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OP-ED: What really happened in Beirut?

  • Published at 08:55 pm August 8th, 2020
beirut explosion

The tragic explosion gave rise to a number of unanswered questions

Before I got to know Lebanon, I knew the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran. Those famous lines from his famous book The Prophet are often remembered -- for instance: “Love gives nothing without love, love takes nothing but itself.” Or, “drink in each other’s cups, never in the same cup.” The Prophet of Gibran still creates a kind of gloom in me. 

Culturally, Lebanon’s tradition is also thousands of years old -- an ethnic mosaic of Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Persian, Arab, Crusader, Ottoman Turk, and French cultures. They have worldwide fame in folk music, Western modern music, and fusion, pop, or classical Arabic music. 

The explosion that I saw last Tuesday in the city of Beirut, I have never seen in any Hollywood movie in my entire life. I don’t know if it is possible to make such a scene in any animated movie. I give only one piece of information to explain the horror of this incident: The quivering of this explosion was a 3.5 on the Richter scale. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says 135 people have been killed so far in the blast in Beirut, more than 5,000 have been injured, and more than 300,000 people in the area are homeless at the moment. In addition, about 85% of the country’s food grains are stored in this port area surrounded by the sea of Beirut. 

It has been completely reduced to ashes mixed with the wind. All conscientious people around the world, including the Queen of Britain, have expressed their sorrow at the suddenness of the incident. But the punch was thrown mainly by US President Donald Trump. In a briefing at the White House shortly after the incident, he claimed that the explosion was a massive bomb attack. 

When asked by a CNN reporter, he confidently said the same thing. Trump cited a US general as a source who was monitoring the events in Beirut. On the other hand, the Lebanese government has been claiming since the beginning of the incident that more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate were stored in the warehouse where the incident took place at the seaport. 

Even the officials who were in charge of that state-owned port have been kept under house arrest. After the incident, many people around the world are wondering why this huge amount of ammonium has been stored since 2014. The fact is that the ammonium was recovered from a ship brought in illegally, and stored in a warehouse at the seaport since 2014. 

Ammonium nitrate is an industrial chemical and is mainly used for making fertilizers. However, Igor Grechushkin, a Russian millionaire, owned the ship, Ross, which arrived illegally. The ship wanted to make an unscheduled stop in Beirut on its way from Georgia to Mozambique, while carrying such a deadly chemical. The Lebanese Port Authority later confiscated it. 

Now, the question is why the Russian ship voluntarily anchored in Beirut. Why did the Lebanese Port Authority leave these hazardous chemicals in the same place since 2014? Again, the question is, what is the role of Israel or Mossad, the eternal enemy of Lebanon? Or are the Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas beyond doubt? Or is Syria, embroiled in a civil war, embarking on a new mission after withdrawing troops from Lebanon in 2005? Or does it have something to do with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a UN-sponsored special tribunal trial? The verdict was due this Friday. 

Is there any other link between the internal politics of the country and this attack just 48 hours before the verdict? Or is it a sabotage of the current, extremely controversial government of a state that is now almost bankrupt? Many such questions can be asked. 

However, after this tragic incident, the Lebanese people are so shocked that they can neither trust Trump nor their government. So much for the conspiracy theory. Now let’s think a little differently. A history of terrorist attacks in Lebanon shows that the US Embassy in Lebanon was attacked in 1983, killing 63 people. The same year, the UN peacekeeping mission was attacked. 

The last massive attack was in 2005, with a truck bomb. That truck bombing killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. That is the history of terrorist attacks in Lebanon; let’s see what was happening in the world before the chemical explosion. In 1947, a ship carrying about 2,000 tons of Complade caught fire in Texas City and exploded, killing 581 people. 

A 1995 terrorist bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City used about two tons of chemicals, killing 168 people. A factory explosion in the southern French city of Toulouse killed 31 people in 2001. In 2013, an explosion at a Texas West Fertilizer Company plant killed 15 people. 

And in 2015, thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate and other chemicals exploded, killing more than 150 people in Tianjin, one of China’s busiest seaports. Knowing all this, will we take the Beirut incident as an accidental explosion or will we think of a new version of chemical weapons? Well, why isn’t the Lebanese government still saying how the explosion started? 

If there was ammonium nitrate in the same warehouse, how could there be a second explosion several minutes after the first explosion? Again, if the ammonium nitrate explosion theory is true, then why did the Lebanese prime minister say that those involved in this incident must pay the ultimate price? I will end this piece with what I started with. 

About 100 years ago today, in 1923, Gibran wrote in The Prophet -- “you need to know the secret of death. How can you know this secret if you do not know life?” But today, the city of Gibran’s Beirut does not know the secret of death. And neither do we. 

Fazlul Halim Rana is Associate Professor and Chair, Department of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University. Email: [email protected]

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