On August 4, the Lebanese capital was shaken to its core when an explosion in Beirut’s port sent shockwaves throughout the entire country. The explosion left many of the surrounding areas in ruins and shattered houses up to 15 miles away. While the number of recorded casualties continues to fluctuate, the Lebanese Red Cross most recently estimated the death toll at more than 100 with at least 4,000 more injuries.
The disaster is nothing short of catastrophic. For a country already knee-deep in economic crisis and snowballing towards the region’s first instance of hyperinflation, the explosion could not have come at a more disastrous time.
Lebanese Director General of Customs Badri Daher, in conversation with LBCI News, said the explosion was most likely caused by a malfunction of stored fireworks near a large supply of explosive ammonium nitrate. Daher continued by delegating the responsibility for the destruction to the port’s governing administration, rather than himself or any of his elected peers. To put it simply, it’s an unsurprising neglect of Daher’s own responsibility and a reflection of the recklessness that the Lebanese government has made its signature.
What Daher failed to acknowledge in his interview is how 2,750 tons of highly explosive chemicals could end up in the heart of Lebanon’s most densely populated city.
In 2013 the cargo ship MV Rhosus attempted to sail from Georgia to Mozambique while carrying 2,750 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate. Following technical problems, the ship was forced to enter Beirut’s port before eventually being seized and forbidden from sailing. Even six years prior to this explosion, there was an emphasis placed on the dangers associated with the ammonium nitrate, with a legal brief calling for the seized crew’s release, at least partially due to the “Dangerous nature of the cargo still stored in [the] ship’s holds.” Despite at least four requests by Lebenase Customs to get the explosive chemicals removed, the requests were never approved and the ammonium nitrate sat in a warehouse near the port. In other words, this was not only ignorance and negligence—it was corruption. Government officials already embezzling millions in Lebanese dollars looked to save further by avoiding the costs of movement or removal. Rather than spending to dispose of the explosive material, they chose instead to hide it, leaving the city and its millions of inhabitants vulnerable.
More troubling are the potential short-term and long-term effects of this kind of explosion. Death estimates from the Lebanese Red Cross account only for those directly affected by the explosion; this means that a large proportion of indirect deaths are not being calculated. In one painful example, an employee at American University of Beirut Medical Center (AUBMC)—Beirut’s largest hospital—spoke of a COVID patient who was being administered a ventilator who died after the explosion hit and the building’s electricity was wiped.
His example is one of many; Beirut governor Marwan Abboud told SkyNews Arabia that hundreds of victims remain missing and, through a bout of tears, couldn’t help but compare the destruction to that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “It’s too much, for a people who have gone through so much it’s unbelievable,” he said.
For Abboud and the millions of Lebanese people for whom tragedy is a part of their daily lives, one thing was certain: This was not just an accident. Rather, the country’s looming bout with disaster showed just how seriously negligent Lebanon’s already corrupt ruling class has become.
With many hospitals barely operational amidst the destruction and debris, hundreds of victims flocked into the emergency room in search of a reprieve from this nightmare. Instead, many of these people were turned down; their pain considered “not severe enough” due to the hospital’s own understaffing and lack of space. In that moment, one could not help but recall last month, when AUBMC suddenly terminated 850 of its employees in an effort to financially restructure. Nurses who had spent three decades assisting trauma patients through conflicts that ranged from the Lebanese Civil War to the 2006 Israeli conflict were now unavailable.
The impact goes further than understaffing, however. As nitric acid released from the explosion flowed into the atmosphere, it created a potentially poisonous dust storm floating from the south of Lebanon up through the north. Civilians were encouraged to stay inside and turn on their air conditioning in an effort to push out the gas. However, air conditioning has become a luxury almost all Lebanese people cannot afford. Widespread electricity blackouts lasting up to 22 hours are a mainstay of Lebanese life, and the generators typically used to combat these blackouts could no longer be powered following the fuel shortages.
They were trapped.
Perhaps most tragic is that what used to be the only escape from this destruction—emigration—is no longer a reality. Currency devaluation of close to 80 percent and a poverty rate that continues to inch past 50 percent mean that leaving the country in search of a better life is no longer financially feasible for the vast majority of Lebanese people. The Lebanese pound has seen rapid collapse since October, dropping from 1,500 to the American dollar to close to 8,000. Banks continue to restrict the outflow of dollars—the main currency used in Lebanon—and hyperinflation has turned basic goods and health necessities into unaffordable luxuries. This kind of obstruction means that Lebanese currency is near worthless outside the country, and those hoping for an escape, whether through college or employment away from Lebanon must now face the choice between corruption in the country or extreme poverty outside of it.
For as long as I can remember, the Lebanese hallmark has been hope. For a people that has faced countless missile explosions, two different currency collapses and elected officials who have embezzled millions of dollars, there was always a sense of optimism that tomorrow’s day would be brighter than today’s electrical blackouts. Yet as midnight turned to sunrise following last night’s explosion and not a single Lebanese person got a second of rest, for the first time in my lifetime, nobody had hope.
The generation that knew of a fruitful Beirut has long passed and the generation fighting for its long-awaited blossoming seems to weaken every single day. Lebanon remains a treasure chest of art, history and passion, but the painful truth is that the treasures of past generations, though immortalized in story and in photo, are nothing but a distant memory.