Hannah Diviney: So, I guess the first question I wanted to ask you is somewhat straightforward and that's just like, how would you describe yourself to people these days? Like what do you tell them about you?
Sarah Copland: That seems straightforward, but I think is potentially tricky because I don't even really know, you know, myself anymore. I think, you know, one thing that I have come to realize is that this big thing that happened to us impacted every single aspect of our lives and changed me considerably. And I remember a friend of mine saying to me that, you know, she has to get to know the ‘new Sarah’ and I'm like, well, I don't even know who the new Sarah is. I also think it has been impacted by COVID in that with all the lockdowns and we came back to Australia and then we went into lockdown. I haven't ventured back out into the world to the same extent that I used to. So, yeah, of course. I guess with what happened to us my identity now as a bereaved mother is huge. But I also hate the idea that that's just what people see me as because I don't like people feeling sorry for me.
HD: Me neither.
SC: Yeah. I don't want that to be just everything that people see and I think for some people that's all they see at the moment. I'm still trying to figure out how to fit that in with, you know, all the other aspects of me and what's sort of next, because we really had to start from scratch with building our whole lives again, including my identity. So many things that I thought about myself don't seem true.
HD: Okay. So we know that ‘old Sarah’, as it were, used to work for the UN, and that is how you found yourself in Lebanon. Do you want to, just as much as you're comfortable with explain to our listeners what you were doing over there and what happened?
SC: Sure. So I still do work for the UN I working remotely from Melbourne. I work out of the Bangkok office now. I got into the UN through what they call the Young Professionals Program, which is, not to toot my own horn, but a difficult program to get into. It’s very competitive. So it was a really proud moment for me to get into the program. I was in the Political Affairs section. I worked for the Department of Peacekeeping in New York for four years. Which is where I had Isaac. As part of this program, you must do at least two postings so in different countries. And so I was, in 2019, I was posted to Lebanon. And what I was doing there for the UN was working for what they call the regional headquarters, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia.
I worked in the Center for Women. Working on gender equality and women's empowerment in the Arab region was like a sort of dream. Peacekeeping was interesting, but it wasn't really my passion. I was quite keen to make gender equality and women’s rights my focus. When I was transferred to this role, it was quite exciting. I'd been to Lebanon before. I think a lot of people have some exceptions about Lebanon, but Beirut, it’s just such a cosmopolitan city. Obviously things have changed, dramatically recently, but before it was very cosmopolitan - lots of cafes, and bars, expat life was pretty good. We never intended to stay there particularly long term. Our idea was to be there a few years at the most, and then would move somewhere near Asia – close to home. My husband has a lot of family in Asia.
HD: So you and your husband moved over there [to Lebanon] with Isaac?
SC: Isaac was born in New York. He was 15 months when we moved to Lebanon. We saw him sort of thrive in Beirut because he went to this day care that was trilingual. Even though he only went three days a week, he was speaking as much French as he was English. I also remember Isaac's babysitter telling me that Isaac had a better Arabic accent than I did. He could even count to 20 in French. So it was really wonderful just to see him sort of thrive with that opportunity that you don't really get in Australia.
HD: And then you felt pregnant with, with Ethan.
SC: Yeah, so I became pregnant just before the while world shut down with COVID. COVID was still a distant kind of thing for us. But then come March, everything sort of shut down. The Beirut airport shut with like less than 48 hours notice.
HD: When did the blast happen? So that was in August?
SC: So basically, Beirut airport reopened sometime in July and we decided we wanted to come home to have the baby. So we booked tickets. And we'd planned to come home in August. We had plans to come home. We were already starting to sort of pack up and plan to come back to have the baby and spend my maternity leave in Australia. But then the explosion happened on the 4th of August. It's a tough story to tell.
HD: Of course, and take all the time you need and you don't have to tell all of it, only whatever you're comfortable with.
SC: Yeah, it was, um, you know, a pretty ordinary day for us. It was really hot - Beirut summers are excruciatingly hot and humid.
HD: Um, especially when you're pregnant probably!
SC: Yeah, especially. So luckily, I was still working from home. A lot of people had already gone back to the office, but I didn’t because I was pregnant. I was able to continue working from home. In hindsight that was such a blessing because it gave me so much more time with Isaac. So basically, he'd spent the morning at day-care and I was working from home and my husband was, was doing his thing. It was a very, very regular day. Then in the evening, he was sitting in his high chair and eating dinner. He had a very set routine at night. So everything was according to routine. And I was sitting with him having, you know, while he had dinner, my husband was out of the room.
I heard this really loud bang. When they first told us what had actually happened, I was like, but we don't even live near the port. We are nearly 750 meters or a kilometre away from the port, but there were so many buildings and streets and everything in between that I didn't consider us to be living close to the port. So I heard this loud bang. I walked to our windows and to our balcony to have a look, to see if I could hear any, see anything, but I couldn't see anything. I know a lot of other people who lived close to the port could see at that stage, the smoke from the fire, but from where we were we couldn't see anything. There were other buildings in the way.
I then I walked back to Isaac's highchair. I went to pick up my phone because the UN often sent out messages if there's incidents around or there’s something to be aware of. So I went to look at my phone to see if there was any notifications about whatever this loud bang was. By the time I sort of walked back to Isaac, picked up my phone, then this huge version of the bang happened. I was immediately thrown to the ground. Isaac was in his high chair and it was kind of like thrown across the room. My husband came running in, he'd been in the bathroom, which was, I mean good, because that was one of the least affected areas because he didn't have windows. We ran over to Isaac and we didn't know what it was at the time - the second explosion. I'd heard some noise that kind of sounded like planes, which later turned out to be fireworks because of course they'd stored this ammonium night trade in a warehouse that also contained fireworks.
There was big explosion and had heard what sounded like a plane. My first instinct was that the city was being bombed. We didn't know whether anything else was going to happen. So we grabbed Isaac and ran into the bathroom. We thought that, you know, would be safe place. But when we got there, we realized he was quite injured. He was bleeding a lot. He’d gotten a piece of glass in his chest. We knew he was bleeding too much to just stay put. So I wrapped him in a towel and I just kind of ran out of the house with no phone, no wallet, no keys, no nothing.
HD: You know, you just did what you had to do.
SC: It was actually my husband who even told me I had to put shoes on, so I slipped, some shoes on and just ran out. Doors had been blown off and we were on the fourth floor, so I ran down and ran down the stairs and out on the street. It was just like devastating chaos. It was like a war zone. I don't know. There are other ways to describe it. There were people lying on the streets, covered it in blood. Cars had been upturned. Glass was everywhere.
HD: Like something out of a movie, kind of exactly. You're actually living it and you're like, wait, yeah, this is real.
SC: I was holding Isaac and I was sort of screaming for help, for someone to take us to the hospital. I remember we were running out onto the street and I didn't know it at the time. I think it was just the adrenaline, but I had a lot of glass in my body as well, including a big piece in my face. I didn't feel it. I didn't know. So I apparently had this huge piece of glass sticking out of my face. I remember running out and holding Isaac and he was crying, and I must have just looked unbelievable.
This woman just looked at us and screamed, and now I just think, imagine how bad we must have looked if like her first reaction was to scream. This other man came running over to us and he looked at Isaac and he's like, you know, just run to the hospital. I'm like, I don't know where to go.
Like I knew I'd been to the hospital before, but I didn't know how to get there on foot. We just kept on running. Craig, my husband, took Isaac out, out of my arms. We ran up to this main road and I just literally ran into the middle of the street and stopped this car, and this guy was driving. He had his wife and two kids - two young girls – and he let us in, and he drove us to the hospital. He didn't speak any English or French. We were really confused because there were two hospitals close to us. He was driving in the opposite direction, and he was going away from them. We were kind of screaming at him to go back. But he didn't understand us. I was trying to speak to him in English. I was trying to speak to him in French and we were like so panicked, and it was just, you know, a lot of screaming.
It turns out that by coincidence, out of the two hospitals – one of them had been completely destroyed. They had to evacuate all the patients from that hospital. The second hospital had been partially destroyed and was just in inundated and was turning away patients. So it was a lucky thing that he didn't take us to one of those two hospitals. He took us to the big public hospital in Beirut. And we'd never been there before. He’d been doing a hundred kilometres an hour down the wrong side of the road, you know, dodging traffic.
There was just blast and chaos, everywhere and cars just, yeah, it was, it was mayhem. It turns out, well, one of the first sort of people affected by the blast who arrived at this particular hospital. They initially tried to turn us away and told us to go to the other entry. There were big Lebanese security guards with guns and whatnot out the front of the hospital.
We were screaming at them and then just pushed past. Luckily a doctor came over and saw how injured Isaac was, and so then they took Isaac to attend to him immediately and me being heavily pregnant and obviously injured, they put me in a wheelchair and took me in another direction.
And that was the last time I saw him.
SC: Yeah. You know, my concept of time of that night is, is so, you know, blurred, blurred that I don't know how long things lasted, but he died within a few hours of arriving hospital. He died of cardiac arrest and massive internal bleeding. They didn't tell me immediately because they were worried about my injuries and the safety of the unborn child. So I didn't find out for a while afterwards, until they were sure the baby was safe.
HD: Was your husband able to be with Isaac?
SC: He stayed with Isaac the whole time. Apparently, they kept trying to push him out of the room, but he kept on just barging back in. So he was there when Isaac passed away. Which is obviously very, very difficult for him.
HD: But also better for Isaac to have been with someone who loved him.
SC: Exactly, exactly. In a way, one of the things that I struggle with is I never got to, you know, say goodbye or that I loved him or anything. Craig had been carrying him in the car and then when we arrived at the hospital that they took him and I never saw him again, but at least I know that he was with his dad.
HD: Yeah. Do you need a minute or are you okay?
SC: No, I'm okay.
HD: So, what do you know about what actually happened? What caused the blast?
SC: So what happened is that there was 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate was stored in a warehouse at the port unsafely stored.
It’s a highly flammable highly explosive material and it wasn't stored under any appropriate conditions. It had been there for six or seven years. The government had received multiple, multiple warnings that had posed a danger to the city. And they ignored it. And that's the big, that's the big thing. That's why we're so intent on pursuing an investigation and justice because it wasn't an accident. There were multiple warnings given to you. The highest levels of government, right up to the President, knew that this ammonium nitrate was dangerous, that it posed a huge risk to the city and that something needed to be done and nothing was done for years.
So what happened is this ammonium nitrate had been brought into Beirut. The story was murky as to why it was in Beirut. So it had apparently been purchased by this company in Mozambique. But whether that's actually true or not is, is a little bit iffy. Basically the ship stopped in Beirut to pick up some cargo. But again it’s a bit iffy because the ship was already overloaded. So why it was picking up extra cargo is hugely questionable. Once then, the ship was in such poor condition, that basically it was impounded.
In the port, there is some evidence to suggest that it was never intended for this company in Mozambique, but was actually always intended to come to Beirut to then be sent to Syria. There are some lawsuits going on in this regard and I'm involved in them, but I'm not across all of the investigation details.
I do know that there is there are definite questions about why it was in Beirut and whether it was intended for Syria. There are some people who were involved in the purchase who had links to the Syrian regime and had previously been sanctioned for things such as importing ammonium nitrate into Syria to be used in the war. But anyway, it had been there since for, as I said, six or seven years. Not only was it unsafely stored, but it was stored next to things like fireworks and other flammable materials.
On the day in question, it seems as though there was a hole or something in the warehouse and some welders have been sent to fix it at some point. During the welding process, a spark started a fire and that is what started the explosion. There are so many layers to this. I have to question why when the government knew that there was this ammonium nitrate there that was highly flammable and posed a huge risk. They also sent firefighters in there - basically to their deaths.
They didn't tell them that the ammonium nitrate was there. Four firefighters literally ran in and were killed because they were not warned about the ammonium nitrate. But also: why didn't they send out some sort of alert to the people of Lebanon to say even just a simple ‘stay away from windows?’
It would’ve saved so many lives, including Isaacs. This fire was raging for quite a while, from what I gather before the explosion actually happened. There are so many layers of negligence, but I guess if they'd sent out a warning, they would be admitting that they knew that it was there and that it was dangerous.
HD: So is there an investigation happening? What happened with the Lebanese investigation?
SC: Yes, so it has actually been suspended since December last year. And so there has been no progress. It’s the fourth time it's been suspended. The government initially promised that there'd be an investigation within a week. It soon became very clear that the authorities were going to do everything they possibly could delay the investigation. The have sort of politicised the investigation.
The investigation is led by a single judge. He has been given almost no resources. He has three or four trainees working with him and one computer. And this is the one of the largest non-clear explosions in history and that's his resources to investigate this explosion. The government has done everything possible to prevent him from doing his work. Including making frivolous complaints about him. Every time someone puts in a complaint about him, they have to suspend the investigation while they investigate complaint. So they just keep on putting complaint after complaint to stop him from working.
HD: Is the UN or some other international body in a position to hold the Lebanese government to account?
SC: So what we have is a group of victims have been working on trying to get an investigation by the UN Human Rights Council. The international system of justice is very, very fraught. There’s not much appetite or anything like a special tribunal, you know, a special court or anything like that. No one's actually faced justice and it costs a lot of money. So there's a little appetite for any sort of special tribunal or special court or, and it doesn't fall into the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
We are pursuing an independent fact-finding admission by the UN Human Rights Council. The findings of such an investigation could be used in Lebanese domestic proceedings, that could be used for lawsuits and criminal cases in, within Lebanon, but it could, the findings could also be used for lawsuits and proceedings outside of Lebanon including things like imposing sanctions on those responsible. It’s a long and slow process and a joint effort between victims and families. If the domestic investigation doesn't work, it's just further proof that there's no functioning judiciary system, which is further evidence of the failure of the state. I just want any sort of justice. I’ve always been looking at international options.
HD: So I guess the next kind of immediate follow up question is what can the average person do?
SC: At the moment, a lot of the focus is on lobbying states to support, putting forward a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council. It needs a country to put forward a resolution and it needs a majority of those who are currently sitting in the Council to vote for it. You don't have to be a sitting member in order to put forward a resolution. So I've been lobbying the government to, to take the lead and put forward a resolution. Under the former Morrison government there was very little interest. I have more hope now that the government has changed because last year, Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong put out a statement indicating that they supported an independent investigation into the explosion.
I guess what average person can do is write to their local member expressing support for this initiative. I'm very active on Twitter. I've written a number of articles, including most recently in op-ed for the Canberra Times on this topic. It’s also about continuing to bring attention, to remind people that this was the largest non-nuclear explosion in history and there has been no accountability, no justice, and not even a completed investigation two years on.
HD: So how can we even start to hope for justice when we can't even get official answers? That must make you quite furious.
SC: You know, it's, it's kind of a funny thing. I’ve worked for the UN now for seven years, you know, I spent time working in the International Criminal Court. I’ve worked in the Australian government before that, so I have a pretty good understanding of what it, this system is like from the inside. And how slowly the wheels turn. But when it comes to any form of justice for, for this kind of thing, but when you other on the other side as a victim, you really understand how the system is not geared towards the victims.
You know, I've had people in my lobbying efforts say to me, you know, I always get told it's not the time. You know, now is not the right time. There's not the appetite. That doesn't help. It's like the victims are at the bottom of the list of priorities. There’s so many things that come before the needs of the victims. You know, Isaac was a two year old child who was sitting in his home having dinner, singing Baby Shark when, when he was killed and he should have been safe there.
HD: So what does that, um, accountability and justice look like for you in practical terms?
SC: You know this is not a straightforward question because there's not one thing that would make any of this better. They could send half of Lebanon's government to jail and award the victims' millions of dollars and it still wouldn't make, make anything better. But accountability is, is really important. The pursuit of justice is, is not a hundred percent about the end goal, but more about the process of sending a message that people can't get away with this. I would really like to see the victims supported because 300,000 people were made homeless in an instant and it happened during what is one of the worst economic crises.
I got a lot of support from the Australian embassy. They were, they were really wonderful, between them and some of my colleagues at the UN they, they helped us a lot. They organised for Isaac to be repatriated. They organized our flights home. They went to our apartment to help clean it up because my doctor forbade me from going back to our apartment for safety reasons.
The Lebanese government didn't help with rescue missions. It was all citizen-led, the cleanup of the city, the, the rescuing of people who were buried under, under rubble. All of it. Led by NGOs and average citizens. I know that people came from all over Lebanon to help with the cleanup and the governments stood by and did nothing. I'm aware that some minor compensation payments have been paid to the victims, but with the current inflation they're basically worthless. There was a bill put forward in parliament to try and prevent any non-Lebanese citizens from getting any compensation ever. The support provided to non-Lebanese citizens has been non-existent.
A lawsuit has been filed in the US. A Swiss NGO called Accountability Now has been leading this. They put together a case against the company that brought the ammonium nitrate into Lebanon. This company is headquartered in Texas. So they have raised a lawsuit against this company in the US, for compensation and damages. Because Isaac was born in New York and was a US citizen, we were able to join the lawsuit.
HD: If you can answer this, how do you honour Isaac? What does life look like?
SC: Life is a lot smaller than it used to be. We had this international lifestyle where we travelled a lot. Then COVID happened and that'd already made things small of everyone. I guess since coming back to Australia, you know, I still work for the UN, but I work from home and work remotely from Australia. We don’t venture out nearly as much as we used to. We sort of have a very quiet life. Our son, Ethan, Isaac ex's little brother is I guess a hundred percent focus – he is what has kept us going for the past two years. I can't imagine what it would've been like without him. I hope that when he gets bigger at it, he doesn't feel that that responsibility, but while he's little, just being able to focus on him and sort of block out a lot of the rest of the world has been how we've sort of survived.
I mean, we try honour Isaac in many, many ways. When you are a parent, you are always a parent. Like of course I will always be Isaac's mum. So for me, I mean, pursuing justice is one way of honouring him. Making sure that his story and his name is known is one way of honouring him because he was such an extraordinary child. And I know I'm incredibly biased, but he was just amazing. Like he was so smart. Everyone used to comment on how intelligent he was. He was very affectionate, very outgoing. Very cheeky. It's a lot of fun to be around and we always thought he was going to do amazing things. But he never got the chance, and I feel like making sure he his name and his, you know, beautiful personality is known by as many people is way of honouring him.
Last year it was so tough. We just kind of bunkered down and stayed at home. We didn't have a home in Australia because we'd been living overseas for so many years and we needed somewhere to go. We went to, we flew to Perth. Which is where Craig's parents live. They have enough room for us to stay, but we never intended to live in Perth. So that's where Isaac is buried. So it's kind of hard not having him here. Once we, you know, have settled a bit more in Melbourne and really, you know, put down a few more roots, then we want to move him over so we can have him here because just not being able to go to visit him.
HD: So you’ll have all your boys in the one place.
SC: Exactly, exactly, exactly. You know, Craig's parents visit him every week and I really appreciate them for that, but it's, you know, it's not the same as us being able to go and be with him. We talk about him a lot. Ethan knows his brother's name. We have this big portrait of Isaac in our entryway and every night Ethan says goodnight to it. Ethan doesn’t know his own name yet, but he can say Isaac's so I kind of like that.
That’s pretty special.