the equation, but the Beirut blast did not occur in a vacuum. The fact that criminal negligence on such a grand scale could flourish is the result of deep systemic issues. The fact that the State has not provided victims with any support is the result of deep systemic issues. Justice cannot be achieved until the people of Beirut can be assured that nothing like this can happen again and it cannot be achieved until the victims don’t have to worry about putting a roof over their head and food on the table.
Regardless of what justice looks like in the end, it must begin with the truth. Who brought the ammonium nitrate to Beirut? Who allowed to be offloaded? Who knew that it was stored unsafely and posed a threat to the city and why didn’t they do anything about it? How did the fire in the port start? Why weren’t the people of Beirut warned of the danger once the fire broke out? These and many other questions remain unanswered and we cannot begin to talk about justice until we have the truth. The Lebanese government promised that the formal investigation would take five days, but we are a year on, and we still don’t have answers. The process has been beset with delays and political interference. Current and former MPs have been granted immunity and when victims, parents who lost their children just like me, protested this fact, they were met with riot police and tear gas.
It is time for the international community to step up. That is why I, along with a collective of victims, have been working with Legal Action Worldwide and Human Rights Watch to call for a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution establishing an independent, impartial and transparent fact-finding mission. Such a mission should report on the human rights violated by the explosion, failures by the Lebanese authorities, and make recommendations to Lebanon and the international community on steps that are needed to both remedy the violations and to ensure that they do not occur in the future. The impact of the explosion and the aftermath represented a clear violation of Lebanon’s international human rights obligations and so falls squarely under the remit of the Human Rights Council. The Council has authorised at least 34 similar investigative bodies since 2006, demonstrating a clear precedent in UN-mandated investigations being used to respond to serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. In June 2021, 53 Lebanese, regional and international rights groups and individuals, as well as 62 survivors and families of the victims issued a joint letter calling on Member States of the Human Rights Council to establish an international, independent and impartial investigative mission. It is time for the Council to heed those calls.
Isaac was a kid who loved to make people laugh. He would beam with pride if he made someone chuckle. At the time of the explosion I was almost seven months pregnant. Our second son, Ethan, is now nine months old. He has a sweet giggle and when he laughs, his nose crinkles and his eyes disappear, very different from Isaac’s broad smile and full-bellied laugh. When Ethan sits up in his chair, giggling as I tickle his toes, I think about how Isaac would have had a captive audience in his little brother, how he would have gotten up to crazier and crazier antics in order to make Ethan laugh. I imagine my husband and I repeatedly telling the two of them to calm down. Their hijinks would have driven us crazy and turned our hair grey, but it would have been magical. Now, Isaac has missed out on everything and Ethan will never know his amazing big brother. That is not ok. What happened to the other children, the brave fire fighters sent to their deaths, the nurses on duty at hospitals that were destroyed, the Syrian refugees and domestic workers who were seeking a better life, and all of the other innocent souls taken that day is not ok. It is time for the international community to stand up and say what happened was wrong, and the victims deserve justice.