The massive explosion that rocked Beirut on August 4, has generated worldwide shock. The international community has responded and sent search and rescue teams and aid to the already suffering people of Lebanon.
For the average citizen of Beirut, the shock is now giving way to anger as the affected citizens ask how could the government so haphazardly store such a dangerous amount of explosive material in such a key area of the country.
The massive explosion was caused by about 2,750 metric tons of high-grade ammonium nitrate stored in the port of Lebanon. It completely destroyed the surrounding port area. The blast pressure generated by the explosion damaged buildings some 10 miles away; it was felt over 20 miles away from the blast site. The explosion was so strong it was heard Cyprus over 125 miles away.
Lebanese citizens are not just asking why this happened: they are lashing out over government corruption and dishonesty that has put the already suffering country in an even worse predicament.
One Dutch team rescue that arrived to help was not allowed to operate anywhere near the blast area by plainclothes Hezbollah officials. This raised more suspicion among the people.
In the blast, approximately 80 percent of Lebanon’s grain reserves were destroyed along with their silos. The country imports up around 80-90 percent of its food. Now its main port of entry, where 70 percent of its imports pass through, has been rendered inoperable for the foreseeable future. Over 300,000 people are now homeless in the immediate area. With the economy already in freefall, this is a disaster the government is ill-equipped to handle.
The people were angry at how their country’s leadership not only allowed this to happen but then rushed to proclaim ignorance and lack of culpability for the unmitigated disaster. Worse still, many Lebanese have little hope that the same politicians will find or release any answers in the probe they are conducting.
That anger has carried over to the media. One of Lebanon’s leading broadcasters, Lebanon Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI) announced on Friday that they will stop the live coverage of speeches, press conferences, chats, and statements related to the probe of the explosion.
“Because after August 4 will not be the same as before it,
Because after the earthquake will not be the same as before it,
Because your neglect and failure are one of the main reasons for what we have reached…
Because what is required after August 4 is:
Actions and not words
Achievements and not speeches
No live coverage of speeches, press conferences, chats and statements will be aired as of today:
Let your achievements speak for you…Don’t distract people with words
And for the people, we say:
‘While you wait for the speeches of your leaders on tenterhooks…there are mothers who are waiting for the return of their sons and daughters too… The priority is for them and not for you.'”
This means that neither the speeches made by President Michel Aoun or Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah were aired on Friday.
“The capital of Beirut was destroyed and you’re still trying the same sort of evasive tricks,” said LBCI chairman, Pierre Daher. “You cannot continue this way. Let this be a message to you.”
Nasrallah said in a televised interview that Hezbollah was not linked to the ammonium nitrate and denied that they had influence at the port. He said that Hezbollah welcomed all international aid and called for solidarity among the people.
“We have nothing in the port: not an arms depot, nor a missile depot nor missiles nor rifles nor bombs nor bullets nor ammonium nitrate,” Nasrallah said. “Our people are among those injured and killed in the blast.”
However, in the past, there have been several videos of Hezbollah officials bragging about their independent port facility that is completely out of bounds for the Lebanese government. They have referred to part of the port as their “Fatima Gate.” From there they could import or export goods without any interference from government officials. Local Lebanese port workers have told the media that Warehouses 9 and 12 were considered off-limits to anyone other than Hezbollah. Warehouse 12 is where the explosion occurred.
How the ammonium nitrate ended up in the warehouse is a long story. It begins with the Moldovan registered ship “Rhosus” owned by Russian oligarch Igor Grechushkin, who lives in Cyprus. The ship sailed in 2013 from the Crimea to Mozambique to deliver fertilizer or explosives for mining.
The ship was detoured to Beirut, to ostensibly pick up more cargo as the ship did not have the money to continue. Reports indicate that the Russian and Ukrainian crew had not been paid in 11 months and the food was running out. The ship was not allowed to leave because of unpaid port fees and other charges related to the ship’s papers being out of order. As a result, it was confiscated. However, it was discovered that the ammonium nitrate it was carrying was reportedly of the highest grade (weapons-grade). Such a high grade is not used as farming fertilizer but rather as an explosive. Because of its cargo, the ship was not unloaded. CNN reported that Mikhail Voytenko, who runs an online publication tracking maritime activity, described the ship as a “floating bomb” in 2014.
At that point, the cargo was reportedly purchased by unknown people. According to a piece by the Foundation for American Security and Freedom (FASF), the investigation of who purchased the cargo of weapons-grade ammonium nitrate leads back to Iran. This would explain how the explosives ended up in the warehouses controlled by Hezbollah, an organization created and run by Tehran. The FASF did a lot of smoke analysis in their piece and stated that the dark red, brick-colored smoke “generally indicative of a concentrated and high-quality bomb-grade ammonium nitrate explosion. Fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate tends to explode with more blackish, oily smoke.”
Lebanese Customs officials repeatedly tried to have the explosives removed from the port area, but all of their requests and questions were met with silence.
Then, on the day of the explosion, workers from the port were sent to fix a gate at Warehouse 12 with a welding torch. Yusuf Shehadi, a former port worker was quoted in the media as saying that he was ordered to move fireworks into the warehouse. This created a dangerous mix.
“There were 30-40 nylon bags of fireworks inside warehouse 12. Customs confiscated the fireworks around 2009-10. I was a supervisor of the forklift, we stored the fireworks in hangar 12, and, around 2013, customs seized large amounts of chemicals (ammonium nitrate). They were stored in the same hangar. This was a disaster waiting to happen.”
A fire erupted, possibly related to the welding, followed by — as seen on the videos — several smaller explosions possibly related to the fireworks. Then as the fire spread, the explosives detonated and produced the equivalent of a 1.1 kiloton nuclear blast. Shehadi claimed that the fire shown on the video was exactly where he placed the bags of fireworks.
Normally, explosives of this type and especially of this amount are housed far from large population centers. This was just a few minutes’ walk from Beirut’s largest shopping and nightlife area.
Many of the Lebanese people are not buying anything coming from the government or from Hezbollah. The Guardian quoted some local Lebanese who are disgusted by the official statements being bandied about.
Rita Ghaddar, whose home was one of those severely damaged in the blast, seemed to be pointing a finger at Hezbollah without naming the group. “The arsonists can’t be trusted to probe the blaze. At the very least, this was catastrophic incompetence. At every level of this disaster is the story of what happens when mafias run a country.”
The Guardian also quoted a nurse, Jumana Baghdadi, who said the skeptical and angry Lebanese citizens would need a lot of convincing that any government inquiry would find the true blame. “The pact is they give each other cover,” she said. “That’s the way it’s run. We won’t let them get away with it this time.”