Aug 10, 2020
On Tuesday, August 4, a massive explosion rocked the city of Beirut. Homes and businesses were leveled and windows blown out for miles. At least 150 people died, with many more still missing; over 5,000 more were injured. The blast was felt across Lebanon, and was even heard on the island of Cyprus, 125 miles away in the Mediterranean Sea.
The explosion came seemingly out of nowhere for the residents who experienced it. But as they learned very quickly, this was very literally a time bomb that had been sitting in their port for seven years, waiting to go off.
Over 2700 TONS of the highly explosive chemical ammonium nitrate had been sitting in a warehouse at the port since 2013, when a ship carrying the cargo was detained. (By comparison, two tons of the same chemical were used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.) Starting June 2014, the director of Lebanese customs repeatedly urged the government to remove the ammonium nitrate from the port, citing the extreme danger of having so much explosive material just sitting there, so close to such a heavily populated downtown area. Nothing was done.
To make matters even worse, apparently a cache of fireworks was stored in a warehouse right next to the ammonium nitrate, again, for years.
On August 4, the inevitable finally happened. Apparently, a fire in the warehouse ignited the fireworks. As firefighters were battling the blaze, the ammonium nitrate touched off, flattening the entire area in a massive shockwave that survivors compared to a Hiroshima.
The outrage among residents grew very quickly. The Lebanese population had already been protesting last fall, demanding a change in the government that they see as rife with corruption and incompetence. Since January, they have experienced an economic collapse, rampant inflation and food shortages that have made it very hard for many to pay their bills or feed their families. The Lebanese Lira, the local currency, has lost 80 percent of its value so far this year.
This explosion for many has been the last straw, the embodiment of all that corruption and incompetence enriching people at the top while so many have suffered.
On Thursday, August 6, residents of Beirut expressed their anger against Lebanese political leaders, none of whom bothered to risk themselves in the stricken neighborhoods. Instead, they sent security forces who fired teargas at the demonstrators.
Immediately, a more massive demonstration was planned for Saturday, August 8. Thousands turned out, chanting “The people want the fall of the regime,” and carrying signs reading “Leave, You All Are Killers.” When they approached the Parliament building, police once again tear-gassed them.
Clearly, a not insignificant part of the population still finds the strength, in the midst of this field of ruins, to challenge a political and financial system which is a permanent catastrophe.