The Beirut Blast Is Lebanon’s Chernobyl

Negligence and corruption have caused a devastating disaster.

A Lebanese couple inspect the damage to their house in an area overlooking the destroyed Beirut Port on Aug. 5, in the aftermath of a pair of massive explosions in the Lebanese capital.
A Lebanese couple inspect the damage to their house in an area overlooking the destroyed Beirut Port on Aug. 5, in the aftermath of a pair of massive explosions in the Lebanese capital. Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images

Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud broke down in tears as he spoke to reporters on Tuesday evening while searching through the strewn rubble of Beirut’s destroyed sea port for the remains of missing firefighters.

“It’s a national catastrophe,” he said, comparing the devastation in the aftermath of the explosions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombings, before breaking down in tears.

But there is a more fitting nuclear metaphor for what shook Beirut: the Chernobyl meltdown. Tuesday’s warehouse blast does not seem to have been a product of conflict or an act of deliberate violence. Instead, like the Soviet disaster, it is the work of gross incompetence, endemic corruption, and negligence—and its impact will spread far beyond the initial explosion.

Beirut has been declared a disaster zone by Lebanese authorities following two blasts that tore through the city just after 6 p.m. on Tuesday. At the time of publishing, at least 135 people have been killed and thousands injured, and social media networks are flooded with the images of missing loved ones still unaccounted for.

The immediate economic impact is devastating. Between 250,000 and 300,000 people have been left homeless—roughly 10 percent of the city’s population. Thousands of people need treatment at hospitals already crammed full of COVID-19 victims. The property destruction is estimated at $3 billion.

That’s a debilitating burden in a country where most people are struggling just to find the money to get by already. Even before the blasts, Lebanon was already at a breaking point. A refugee crisis from the war in neighboring Syria is almost entering its 10th year, with Lebanon already struggling to meet the aid requirements of the 30 percent of its population that has been displaced from the war in Syria.

But it is not just refugees struggling to meet their needs, with the World Food Program recording that nearly half the Lebanese population was struggling to meet basic food needs. Speaking to the Telegraph in June, Martin Keulertz, an assistant professor at the American University of Beirut, said: “By the end of the year, we will see 75 percent of the population on food handouts, but the question is whether there will be food to hand out.”

The pandemic had already brought Lebanese hospitals to their knees, and COVID-19 hit Lebanon during a period of unprecedented economic destitution, with the nation buckling under the weight of its own debt. Food prices had already risen by 247 percent, and with the blasts destroying tons of Lebanon’s remaining food stocks and wrecking a port vital to the nation’s infrastructure, the situation is set to deteriorate rapidly. Even before the explosions, some Lebanese protesters had gone as far as self-immolation.

Lebanon’s foreign minister, Nassif Hitti, had even resigned the day before the blasts, warning that “Lebanon today is sliding toward becoming a failed state.”

Given Lebanon’s history, many people, including U.S. President Donald Trump, leapt to the idea that terrorism was involved. Yet it’s not violence that has been poisoning the country in the last three decades. It’s corruption.

While details are still emerging, the official story from Lebanese authorities is that a warehouse fire ignited a seized shipment of ammonium nitrate, impounded from a ship at the port in 2013 and seemingly left there ever since.

Ammonium nitrate has a place in the annals of terrorism, such as when the white nationalist terrorist Timothy McVeigh detonated 2 metric tons of the industrial chemical in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people and damaging 300 buildings.

But without McVeigh’s malice, just deadly negligence, 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate—over a thousand times the amount he used—was allowed to pile up in a warehouse for more than six years in the heart of Beirut, seemingly “awaiting auction.”

Could the lure of a financial reward for officials have led to the dangerous stockpiling of highly explosive material in the heart of Beirut? Some Lebanese journalists have been asking that question following the discovery of documents relating to the seizure of the shipment.

A photo shared on social media, allegedly of the warehouse in question, shows workers in front of a warehouse packed with 1,000-kilogram bags of ammonium nitrate stamped with “Nitroprill HD,” which the arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis suggested may be a knockoff brand of Orica’s Nitropril, a mining explosive. The upper limit for storing Nitropril safely, according to the manufacturer, is 400 metric tons.

Whether corruption, negligence, or a combustible combination of both was responsible for this disaster, we may never truly know.

But the responsibility certainly doesn’t just lie with port workers who failed to do basic checks or took bribes to avoid handling problems. It falls on the people who put them there and who created a system that rotten. While the Lebanese civil war officially ended in 1990, most of the surviving warlords, who had escaped accountability for their decades of atrocities, simply swapped militia uniforms for suits and took control of what remained of Lebanon’s fragile postwar state.

The Lebanese ruling classes have bled the country dry with near total impunity for generations. Their corruption and greed have repeatedly plunged Lebanon into crisis, and that’s without even considering the rampant sectarianism of the political elite,. Regulatory failure and routine incompetence haunt the country.

From a sanitation crisis that has left mountains of rotting garbage choking the air to the tanking economy, hyperinflation and poverty are driving families to the brink of starvation, with dire warnings of a potential famine.

The existing crisis produced months of sustained protests against the Lebanese government, uniting Lebanon’s sects under the slogan “all of them means all of them,” a condemnation of the entire ruling class and a repudiation of the country’s sectarian political system.

Since the incident, Hassan Koraytem, the general manager of the port, and Badri Daher, the director-general of the Lebanese Customs Administration, have both declared that they warned about the dangers posed by the explosives and called for their removal.

Lebanese authorities have since announced that port officials responsible for storing and guarding the ammonium nitrate are being held under house arrest. The traditional “it wasn’t me” blame game of contemporary Lebanese politics is now playing out, as the former warlords line up to shift the accountability toward anyone but themselves.

How that plays out with a Lebanese population already pushed long past the point of potential insurrection remains unknown. But the hashtag “hang up the nooses” trending in Arabic on Twitter may cause Lebanon’s corrupt warlords to wonder whether their impunity is soon to be tested.

Chernobyl was not just the story of a disastrous testing accident in a Soviet nuclear power plant. It was the product of how endemic arrogance, negligence, careerism, and authoritarianism created a system that allowed that disaster. It was the Soviet Union in a microcosm, a deadly outcrop of decades of political failure and negligence that would ultimate help bring down the entire nation. The handful of local officials convicted and sentenced were guilty enough—but they weren’t the ultimate culprits.

Likewise, the story of the Beirut warehouse blasts is not one of a construction accident leading to a tragedy. It’s the tale of how a gang of warlords carved up a country and governed with prejudice, incompetence, and a total indifference to human suffering while robbing a helpless and defenseless population blind.

And, like Chernobyl, it is almost guaranteed that none of the men truly responsible for this catastrophe will ever face justice for their crimes.

Oz Katerji is a British-Lebanese freelance journalist focusing on conflict, human rights & the Middle East.

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