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In Beirut, Thousands Marched To Mark The Anniversary Of Port Blast That Killed 200


To Beirut now, where thousands of people marched to mark the port explosion that happened a year ago today. The blast devastated the city and killed more than 200 people. Thousands were displaced. Protesters clashed with security forces as they demanded that leaders who had been warned about explosive chemicals at the port faced justice. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has the story of one family's desire for justice while struggling with the loss of a loved one.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Photos hang on the wall in Rosaline Bezdjian's home of her and her sister smiling at their graduations. On a table next to where Rosaline sits are more framed pictures and mementos from Jessica's life - her university badge, her nursing ID. To Rosaline, Jessica was her soul mate.

ROSALINE BEZDJIAN: We were more than sisters, more than best friends, you know? We're just, like, soul mates, yeah?

SHERLOCK: Jessica was just 22 when the blast ripped through the hospital where she was working as a psychiatric nurse. Some days, Rosaline misses her youngest sister so much she sends messages to her Instagram account just to feel close to her. A year on, she still sets a plate for Jessica at the family table.

BEZDJIAN: I don't know what to say because we're not getting used to this idea. I'm in denial 'til now. I always say she's coming. She will open the door and come here and say, hi, I made it.

SHERLOCK: Rosaline's situation is the same as the hundreds of others whose loved ones were taken from them, as the shockwave from the Beirut port explosion devastated homes, offices and hospitals. They are haunted by that terrible day. Rosaline still has nightmares from watching her sister Jessica die on a hospital gurney as a friend and colleague fought to give her CPR.

BEZDJIAN: 'Til now, before I sleep or in the middle of my dream, I saw scenes about her death or about her funeral - just, like, a few shots.

SHERLOCK: And the ongoing lack of justice around the blast makes it all the more impossible to move on. The explosion happened when hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate stored alongside fuses and fireworks in a warehouse at Beirut port ignited. Leaked documents and even some of their own statements indicate that Lebanon's leaders, including the president and the prime minister at the time, were warned of the dangers and failed to act.

And yet a year on, not one senior official has been prosecuted. Instead, an investigative judge has been removed, and parliament has refused to lift immunity laws protecting top officials. Human Rights Watch this week said the investigation is, quote, "incapable of credibly delivering justice." The government has provided almost no help to those who lost their homes or were injured. And Rosaline Bezdjian says leaders have failed even to recognize people's pain.

BEZDJIAN: 'Til now, no one said - no one apologized. No one called families to say, we are sorry for your loss.

SHERLOCK: 'Til now?

BEZDJIAN: Yes. 'Til now no one called. No one. Because - no, no, no, no, no, no, no one, no one, no one, no one, no one, no one. Because they think if they do, the meaning of apologizing means they - accepting what they did.

SHERLOCK: The blast came when Lebanon was already in a dire economic crisis that the World Bank says is caused by the country's leaders. It's destroyed the middle class and left much of the population struggling even for food. In Beirut, home after home remains damaged from the explosion because owners have no money to rebuild. When Jessica died, the Bezdjians decided her funeral should be like the wedding she would never have.

BEZDJIAN: All of the people wore white. And all the flowers, everything, we did just like a small wedding...


BEZDJIAN: ...With white flowers everywhere and balloons, everything.

SHERLOCK: They meant to symbolize the future that Jessica had lost. A year on, with no hope for justice and the country's economy collapsed, many feel Lebanon's future is lost, too.

Ruth Sherlock. NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.