A devastating explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, this Tuesday killed at least 137 and left more than 5,000 people injured. A two-week state of emergency has been imposed to address the situation and help those affected as people make demands for justice. Other countries have stepped forward to provide aid while on twitter the hashtag #علقوا_المشانق was trending on Wednesday asking to “hang up the nooses”.
The explosion was reported to have been caused by a cargo of Ammonium Nitrate which had been sitting in a warehouse in the port for six years. The chemical is used as a fertilizer and can cause an explosion if not handled or stored properly.
The tragedy comes during an already dreadful period in the country’s history which is facing the worst economic crisis since the 15 year civil war from 1975 to 1990. Protests decrying the corruption and incompetence of the country’s institutions which started last year were abated by the government’s intervention in response to COVID-19. The failing economy exacerbated by the pandemic have led to shortage, massive power cuts, and the fall of the Lebanese pound which is a little more than one tenth the value of the Pakistani Rupee.
Now the explosion in Beirut, which is being seen as another act of incompetence by the country’s institutions, has further riled the Lebanese populace. The explosion has left many injured as hospitals already struggling to keep pace with the Corona virus patients are left helpless.
Video footage of the explosion in Beirut – The National
Many countries have stepped in to provide humanitarian aid including France which has sent planes carrying medical supplies, rescue workers, and a mobile clinic. President Emmanuel Macron has also decided to visit the country.
However, there is a long way to recovery, especially given the adverse economic and political situation facing the country. Filmmaker Jude Chehab demanded justice, telling BBC that “Beirut is crying, Beirut is screaming, people are hysterical and people are tired.” TV anchor, Ramez al-Qadi echoed the outrage against the administration in his tweet, “Either they keep killing us or we kill them.”
The institutions have tried to shift the blame on one another. Public Works Minister Michel Najjar told Al Jazeera that he had only found out about the presence of the explosive material stashed in Beirut’s port 11 days before the explosion, through a report given to him by the country’s Supreme Defense Council. He had taken over the post six months earlier, “No minister knows what’s in the hangars or containers, and it’s not my job to know.”
Najjar said that he was following up on the matter but the lock-down imposed in response to increasing number of COVID-19 cases in July, made that difficult. He said he talked to the general manager of the port, Hasan Koraytem on Monday asking for all the relevant documentation so that he can “look into this matter”.
Aftermath of the explosion – Al Jazeera
Najjar revealed that he only found out on Wednesday that his ministry had already sent at least 18 letters to the Beirut urgent matters judge since 2014, asking for the goods to be disposed, adding that “The judiciary didn’t do anything, it’s negligence.” Najjar declined to provide the aforementioned documents citing the on-going investigation.
Public documents verified by Al Jazeera show that Lebanese Customs sent six letters to the Beirut Urgent Matters Judge between 2014 and 2017, urging the judge to get rid of the “dangerous” material by either exporting it, re-selling it or handing it to the Army.
On the other hand, leading Lebanese legal expert and founder of NGO Legal Agenda, Nizar Saghieh said, “primary legal responsibility here is on those tasked with overseeing the port – the port authority and the public works ministry, as well as Lebanese Customs… It is certainly not up to a judge to find the safe place to house these goods.”
Independently elected head of the Beirut Bar Association, Melhem Khalaf shared this sentiment saying that there is a “pre-emptive attack” by the officials to “vilify the judiciary and muddy the waters on this case”.
The explosion in Beirut has caused an estimated loss of $10bn to $15bn in damages. Several port officials are under house arrest as search missions and rescue operations continue.