Massive Blast Spread Damage over Half of Beirut

August 8th, 2020 - by The New Arab & Timour Azhari / Al Jazeera

Years after Civil War’s End, Half of Beirut Damaged in Catastrophic Blast

The New Arab

BEIRUT, Lebanon (August 5, 2020) — A massive explosion at the Beirut port on Wednesday is estimated to have caused $5 billion in damages, extending across half of Lebanon’s capital.

Tuesday’s colossal explosion at a Beirut port has caused billions of dollars worth of damage, ravaging a city that legend says has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times.

The damage extends to more than half of the city, Governor Marwan Abboud said on Wednesday, meaning large parts of the capital are now “unfit” for habitation.

Among the scores of homes and businesses damaged by the terrifying blast wave was The New Arab‘s Beirut office, where no staff were present at the time of the explosion. Footage of the office shared by journalist Luna Safwan showed tables and chairs strewn across the floor and in pieces, as a fire alarm rang in the background. The windows of the office were completely blown out. Across the street, another building was shown in a similar condition.

In areas located close to the port, the amount of destruction appears to match that caused by years of civil war between 1975 and 1990. 

The reconstruction that followed the civil war is regularly criticised by Lebanese who say it was characterised by a corrupt political elite snatching land for personal profit. That same entrenched political class is now accused of responsibility for Tuesday’s blast for failing to safeguard the stockpile of highly combustible material.

Between 200,000 and 300,000 people have been made homeless, the Beirut governor said. That figure is around the same as the total homelessness toll for all of the UK, a country whose population is 10 times the size of Lebanon’s. 

“A massacre. I saw people screaming, covered in blood, homes broken, glass shattered, roads that look like Hiroshima or like a tsunami hit,” Elie Zakaria, a resident of a neighbourhood close to the port, told AFP.

Many more are thought to be dealing with collapsing ceilings and shattered windows. The blast wave exploded windows as far as 10 kilometres (6 miles) away.

Sunk ever further into the depths of an economic crisis that has raised poverty levels to as much as 50 percent of the population, few Lebanese will be able to afford to repair or rebuild their homes.

The Lebanese Red Cross said on Wednesday it would set up temporary shelters with food and hygiene kits to house up to 1,000 families for three days.

Ordinary Lebanese across the nation have taken to social media to offer up their own homes to the needy.

Volunteers — many of them linked to a protest movement that unseated Lebanon’s government last year — were cleaning the streets of glass and rubble on Wednesday.

Beirut’s port — the main entrance for goods in the country which heavily relies upon imports — has been completely destroyed. 

Authorities are still investigating the total extent of the damage but it is estimated to be worth between $3 and $5 billion, Abboud said.

Assessments of the damage will continue with help from the European Union’s advanced Copernicus Satellite mapping system, EU Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic said on Wednesday.

Hospitals, already stretched to the brink by the dual economic and coronavirus crises, have also suffered damage.

Saint-Georges hospital has reportedly been forced to turn away patients after suffering severe damage in the exposion and losing several members of staff.

Damage has also been reported at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. Around 90 percent of the capital’s hotels have been damaged, state news agency NNA cited the president of Lebanon’s Hotel Federation for Tourism as saying on Wednesday.

The deadly blast appears to have been caused by a fire which ignited 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored unsecured for years in a warehouse at the Beirut port.

At least 100 people have been confirmed dead, with around 4,000 more injured. 

Families have reported hundreds more relatives as missing, among them port workers and dozens of firefighters presumed dead after responding to the initial fire.

Agencies contributed to this report

Beirut Blast: Tracing the Explosives that Tore the Capital Apart

The harbor blast left a wide zone of devastation.

Letters show officials knew of danger posed by ammonium nitrate cargo at Beirut port six years before deadly blast.

Timour Azhari / Al Jazeera

BEIRUT, LebanonIt was only after a massive explosion ripped through Beirut that most people in Lebanon learned about the 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a hangar at the city’s port.

The detonation of the material — used in bombs and fertilizers — sent shockwaves through the Lebanese capital, killing scores of people, injuring thousands, and leaving much of the city a mangled mess.

In the explosion’s devastating aftermath, many Lebanese are expressing immense shock and sadness at the destruction, and great anger towards those who allowed this to happen.

Analysis of public records and documents published online show senior Lebanese officials knew for more than six years that the ammonium nitrate was stored in Hangar 12 of Beirut’s port.

And they were well aware of the dangers it posed.

So how did this happen? Here’s what we know so far.

The cargo of ammonium nitrate arrived in Lebanon in September 2013, on board a Russian-owned cargo vessel flying a Moldovan Flag. The Rhosus, according to information from the ship-tracking site, Fleetmon, was heading from Georgia to Mozambique.

It was forced to dock in Beirut after facing technical problems at sea, according to (PDF) lawyers representing the boat’s crew. But Lebanese officials prevented the vessel from sailing, and eventually, it was abandoned by its owners and crew — information partially corroborated by Fleetmon.

The ship’s dangerous cargo was then offloaded and placed in Hangar 12 of Beirut port, a large grey structure facing the country’s main north-south highway at the main entrance to the capital.

Months later, on June 27, 2014, then-director of Lebanese Customs Shafik Merhi sent a letter addressed to an unnamed “Urgent Matters judge”, asking for a solution to the cargo, according to documents shared online.

Customs officials sent at least five more letters over the next three years — on December 5, 2014, May 6, 2015, May 20, 2016, October 13, 2016, and October 27, 2017 — asking for guidance and warning that the material posed a danger, Badri Daher, the current director of Lebanese Customs, told broadcaster LBCI on Wednesday.

They proposed three options: Export the ammonium nitrate, hand it over to the Lebanese Army, or sell it to the privately-owned Lebanese Explosives Company.

One letter sent in 2016 noted there had been “no reply” from judges to previous requests.

It pleaded: “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.

Again, there was no reply.

A year later, Daher, the new Lebanese Customs director, wrote to a judge once again.

In the October 27, 2017, letter, Daher urged 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”.

Nearly three years later, the ammonium nitrate was still in the hangar.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Tuesday declared the explosion at the port a “great national disaster” and promised that “all those responsible for this catastrophe will pay the price”.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun called the failure to deal with the ammonium nitrate “unacceptable” and vowed the “harshest punishment” for those responsible. An investigation has now been launched, and the committee is to refer its findings to the judiciary within five days.

The cause of the explosion is still not clear, but many Lebanese were quick to point out what they believe to be the root causes; immense mismanagement in a broken state run by a corrupt political class who they say treat the country’s inhabitants with contempt.

It is also not lost on Beirut’s residents that this tragedy emanated from the city’s port, a public utility known locally as the “Cave of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves” for the vast amount of state funds that have reportedly been stolen there over the decades.

The allegations include claims that billions of dollars in tax revenue never reached the state treasury due to schemes to undervalue imports, as well as accusations of systematic and widespread bribery to avoid paying customs taxes. 

“Beirut is gone and those who ruled this country for the past decades cannot get away with this,” Rima Majed, a Lebanese political activist and sociologist said in a tweet. “They are criminals and this is probably the biggest of their (too many) crimes so far.”

Read more: Lebanese are offering their homes to help 300,000 homeless due to ‘apocalyptic’ Beirut explosion

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