NABATIYEH, Lebanon — No one in Beirut has been left unaffected by the massive explosion that struck the city on Wednesday. Residents in southern Lebanon, nearly 40 miles away, heard the blast. Cypriots living over 100 miles away across the Mediterranean Sea felt the reverberations.
More than 100 people have been reported killed in the explosion, and another roughly 3,000 injured. News channels now feature a constant stream of pleas from citizens to help locate loved ones whom they have been unable to contact.
The blast wreaked havoc across Beirut. Our apartment building, roughly one and a half miles from the explosion, saw all its windows shattered and most of the doors knocked off their hinges. Friends who live across town in Beirut’s western neighborhoods, four miles away, sent panicked messages reporting similar damage to their own homes. Most initially assumed the blast occurred close to them due to its massive impact. Large chunks of concrete smashed cars across the city; many neighborhoods now sit in darkness.
In remarks on Tuesday evening, President Donald Trump described the explosion as a “terrible attack,” attributing it to “a bomb of some kind.”
There is no publicly available evidence that is true. In fact, the reality appears to be more banal, but no less appalling: The explosion was the product of the continuing collapse of the Lebanese state.
The authorities have attributed the blast to the accidental detonation of a cache of highly explosive chemicals stored in Beirut’s port. Videos of the event, which quickly proliferated on social media, show an initial fire in the area that set off the larger explosion.
The state news agency first reported that a fireworks container had exploded—that blast could have detonated over 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate seized six years ago by customs authority and left in storage at the port since then. By comparison, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing employed only two tons of ammonium nitrate to level the federal building in that city.
One potential source of the ammonium nitrate is the Rhosus, a Moldovan-flagged merchant vessel that set sail in 2013 from a Black Sea port in Georgia bound for Mozambique. The ship was carrying 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a cargo that matches what the Lebanese authorities say detonated in the port yesterday.
The ship faced technical problems en route to its destination and was forced to halt in Beirut’s port. The ship was eventually abandoned by its owners, its crew members repatriated to their home countries and the cargo “remain[s] to date in port awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal,” according to Lebanese attorneys involved in the matter. It seems likely that neither of those two last things occurred.
This catastrophe could not have come at a worse moment for Lebanon. The country was already reeling from an economic collapse—its currency has lost roughly 80 percent of its value over the past nine months. Even before the explosion, shops were closing and parents struggling to feed their children; as of April, over 75 percent of the population was in need of humanitarian assistance. There are very few people who currently have the resources to fix their houses, replace totaled cars, or rebuild shattered stores.
The explosion will also exacerbate a growing health crisis. The country has witnessed a steadily escalating spread of the coronavirus epidemic: Over the past week, it has averaged 175 new cases per day after averaging under 20 cases a day in June. The government recently instituted lockdown measures that shuttered malls, restaurants and places of worship in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.
President Trump was not alone in describing the explosion as an attack, although unlike others he certainly had the capacity to be better informed.
The blast has also shattered much of the country’s already teetering health system. Roum Hospital, a 15-minute walk from our apartment, was hit the worst—video shows its corridors in a state of collapse and photographs captured nurses frantically trying to evacuate newborns. Staff are now trying to completely evacuate patients from the building, but the city’s other hospitals are also overflowing with injured. The country’s hospitals do not have the capacity to care for those affected by this crisis, let alone both accomplish that task and respond to the pandemic.
President Trump was not alone in describing the explosion as an attack, although unlike others he certainly had the capacity to be better informed. In the first, frantic hours after the blast, many Lebanese observers speculated it was the product of Israel’s long-running war with Hezbollah.
Lebanese news channels quoted witnesses swearing that they had seen a missile hit the port, setting off the explosion; on WhatsApp groups, many friends shared fake Haaretz headlines with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claiming responsibility for the explosion. Even now, Hezbollah’s al-Manar channel, among others, has featured guests that darkly warn about hidden hands who might have set the spark to ignite the ammonium nitrate.
But there was ample evidence that the Lebanese state was coming apart at the seams even before this latest tragedy. The government defaulted on its debt last year and has now failed to secure enough foreign exchange to purchase imports of fuel, resulting in most citizens’ receiving only a couple hours of state-generated electricity per day. The country’s premier university and hospital was forced to lay off 800 employees last month because the government had failed to pay $150 million in medical bills. This explosion appears to be the result of the decay of basic safety requirements at one of the country’s key institutions.
In some ways, rooting out the domestic rot in Lebanon represents a more difficult task than responding to a foreign attack. There is no external enemy on which to blame the country’s failings—fundamental institutions are collapsing and the country’s leadership bringing ruin onto its people.
Photo: VOA reporter Anchal Vohra’s Beirut apartment was damaged by the explosion in Beirut, Aug. 4, 2020, Anchal Vohra/Voice of America, Wikimedia Commons