Victims Associations after Disaster: Generating the Power to Live On

2021-11-04    |   

Victims Associations after Disaster: Generating the Power to Live On
Volunteers take a break on the sidewalk at the Soeurs du Rosaire hospital in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, August 8, 2020. Photo by Dalia Khamisy

How do people whose lives have been shattered by the deepest forms of grief and immeasurable loss live on and cope in the aftermath of disaster?


Cultural historian Rebecca Solnit argues that disaster: 

“ requires an ability to embrace contradiction in both the minds of those undergoing it, and those trying to understand it from afar. In each disaster, there is suffering, there are psychic scars… there are deaths and losses. [However] satisfactions, new-born social bonds, and liberations are often also profound… [i]t is the disruptive power of disaster that matters here; the ability of disasters to topple old orders and open new possibilities.”[1]

 Victims’ associations, formed in the aftermath of disasters, are manifestations of radical hope and new-born social bonds. Victims’ associations are nascent communities, made up of individuals and families who are grappling with immense pain, while at the same time, generating together the will and power to live on.

 Working alongside victims’ associations allows us to understand solidarity as part of the human condition. Since the August 4 Massacre of Beirut’s port explosion last year, the victims’ families have joined hands with the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities and numerous neighborhood associations. Both independently and with the support of civil society organizations, they are articulating their fight for justice in order to heal. Building on a sense of solidarity stemming from a shared experience, they are acknowledging that “[t]he fate that faces them, no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared.”[2]

 Collective attempts to support and stand behind the victims’ associations that have taken root in Beirut drew lessons from decades of organizing and movement building by victims’ associations which emerged in similar circumstances, both in Lebanon and internationally. From bringing victims together and supporting them, to participating in legal investigations and holding those responsible for criminal negligence to account, as well as campaigning for legal reform, victims’ associations epitomise immense bravery born out of tragedy. This article sets out a few examples of these experiences. It pays tribute to the power of free association and its impact on ensuring that victims access the justice they deserve.


Brumadinho Dam Collapse (Brazil, 2019): The Victims’ Association Which Rescues Happiness

 In 2019, a dam collecting toxic waste from an iron ore mine owned by Vale, a multinational mining company, collapsed in Brazil. A tsunami of mining waste flooded the community, killing 272 workers and residents, and destroying thousands of homes and farms. 

 An association “of family members of victims and affected people” (AVABRUM) was formed within seven months of the dam’s collapse. Over the past two years, AVABRUM has played a pivotal role in writing a people’s history of the Brumadinho dam collapse. Along with environmental movements, such as the Movement for People Affected by Dams, and local labour unions, AVABRUM has centred victims’ voices and highlighted their personal experiences in the face of corporate whitewashing.

 Members of the association have given testimony in proceedings before Brazil’s federal Chamber of Deputies (the national lower house of Brazil’s legislative body). They continue to run public campaigns for safer mining regulations, demand justice for the crimes committed against their loved ones by protesting, and monitor the criminal proceedings taking place against 16 of Vale’s executives – including the company’s ex-president – who are being charged with “intentional homicide”. 

When the government of Minas Gerais, the Brazilian state where the disaster occured, signed a $7 billion settlement with Vale “for the reparation of socio-economic and economic damages” caused by the collapse, AVABRUM made it clear that this agreement, between the government and Vale, was negotiated “behind closed doors” and “without the involvement of those affected [by the disaster]”. They highlighted that bereaved family members and community members whose agricultural lands were destroyed, and whose access to clean water sources was severely affected, were deliberately excluded from the process.

 On a grassroots level, AVABRUM is bringing bereaved families and survivors together through a recently opened community centre, where members can organise group-therapy events, “build new relationships… and bring new meaning [to their lives], in an attempt to rescue a little happiness.” Notably, the association has previously organised psychiatric and psychological care for its members, and has represented victims’ families in negotiations with Vale, successfully obtaining medical insurance contributions for members and extensions of pension payments for victims who were employees of Vale.


Grenfell Tower Fire (UK, 2017): Victims Shaping the Permanent History of the Disaster

 In 2017, a fire rapidly engulfed Grenfell Tower, a 24-story residential building in London, leaving at least 72 dead. The rapid spread of the fire was largely due to the existence of highly flammable material which was present within the cladding that covered the exterior of the building and “acted as a source of fuel”[3] for the fire.

 Within weeks of the fire, Grenfell United was formed to give “a strong, independent, united and dignified voice for the residents… keep the community together, to provide support to one another in rebuilding lives, to seek justice and accountability and to honour the memory of those who died”.[4] Dozens of other support networks were also formed, including the Grenfell Next of Kin support group and Justice4Grenfell. Together, these associations have not only contributed to the ongoing fight for justice for victims but have also mobilized a nationwide movement for reforming social housing policies: “In the aftermath of the fire, it turned out that tens of thousands of other residents in more than 400 residential tower blocks across England were living in flats wrapped in similar [cladding] materials” – that is, cheap, highly combustible materials that “burned like petrol” on the night of the Grenfell Tower fire.[5]

 Although criminal proceedings against specific individuals and corporations are still underway, bereaved families and survivors have been able to shape the “official” public narrative of what happened on the night of the fire, particularly through their participation in the government’s Grenfell Tower Inquiry. While this inquiry is not without flaws, it has at the very least highlighted how victims’ associations can (and should) play a central role in establishing the “truth” in the aftermath of communal tragedies. Specifically, this was made evident in the following ways.

 Firstly, through participation in consultations with the Chairman and panel conducting the investigations in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry,[6] victims’ associations and survivors were able to ensure that the inquiry investigates key socio-economic issues surrounding the fire as opposed to simply investigating facts arising on the night of the fire. This includes, amongst other issues, the relationship between the tenants and the tower’s landlord (who had been warned on multiple occasions that the tower was unsafe), and the history of the tower’s refurbishment – which led to the combustible cladding being placed on the exterior of the tower in the first place.

 Secondly, many victims and survivors agreed to be core participants in the inquiry, which opened with hearings commemorating those who died in the fire. Family members were able to pay tribute to their loved ones as part of the proceedings and the inquiry heard evidence which celebrated the lives of those who died. Importantly, these witness statements now form part of the “permanent public record” of the inquiry.


AZF Factory Explosion in Toulouse (France, 2001): Setting Legal Precedents

 In 2001, 300 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in the AZF fertiliser factory owned by Grand Paroisse in the French city of Toulouse. The explosion resulted in 31 deaths, injured at least 3,000 people, affected approximately 27,000 homes, and destroyed at least two schools.

 The first criminal proceedings in this case began in 2009. After 16 years, three separate trials, and multiple, prolonged appeals processes, a French court found that Grand Paroisse – a subsidiary of TOTAL – was guilty “of negligence and serious misconduct”, while also finding the plant’s former manager guilty of manslaughter. In 2019, the French Court of Cassation rejected a final appeal made by Grand Paroisse and the plant’s former manager to overturn the finding of criminal liability against them made by a French court in 2017.

 More than a decade after the disaster had occurred, victims and survivors’ associations played a critical role in setting this precedent of finding the company and its senior personnel criminally liable. They endured a preliminary (pre-trial) investigation, which lasted seven years, before the first criminal trial was opened. In this first trial, the Court of First Instance found the corporation and its managers not guilty, ruling that there was not enough evidence to prove criminal liability. This verdict was then overturned by an appeals court in 2012, after the court found the company and the manager guilty of manslaughter. However, the elation and feelings that justice had been done were short-lived when, in 2015, the French Court of Cassation overturned the guilty verdict on procedural grounds: the Court of Cassation considered the decision of the 2012 trial to be null and void due to the fact that one of the magistrates in the trial was also the vice president of the French National Institute for Assisting Victims and Mediation (Inavem).

 At least two victims’ associations participated in these long-running trials: the Association of Bereaved Families AZF Toulouse and the Association of Victims and Survivors of 21 September 2001 joined the trials as civil parties to the proceedings and were legally represented throughout the trial. In the first trial, 3,149 individuals and organisations participated as civil plaintiffs in the proceedings. Eight years later at the third trial, at least 2,700 victims and survivors were still participating in the proceedings as civil plaintiffs.

 Members of the victims’ and survivors’ associations participated in the legal proceedings in multiple ways: firstly, they were able to give evidence as witnesses in the trials. Secondly, they regularly organised protests and press conferences throughout the 16-year trial process in order to present a united and powerful front, capable of exerting pressure on public opinion and public authorities. Finally, and crucially, their collective action placed significant pressure on the public prosecutor to appeal the first verdict, which initially absolved Grand Paroisse and its executives of any criminal liability for the disaster.

 In the final trial, which took place in Paris’ Court of Appeal, victims were angry that the trial was moved away from Toulouse. They protested the decision, making it clear that victims have an absolute right to be heard – especially when the trial had taken 16 years. Although they were not successful in moving the trial back to Toulouse, the continued pressure from victims’ associations established a very clear position for victims’ associations seeking justice in similar contexts: we belong at the centre of these trials, not on the margins.


Union Carbide Industrial Disaster in Bhopal (India, 1984): The Forgotten Communities

 In 1984, a leak released between 30-40 metric tons of highly toxic gas into towns surrounding an industrial plant in Bhopal, India. In a single night, the leak exposed hundreds of thousands of workers and residents to a deadly gas cloud. At least 3,800 people died immediately and between 15,000- 20,000 people died subsequently due to health complications. Additionally, while estimates vary, most sources cite that at least 200,000 people suffered from long-term adverse health effects due to exposure to the gas.

 Nearly 40 years later, toxic materials have not been cleaned up from the site, surrounding land, and water sources. Inter-generational and long-term epidemiological effects have been recorded, with higher rates of children born with disabilities and “twice as many persons dying of cancers, diseases of the lungs and tuberculosis… in the gas exposed population as compared to the unexposed.”[7]

 The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal was formed by groups of survivors nearly 32 years ago. For more than three decades, they have steadfastly given a voice to victims and survivors whose ongoing suffering is almost inconceivable. Bhopal survivors’ groups played a critical role in pursuing a legal challenge against corporate settlements. For example, Union Carbide (the American company that partially owned and ran the plant which released the toxic gas) agreed on a settlement with the Indian government which, firstly, resulted in the payment of about “US $500 [to survivors] to cover a lifetime of injuries”, and secondly, purported to guarantee – through a private settlement – that Union Carbide employees would not be held responsible for their negligent actions. In response, victims and survivors launched a historic legal challenge which reached India’s Supreme Court and set an important constitutional precedent for India. Although the Supreme Court upheld the pithy compensation payments, it declared the clause purporting to exclude criminal liability null and void, holding that it was unconstitutional for a private settlement to “quash” criminal liability.

 The Bhopal disaster exposed the deadly and devastating impact that multinational supply chains can have on international workers and the communities which host industrial production plants. Where international supply chains are implicated in disasters, domestic and international law have proven woefully inadequate as a means of holding those responsible for immense loss of life to account. Bhopal taught us this lesson.


Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared (Lebanon, 1982): Back Home Again

 Throughout the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), and in the decades since, various victims’ associations came together to demand justice for war crimes, displacement, and the arbitrary killings which took place. Of these associations, the Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared has been exceptionally steadfast. The committee came together in 1982, aiming to bring together families and relatives of people from across the country who had been forcibly disappeared or kidnapped during the war. The committee has consistently been one of the most prominent collective voices of staunch opposition to the rule of the Lebanese warlords after 1990.

 The committee played a major role in honouring the lives of those whose fate remained unknown for decades. In particular, it campaigned relentlessly for successive Lebanese governments to institutionalise and protect their fundamental right to truth and to access information about their missing relatives. The committee pressured public officials and militia-turned-party leaders into setting up fact-finding investigations to report on and clarify what happened to missing victims of the civil war. It also brought legal action against various public officials in order to make the locations of Lebanon’s mass graves publicly available.

 Most notably, in 2014, after years of lobbying, campaigning, and resisting efforts by successive governments to bury their loved ones’ stories, the committee obtained a ground-breaking judgment from Lebanon’s highest Administrative Court, the Shura Council (Majlis Shura al-Dawleh). The judgment held that the families, represented through a number of victims’ associations, had a fundamental legal right to truth and, therefore, to access information held by intelligence services about their disappeared relatives and family members. Additionally, in 2018, Lebanon’s Parliament finally passed the Law on Forcibly Disappeared and Missing Persons,[8] which also established an independent national commission of inquiry to ensure the right to truth is actively pursued. The Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared embodies a model of consistent, sustained resistance which members undertook for decades – a model that allows the families of victims of the Beirut port explosion to build a similarly powerful association. 

 In response to disaster, communities come together. This contradictory duality arises from the extremes experienced after a disaster – or the sudden and collective collapse of life as people affected experience it. In its aftermath, “the individual, the isolated self [is] dead. The social self [is] regnant… Never again shall we feel singled out by fate for the hardships and ill-luck that’s going.”[9] This is particularly true for those classes of society that have been alienated from collective action and networks of solidarity. 


The Committee for Families of Victims of the August 4 Explosion: Waiting for a Movement 

The Committee for Families of Victims of the August 4 Explosion was formed in the aftermath of a disaster which took at least 220 lives and injured more than 7,000. This committee has publicly declared its aims: to achieve justice for the victims of the explosion; to uphold the rights of victims and their family members under Lebanese law and international human rights law; to obtain full compensation for all the losses suffered by victims and their family members; and to ensure victims are fully represented in all forums (whether public, governmental, or related to international aid distribution) related to the August 4 explosion.

Over the past year, members of the community who lost their siblings, partners, daughters, and sons occupied public spaces with the grief they carry. They have been unwavering in their demands for recognition and justice. In the months after the explosion, they were left to grapple with unbearable scars, and they found one another. Through their monthly protests, consistent organising, and incisive rhetoric against the status quo, they are teaching us where the power to live on  stems from. Through their willingness to speak about their traumas and bring their demands for restitution and justice into public forums, they are building radical hope. Beirut’s victims’ committees are coming together to imagine a more just future, one rooted in the memory of their loved ones. In their own words, “what unites us is the pain of the great loss we are suffering through the departure of the people we love most dearly. This pain has become our new identity, an identity stronger than any other.”

Of course, justice will not be achieved merely through a legal ruling ordering compensation, or a finding of guilt made by a court fifteen years from today. In Lebanon in particular, there are material limits on the potential for power generated within an association to obtain social justice. Alongside the will and the power to live on that is generated by the Committee for Families of Victims, radical political imagination, and sustained political action has to take root in a wider movement for social justice. This is the movement we owe every victim of the August 4 explosion.


This article was originally published in Arabic.


Keywords: Lebanon, Victims associations, Survivors, Disaster, Justice, Truth, Inquiry


[1] Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, Penguin Books, 2009, p. 16.

[2] Ibid, Solnit, p. 17.

[3] The Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report Overview, October 2019,p. 4, para 2.13.

[4] Robert Booth, “How Grenfell Survivors Came Together – and How Britain Failed Them”, The Guardian, 11 June 2019. 

[5] Ibid. 

[6] The Grenfell Tower Inquiry – Terms of Reference, 10 August 2017. 

[7] Yasunori Ichimura and David Baker, “Acute Inhalational Injury”, Reference Module in Biomedical Sciences, 2019.

[8] Law 105 of 2018.

[9] Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, p. 32, quoting Pauline Jacobson, “How it Feels to Be a Refugee and Have Nothing in the World”, San Francisco Bulletin, 1906.

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