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Lebanon's Chernobyl moment

On the evening of Aug. 4, Beirut witnessed an unprecedented explosion that ruined a large part of the city, injuring thousands and killing many.
A view of the partially destroyed Beirut neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael on August 5, 2020 in the aftermath of a massive explosion in the Lebanese capital. - Rescuers searched for survivors in Beirut today after a cataclysmic explosion at the port sowed devastation across entire neighbourhoods, killing more than 100 people, wounding thousands and plunging Lebanon deeper into crisis. (Photo by PATRICK BAZ / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK BAZ/AFP via Getty Images)

A deadly time machine took Lebanon’s capital back in history to the scenes of its notorious civil war that lasted from 1975 until 1990. An unprecedented massive explosion at Beirut's port on the evening of Aug. 4 destroyed almost half the city, according to Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud, who burst into tears while speaking on camera.

The blast left at least 100 people dead and over 4,000 injured, according to the latest toll released by the Red Cross.

Abboud likened the blast to those of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan during World War II; video footage on social media showed a blast that was nothing like the country has witnessed over the past century during various tragic events.

In the southern village of Haris, located nearly 60 miles southeast of Beirut, a Lebanese man told Al-Monitor that he had heard the blast. Mohammed, who asked to be indentified only by his first name, said he first thought the explosion was related to the recent tensions on the southern border between Lebanon and Israel. When he saw what had happened in Beirut on the news, he “realized this was the same explosion as in Beirut’s port. I never ever thought I would hear a blast 100 kilometers away occuring in the capital. It is frightening.”

In Beirut, where some people initially mistook the blast for an earthquake, thousands of families spent the night in the streets. Thousands waited until the early hours of the morning in front of the city's hospitals for news about their loved ones who were either injured or missing.

The exact number of casualties is still unknown, as several people remain buried under the rubble of the country’s main port that was leveled to the ground. Lebanon’s Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi and the country’s Director of General Security Abbas Ibrahim both confirmed the blast was caused by the ignition of 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that was stored in one of the port’s warehouses.

Official documents that emerged after the incident showed that the chemicals were confisicated by the Lebanese authorities in 2014 and were kept in Hangar 12 of Beirut’s port. A picture of several men welding the door of the hangar shut made the rounds on social media, with bags in the background that say “nitroprill hd."

Jeffrey Lewis, a renowned American expert in nuclear non-proliferation, tweeted out the photo, stating, “The bags say 'NITROPRILL HD,' which may be a knock-off of Nitropril made by Orica. Orica sets the TNT equivalence for fire at 15 percent. 0.15 x 2750 = 412.5. One more data point that suggests the explosion was a few hundred tons.”

A 2014 piece by maritime monitoring website Fleetmon carried a warning of a "floating bomb" that was kept in Beirut’s port. Back then, Fleetmon revealed that a general cargo vessel RHOSUS loaded with ammonium nitrate called Beirut’s port for help while on en-route to another country, “the reason she called Beirut is unclear, maybe for supplies or due to some mechanical trouble." According to Fleetmon, the vessel was detained after inspection, adding that the owners abandoned it leaving the crew without salaries and communication. “Beirut authorities don’t permit the remaining crew to leave the vessel and fly to home. The reason is obvious, port authorities don’t want to be left with abandoned vessel on their hands, loaded with dangerous cargo, explosives, in fact.”

Earlier, Lebanon’s Health Minister Hamad Hasan claimed it was a result of an explosion in a warehouse containing fireworks. It’s not clear whether these two could be linked, whereby a small fire in a warehouse containing fireworks may have led to the mega explosion that destroyed half of the Lebanese capital, left more than 300,000 people homeless, and is going to cost bankrupt Lebanon more than $5 billion.

Though it’s still early to reach a conclusion over the reason or reasons behind the incident, Lebanese politicians have already begun exchanging accusations over who is responsible.

Near Lebanon’s parliament building the scene resembled that of 1990 when the war came to an end. Devastation had struck the shops at the modern bazar-style Beirut Souks shopping mall, while the famous Rue Gouraud — the main street running through the neighborhood of Gemmayzeh — is no longer recognizable with the rubble of buildings scattered across the normally vibrant and lively area. People were looking for their loved ones in ruined shops and restaurants, while families in farther areas of the capital were either cleaning the shattered glass in their apartments and on their balconies, or trying to make sense of what happened.

Yet what happened Tuesday evening wasn’t just any explosion. It was “the explosion” — an event that Lebanon will remember for decades — just like the one that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. The amount of destruction prompted several international and regional powers to offer assistance, including Israel and the United States. Countries such as Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait, Turkey and several European Union states offered help as their leaders and senior officials got in touch with their Lebanese counterparts.

Since Oct. 17, 2019, the country has been slipping into a situation of uncertainty following rounds of protests calling on the ruling elite to step down over their involvement in wrongdoing and corruption. Many of the current leaders were part of the country’s 15-year-long civil war that came to an end with them penning what became known as the Taif Accord, named after the city in Saudi Arabia where it was negotiated. However, ongoing tensions have raised questions over the fate of this deal after all these years.

Just a few days before the explosion, the country’s southern borders witnessed renewed tensions between Hezbollah and Israeli forces, with the former vowing retaliation for the latter’s killing of one of its members in an airstrike in Syria. Hezbollah’s ideological and operational ties with Iran have subjected it to the United States' maximum pressure strategy that hit the already ailing Lebanese economy hard. According to the World Bank, “The current economic and financial crisis could put more than 155,000 households under the extreme poverty line; and 356,000 households under the upper poverty line.”

Thus, the explosion at the Beirut port has rubbed salt into the wounds of the devastated country that is already in the midst of its worst economic crisis, a political standoff without any solution on the horizon, not to mention dire social difficulties and the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic. The explosion’s impact might have the weight of a civil war that wasn’t fought. It could be either Lebanon’s Chernobyl — with all that means to the system that has been ruling the country for the past 30 years — or Lebanon’s new chance to attempt a new socio-political contract. The latter can’t be achieved without an international- and regional-backed solution that should pave the way for a real shift in Lebanon’s political arena, where new faces could emerge and a new settlement could be reached between the political factions and the newcomers following the recent protests.  

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