By Theo Tabet (1EA)
On the 4th of August 2020, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate caught fire and caused an explosion in Beirut Port. Over 200 people were killed and 6,500 more were injured. It was one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history. The explosion was heard all across the middle east and was felt in countries as far as Turkey and Cyprus.
Before the explosion, however, Lebanon was already in an economic and political crisis: before COVID-19, the world bank projected that 40% of Lebanese people would be in poverty by the end of 2020. The situation only got worse as the Pandemic hit.
In October of 2019, a shortage of foreign currency led to the Lebanese Pound losing value against the US dollar. In May, in the midst of the Pandemic, food prices went up 190%, and clothing prices have gone up 172% since 2018. On the black market, 1 USD had a value of 8,200 LBP as opposed to the official 1,500 LBP value (according to ABC news). The Lebanese banking system received heavy criticism as the the President of France, Emmanuel Macron said it resembles a “ponzi scheme” because it relied on fresh borrowing to pay back its existing debt. This led the population to riot in the “thawra” (revolution) for multiple weeks against a corrupt political regime.
The explosion was caused by 2,750 tonnes of Ammonium nitrate that was unsafely stored for over six years. The substance was brought by the MV Rhosus in 2013. The ship was en route to Mozambique when there was a mechanical malfunction forcing it to stop in Lebanon. There the ship was deemed unsafe to go back to sea and the Ammonium was confiscated and stored in a warehouse in the port. Multiple experts warned the government to store it in a safer area, but they were ignored. In August, a fire broke out in the same warehouse. The explosion caused massive amounts of damage across the country, spanning over 9 km away. It created a 124m crater that was 43m deep. Windows were shattered and thousands of houses were destroyed. “My windows were shattered, my furniture was scattered across my living room. I even live over 4 km away from the port,” says Theo Chammas, a 16-year-old living in Lebanon. Dozens of businesses were destroyed as well, especially the ones in the “Beirut Souks”, an open air mall near the port: ”My parents’ shop was completely destroyed and employees were seriously injured,” he added. Furthermore, the port was the main gateway to international exchanges. This coupled with the economic crisis only worsened the situation as food and medicine are now in short supply.
After the explosion, countries across the world gathered to raise funds and help the Lebanese population. The blast cost the government an estimated 18 billion USD, but some of the costs were taken care of by multiple relief operations internationally. France raised 253 million euros during a summit on the 9th of August. On the 14th, the UN also donated 535 million USD. The Lebanese people warned the donators to not give the money to the government because of fears of corruption but to the Red Cross directly. There was also a massive surge in kindness by the Lebanese people to help the most affected. Multiple hospitals were destroyed and could not help any victims. Because of this, multiple doctors as well as dentists and plastic surgeons went to the aid multiple victims. People offered to house complete strangers, hotels let victims stay for free and thousands helped to clean the rubble off the streets. After the explosion, the protests resumed with more people than ever going to the streets to riot against the government as this incident was seen as a government failure. As a result, multiple members of the Lebanese Parliament resigned as well as the prime minister Hassan Diab after a speech where he testifies against the corruption that he has witnessed (according to the New York Times).
“I am at university in Canada and my parents cannot pay my tuition because the banks block the transactions. My family is separated because some of them left the country to have a better life style,” said George Khoury, a 19-year-old student in Canada.
This explosion marks a turning point for Lebanon. The negligence and corruption from the government will no longer be tolerated by the people. They are losing faith in their own government as they rely on international help to survive.