Africell Gambia Engineer’s Widow – ‘I Want to Know who Killed my Husband’ in Beirut
Mohammad Abbas was an Africell Gambia engineer. He was being treated of Covid-19 at the St George Hospital University Medical Centre in Beirut, the Lebanese capital, when hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate improperly stored at a port warehouse blew up on 4 August 2020 in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.
Mohammad Abbas, 38, was killed in the port explosion along with more than 200 others.
August holds special significance for Samia Makki: her son and husband’s birthdays and her marriage anniversary fall this month. But her husband also died this month, exactly one year ago on Wednesday.
Windows burst and ceilings collapsed in the hospital where Mr. Abbas was treated for Covid in the intensive care unit, less than a kilometer away from the blast. The gigantic explosion killed more than 200 people, injured thousands, and destroyed large parts of the city up to 20 km away.
“I thought he was in the best place for safety. I was not worried at all,” Ms. Makki said. She said she had rung the hospital for an update on her husband’s condition a minute before the blast when suddenly “the line went off.”
She tried several times to contact the hospital but to no avail. When she heard about the port explosion, at first, she did not panic. But after three hours passed, she was still unable to reach her husband or the doctors. “I don’t turn on the TV because I don’t want the kids to see the bad pictures. I saw on a WhatsApp group that the hospital was affected,” she said.
Ms. Makki, her husband, and their two children – daughter Sama, five, and one-year-old son Sari – had lived in the Gambia, where Mr. Abbas worked as a telecommunications engineer with Africell Gambia.
When he fell seriously ill with Covid, Ms. Makki and her family were transported home to Lebanon by air ambulance. It would be the last time she saw her husband, as she and her children were told to quarantine in their home in Tebnine, more than 100km from Beirut.
“Every day, he messaged me, saying, ‘it’s now time to prayer.’ In Lebanon, the doctors said he is very strong and will survive,” Ms. Makki said.
The fateful day began with positive news for the family after doctors said Mr. Abbas was making progress and moving out of the ICU.
Ms. Makki said: “I was very happy. I was in quarantine with my kids alone. It was the first day I could eat. After that, my head was always with my husband in hospital.”
But it was not meant to be. Instead, Ms. Makki found out she had become a widow after learning of her husband’s death through a news article on Facebook the morning after the blast.
“August is the most beautiful month for us, but I’m always crying,” she said. “I can’t believe what happened to us. Life is very difficult. I’m lonely without him.”
Alone with two children, Ms. Makki regularly meets with families of other victims who are still reeling from the devastation and have been protesting in their fight for truth and justice. She takes her daughter to the demonstrations.
A probe launched after the tragedy has yet to hold any officials to account and has been hindered by Lebanese authorities. The government dismissed the first judge appointed to the investigation after he summoned political figures for questioning and rejected the new judge’s requests to lift MPs’ immunity and question senior security forces in connection with the blast.
On Friday, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun told the country’s public prosecutor he would give a statement if called to testify in the investigation. “No one is above the law, no matter how high up, and justice can only be achieved through the specialized judicial branches that provide guarantees,” he said.
Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday in its report on the blast that senior leaders, including Mr. Aoun, then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab, a former Lebanese army chief, senior security officials, and several ministers, were informed of the risks posed by the nitrate in the middle of a densely populated area but failed to take the necessary steps to protect the public. The ammonium nitrate had been haphazardly stored at the port for nearly six years.
After a year of crisis, it has left Lebanon facing financial collapse, hyperinflation, and food and fuel shortages. As a result, violent protests have broken out in the country, with a demonstration planned in Beirut on the anniversary of the port disaster.
Josef Khallouf, a filmmaker who works in Beirut, said that the city suffers frequent power cuts with only about three hours of electricity a day. As a result, he said food prices have skyrocketed, giving one example of beef which would normally cost $12 (£9) a kilogram but is now being sold for $80 (£58) a kilogram. The economic turmoil has changed people, Mr. Khallouf said, making them more “individualistic.”
“We don’t have a lot of empathy anymore,” he said. “The Lebanese people are in a collective depression, you go to the streets, and people can’t conduct a full conversation.
St George Hospital, where 22 people were killed, including four nurses, had to shut for the first time since it was founded in 1878 after severe damage. Patients from the 400-bed hospital were evacuated onto the pavement outside. Rebuilding efforts continue, with chief medical officer Alexander Nehme saying it would cost an estimated £29m to get the hospital fully operating again.
Ms. Makki said she was skeptical about how much the Lebanese government could be trusted. She said: “We can’t believe them. They protect themselves.”
She added: “I don’t want my kids to ask ‘what have you done for baba?’ and I say nothing. I protest to protect my kids, I want to know who killed my husband, and I want to kill them in the same way.
“I hope something will change. Why should my kids grow without a father? Every night my daughter asks and says, ‘I miss my baba.’ My son doesn’t know him, but I show him pictures. I told them he went to the sky because Allah loves him.”