Beirut was destroyed. Once again. On August 4, following a massive explosion that ravaged Beirut’s neighbourhood, including ones up to 10 km away, people in Lebanon got to know of the dangers of leaving 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, materials typically used in fertilisers and bombs, in a hangar at the city’s port.
What was first reported as just a fire, led to a series of explosions and escalated very rapidly to a massive fireball. It certainly was not a small industrial fire. The detonation sent shockwaves through Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, killing and injuring thousands of people, and leaving much of the city in a mangled mesh. Before we delve into the incident any further, let us take a step back, and get informed on the background which led to this disaster.
According to explosive experts, in 2013 due to a technical faults, a Russian-owned vessel was forced to make an unscheduled stop in the city’s port. When they boarded the vessel for inspection, Lebanon’s port authorities were shocked to see that the merchant vessel – Rhosus – flying a Moldovan flag, was not only unfit to continue on its journey but also that it was carrying 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in its hold. According to Fleetmon, a ship tracking site, the Rhosus was heading from Georgia to Mozambique.
The freighter was impounded by Lebanese port authorities and was abandoned by its Russian owner. The 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that it was carrying was stored in Hanger 12 in Beirut port.
On June 27, 2014, the then-director of Lebanese Customs Shafik Merhi sent a letter addressed to an unnamed judge, asking for a solution to the cargo. Over the course of the next three years, customs officials sent at least five more letters, on December 5, 2014, May 6, 2015, May 20, 2016, October 13, 2016, and October 27, 2017, requesting guidance and warning of potential danger posed by the cargo, said Badri Daher, the current director of Lebanese Customs, to broadcaster LBCI on Wednesday.
Their proposals included an option of exporting the ammonium nitrate, followed by handing it over to the Lebanese Army, or selling it to the Lebanese Explosives Company.
Despite letters sent by Shafik Merhi, no reply was given.
“In view of the serious danger of keeping these goods in the hangar in unsuitable climatic conditions, we reaffirm our request to please request the marine agency to re-export these goods immediately to preserve the safety of the port and those working in it, or to look into agreeing to sell this amount” to the Lebanese Explosives Company, pleaded a letter dated 2016.
The letter did not solicit a reply.
Again, in 2017, the current Lebanese Customs director Badri Daher, again wrote to a judge urging the judge to come to a decision on the matter in view of “the danger … of leaving these goods in the place they are, and to those working there”.
No reply was given and the ammonium nitrate continued to be stored in the hangar.
Public records and documents published online show that senior Lebanese officials knew that for more than six years ammonium nitrate was stored in Hangar 12 at Beirut’s port. They were also aware of the danger posed by it.
Ammonium nitrate: what is it?
Ammonium nitrate, typically used as fertilizer, can become highly explosive when mixed with other specific substances, including fuel oil. It is important to make a mental note the fuel oil information, given that videos of the explosion showed a fire at a port warehouse followed by a smaller explosion cascading to a phenomenal blast, which sent an orange-tinged mushroom cloud high into the sky.
As for the owner of the Rhosus, a Russian national called Igor Grechushkin, whose last known address was Cyprus, is not responsive to contacts. He did not answer calls to his mobile phone and his LinkedIn page appeared to have been deleted.
While there are many unanswered questions regarding the blast, the more significant and of systemic nature is, why such combustible material was kept lying unattended in the heart of the city for more than six years and despite requests and pleas was kept there carelessly.
A culture of corruption at Beirut’s port is probably the answer, said Imad Salamey, an associate professor of Middle Eastern politics at the Lebanese American University. Officials at the port are routinely paid to look the other way and not ask questions.
“The port has for some time now been run by warlords. These groups operate in a mafia-istic way, in the sense that they don’t pay attention to civilian safety,” said Professor Salamey. “Their main concern is to benefit their warlords and their sponsors in foreign states.”
According to several images and videos that have been shared online, the explosion was gigantic. The radius of its devastation not only affected large portion of Beirut leaving them severely damaged, a slow-motion of the video taken by those on the ground, clearly show parts of several buildings disintegrating following the shockwave hitting them.
In fact, the shockwave appears to have even reached Cyprus; various social media accounts have tweeted about window panes being broken following the shockwave. Even a seismic monitoring station noted a blip and registered the blast as a 3.5 magnitude earthquake hitting Beirut.
Images taken the next day of the blast show the port area as being completed and utterly devastated. The location where once stood the warehouse is now a deep crater measuring around 150 meters wide, and filled with water.
A different kind of explosion waiting to happen
In the aftermath of the explosion, many Lebanese are shocked and sad at the frightful scale of destruction, and are seething in anger towards those who allowed this disaster to happen.
Earlier this week on Tuesday, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared the explosion as a “great national disaster” and promised that “all those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price”.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun was also quick to call the failure of leaving the ammonium nitrate unattended “unacceptable” and vowed the “harshest punishment” for those responsible.
An investigation has been launched, and a committee is to refer its findings to the judiciary within five days.
While authorities are investigating the cause of the explosion, many Lebanese were quick to point out the root causes for it – a grand mismanagement at every level orchestrated by a corrupt political class who treat Lebanon’s citizens with contempt.
Residents have named Beirut’s port as the “Cave of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves” for the vast amount of state funds that have reportedly been stolen from there over the last decades. Allegations include claims of billions of dollars in tax revenue never reaching the state treasury due to rampant schemes that undervalue imports, along with allegations of systemic corruption in the form of bribery so as to avoid paying customs duties.
“Beirut is gone and those who ruled this country for the past decades cannot get away with this,” tweeted Rima Majed, a Lebanese political activist and sociologist. “They are criminals and this is probably the biggest of their (too many) crimes so far.”
This development only goes to highlight and underscores the severity of issues facing Lebanon today. The explosion has essentially placed Lebanon’s decision makers on notice: burdened by frequent electricity cuts, strifed by lost economic opportunity, and slaving under a self serving political class, the resilience of the Lebanese people should not be put to the test, for they have very little to lose.