A year after Beirut’s deadly blast | DW Documentaryadmin
Beirut, Lebanon,nAugust the 4th 2020. It’s a sweltering day innthis ancient Mediterranean city which is home ton2.2 million people. The nation is sufferingnits worst crisis since the end ofnthe civil war, which lasted fromn1975 to 1990. Without any economic reformnby the new government, the Lebanese poundnis collapsing — and fresh groceries arenhard to come by as the Covid-19 pandemic sweepsnacross the country. Towards evening, a fire breaksnout in a warehouse in the port. I have lived throughnthe war in Lebanon and this was andifferent sound. So, my first reaction wasnto jump and try to hide. But I did not have time to findna place where I could be safe then the second blastnexploded and that was when all of thenglass fell on us, like, I don’t know,nlike bullets of glass. Well the funny part is thatnI wasn’t wearing glasses, because I usuallyndon’t, so this wound on this side was like this, itnreached here, it was pretty deep. And it got the eye, the eye wasnreally all out apparently, from what I understood, sonthey had to sew it back in. The explosion on August the 4th,nis so massive that it can be heard in Cyprus and is registered asnan earthquake in the United States. The city isndevastated. The final death tollnreaches more than 200, with thousands morenwounded or homeless. This is thenport of Beirut, the busiest port in theneastern Mediterranean and a gateway tonthe Middle East. In the year beforenthe explosion, it handled 1.2 millionnstandard containers per year. Like many ports, it was also a hubnfor illegal trade and corruption. The fire broke out shortlynbefore 5:40 PM local time. The fire brigade wasncalled 4 minutes later. Platoon Five of the nearest firenstation made its way to the scene. They were told that a consignmentnof fireworks had exploded. Charbel Karam was inncharge of the platoon, which included hisnbrother-in-law, and 27-year-oldnparamedic Sahar Farees, who was engaged tonbe married in 2021. Gilbert Karaan wasnSahar’s fiancé. If you see Saharnin her uniform, you’ll see she isndelicate, an angel… yes, she was annangel on earth. Even when shenwas in uniform, but she had the couragenof a hundred men. Sahar completed one of the toughestntraining courses that exists. As I said, she was braver thannme, she was afraid of nothing. There are videos of hernteam braving the storm, and there isn’t a tracenof fear in her face. These images show thenlast moments of her life. In this photograph, we see thenteam desperately attempting to enter the warehouse, alreadynengulfed in smoke and flames. On the waynto the fire, Sahar sent me a videonmessage to say goodbye. She was sitting on the centernseat of the vehicle, waving. I asked her what was goingnon and she gestured with her finger that she’dncall me later. When she got to thenport, she video-called me again and showed me thenwarehouse that was burning. I asked her “Why don’tnyou have your mask?” and she said, “I’ve gotnit with me, darling.” Seven minutes later therenwas an explosion in the southern partnof the building. I video-called hernagain at 6:07 PM, but Sahar wasn’t lookingnat me because she was watching the sky while holdingnher phone and I asked her whether there wasnsomething wrong, and I shouted,n“Sahar, answer me!” She was looking intonthe phone, and I said, “If there’s somethingnwrong, run, run.” I saw that she wasn’tnrunning fast enough and was shaking hernhead, she was scared. Five or six seconds laternthere was this explosion. A secret stock of ammoniumnnitrate had just exploded, devastatingneastern Beirut. In the aftermath ofnone of the largest explosions ever tonhit a capital city, life is slowly returning to thendevastated streets of Beirut. The city saw destructionnon an enormous scale during the civil war of then1980s, and thousands were killed. A peace agreement between thengrowing Muslim population and the Christian elitesnfinally ended the war. But this destruction wasncaused by the explosion of a huge shipment of ammoniumnnitrate that came to Lebanon on a mysterious ship,nsupposedly heading for an explosives factorynin distant Mozambique. A few hours after thenexplosion took place, news started comingnthat it was because 2,750 tons ofnammonium nitrate were stored in the warehousennumber 12 at Beirut Port, and everybody was interested innknowing why this ammonium nitrate… why this ammoniumnnitrate shipment was kept all thisntime in Beirut Port. The ship had stopped in Beirutnto pick up extra cargo to pay for its passagenthrough the Suez Canal. The busy port of Beirut isnlocated near Gemmahzey, the political and commercial centernof the densely populated city. This is where thencargo ship MV Rhosus, owned by a Russiannentrepreneur, had docked onnNovember 21st 2013. The story of the ship isnshrouded in fraud and cover-up. Firas Hatoum is an investigativenjournalist who revealed the shady web of operationsnsurrounding the lethal cargo. In all thisnstory you find, everywhere you find two or threenlayers, for every person, for every entity,nfor every step, there is always a company behind ancompany, a person behind a person. Are all those circumstancesnhappening by coincidence? I have my doubts,nactually. The investigationnsought to discover who owned the ship andnwhere it was going. The ship was officially ownednby a Russian, Igor Grechushkin, who claims he merely leasednit from the original owner of the Greek Cypriot shippingnmagnate Charalambos Manoli, who not only suppliednhim the ship, but also provided sea worthinessncertificates issued in Moldavia. The Lebanese authoritiesnare saying that Igor Grechushkinnis the real owner, then we discovered that six or sevennmonths maybe before the shipment, Igor decided to be thenoperator of the ship. The weird thing was whynIgor’s name came in, because for everyone othernthan the Lebanese authorities and the people who have thendocuments about this shipment, it was Charalambos Manoli allnthe time who was the owner. As Firas Hatoum’s incriminatingnpaper trail shows, Igor Grechushkin declared bankruptcynwhile the ship was in port. According to the captain, thenheavy equipment had damaged the ship’s cargo hatches,nmaking it unseaworthy. The captain was nervousnabout the state of the ship and its dangerous cargonbut was trapped aboard the rust bucketnstuck in Beirut — perhaps notnby chance. If somebody paid thenamount of almost maybe 400 or 500 thousand dollars to buynthis ammonium nitrate shipment, is it logical thatnhe did not have, did not keep in mind thatnhe needs some money to move through the Suez Canal andncarry on to Mozambique? It’s like, for example, travellingnmaybe from here to the USA and then after doing thatnyou remember you don’t have enough money to go from thenairport by taxi to the hotel. You cannot do the big part andnforget about the small part. It isnillogical. The deadly cargo wasnunloaded into warehouse 12, which once stood on the sitenof this 40-meter-deep crater, right in front of the grainnsilos that have become symbolic of thenmassive explosion. Certain letters were sentnfor judges here in Lebanon telling them that, fromnpeople in the port, or the people who are in chargenof the port, telling the judges “Give us approval to removenthe ammonium nitrate from the ship because the shipnwill sink at any time, it’s not seaworthy, so they gotnan approval from the judge, and I don’t know ifnthe judge knew about the danger of thisnmaterial or not. The letter was written in anway to make him believe that the real danger was if the ammoniumnnitrate stayed on the ship. He believed what was writtennfor him and he approved the removal of the ammoniumnnitrate from the ship, and it was put innwarehouse number 12. In his investigationninto the case, Firas found that customsnofficials sent at least five letters to the governmentnasking for advice as to how to handle the cargo,nwith no reply. In 2017 an expert who was askednto go and check the warehouse and check how many bags werenleft of the ammonium nitrate, she said that what is availablenor useful is not more than at that time 900 tonsnof ammonium nitrate. How did theynremove it? I personally don’t have anynanswer but of course that could not have been donenwithout key people in the port and maybe outside thenport knowing this. Neither the broker nornthe client attempted to recover thenvaluable cargo. The Lebanese army refusednto take charge of it. So, it sat innthe warehouse. A silent, deadly,nticking time bomb. The authorities who are responsiblenmore than other authorities, I can tell younit’s the army. In thisncase. Because this is ansensitive material, an explosive material andnit’s clear in the law, in the Lebanese law, that such anmaterial that comes to the Lebanon for one reasonnor another, especially as it wasnnot coming to stay, it was supposed to be coming asna transit and for one reason or another it wasnkept in Lebanon, the army should haventaken responsibility. That of course does not meannother authorities are not responsible because everybodyncould have done more. The state of thenwarehouse itself was the source ofnparticular concern. Captain Joseph Nadaf sentnseveral reports to the highest authorities in the yearnpreceding the blast, but ironically, he was arrested after thenexplosion for allegedly approving the storage of thenexplosive in the port, years before he wasnemployed there. He says the charges are false,nand instead of being hailed as a whistleblower, he isnbeing made a scapegoat. Halim Naddaf is his uncle. The Agency for StatenSecurity appointed Captain Joseph Naddaf to takenover the Port Authority in 2019 with the remit tonfight corruption. One day, around October someonenwent to tell Captain Naddaf about the ammonium nitratenstock held in warehouse 12, and this was aroundnthe end of 2019. He investigated and searchednfor information on the issue. Captain Naddaf did notnhave many men in the port, he had a staffnof 10 soldiers, and could only use onenfor investigations. Next to the decayingnbags of explosives were other extremely flammablenmateriaoxes of fireworks, ammonium phosphatenand tires. It was just a matter of timenbefore this lethal mix blew up. He investigated the issue andnsent his first report on the 6th of December 2019, that is 8nmonths before the explosion. In it he said that there was anstock of ammonium nitrate in warehouse 12 thatnwas dangerous, that it could be stolennto make explosives, and that if it caught fire, itncould destroy the port of Beirut. We’re talking about 8 months beforenthe explosion in the port of Beirut. The fire started at thennorthern end of the warehouse, the smoke changednfrom white to black. Then a crackling sound wasnfollowed by a first explosion. Whatever caused the detonationnof ammonium nitrate, the second red-colored explosionnshot debris and heat into the air, sucking oxygen out of thensurrounding sphere and then, suddenly, releasing a shocknwave, just like an atomic bomb. The effect of the explosion was thenequivalent of 1.1 kilotons of TNT — the largest non-nuclearnexplosion of all time. It was registerednas an earthquake at 4.3 on the Richternscale in Jordan and heard as farnaway as Cyprus. I was like, on allnfours, and I could hear Danny shoutingn“Where are you?” Very quickly she came over, shensaw that I was really hurt, I guess she must have seen it,nI don’t know as I couldn’t see what was happening, therenwas a lot of blood, I was really spewingna lot of blood. She came with a wet towel tonstart cleaning a little bit, but the pain wasnreally too sharp. St George’s hospital was in thendirect line of sight of the blast. These terrifying imagesnrecorded by CCTV cameras at the St George’s hospitalnoverlooking the port explain the highnnumber of victims. The shock wave smashednwindows and furniture, ripped down wallsnand ceilings. Miraculously, 26-year-oldnpediatric nurse Pamela Zeinoun managed to save three new-bornnbabies from their incubators. I was sitting here with thenbabies, I did my rounds, I finished my rounds, and then I wasntalking to my mother on the phone just to tell her that mynday was going very well, and the blastnhappened. Everything fell down on the floor,nthe ceiling fell down on us, so I was knocked out for a fewnseconds, and then I woke up, and just made sure I was OK, Incould move my hands and legs, and then directly Inthought of the babies. They were present in thisnroom and the other room. There were five babies, I wasnable to grab three of them, and the nurses that werenwith me were able to grab two of them and giventhem to the residents because they werenseverely injured. I was able to go down thenstairs to get them to safety. The fire and ambulance servicesnwere quickly overwhelmed. A nightmare scenario evolved innwhich a huge fire raged over the port area whilenpanicked civilians called thenemergency services from the streets and theirndestroyed apartments. I went from this hospitalnto two other hospitals, I wasn’t able to get admittednbecause these hospitals were also in ruins so I had tonwalk around five kilometers to reach another hospital withnthe three babies and put the three babies innanother hospital. I made sure mynkids were OK, and I drove to my sister’snhouse which was not very far away from where Inwas when the bomb exploded. But I was drivingnon glass. It was like anrug of glass. Broken glassneverywhere. So the car was not movingncorrectly but it was OK. I arrived there andnmy son had arrived just before me andnwhen I got there, I saw they were bringingndown the cleaning lady. My son had broughtnher in a blanket, they were carrying her becausenthere were no ambulances, no elevators, nothing, eightnfloors down and they put We actually found help allnthe way it was really the most heart-warming partnof that evening, so when we found out that the firstnhospital was inoperable, we thought of another one,nthat’s like two kilometers walk and in my conditionnobviously it wasn’t easy, so we walked up to a parallelnstreet and there was a traffic jam going towardsnwhere we wanted to go, so this guy on a moped, likena delivery guy probably, came up to us and he saysn“Hop in”, so he drove us, zigzagging among the debris, andnhe got us to that second hospital. The cleaning lady, shenactually was the lady who took care of my father and mynfather passed away nine months before the blast,nand she decided to stay one year longer because she had tonpay her daughter’s school year. She said, “I would like tonstay one more year with you.” So, she stayed between me andnmy sisters, each one of us, she was moving around.nAnd unfortunately, three days later after the blast,nshe was very severely injured, and she passed away from the woundsnshe had on her head and her body. The death toll wasnrising by the minute, reaching more than 200,nwith 6,500 people injured. The city’s infrastructurenwas devastated and Platoon Five’s fire stationnwas also destroyed. Hospitals and policenstations were abandoned. The explosion plungednthe war-ravaged nation into the ultimatencatastrophe. 300,000 people werenleft homeless. But how exactly did thenammonium nitrate explode? The cause of the fire that triggerednthe explosion is still unclear, but the images ofnits early stages show smoke comingnfrom the warehouse. Witnesses reported hearingnstrange sounds near the area, fueling suspicions of a possiblenmissile or drone strike. These images show whatnthe firefighters saw. Pyrotechnics innwarehouse 12. These are the lastnmoments of their lives. Thirty seconds after the fireworks,nthe ammonium nitrate exploded. The chemical reaction thatncauses such an explosion involves the rapidndecomposition of the ammonium nitrate intonits composite parts — ammonium oxide with itsncharacteristic red vapor, and water. The releasenof energy — manifested as a shocknwave — is immense. It may never come to lightnwho is to blame for the explosion of the hugenammonium nitrate stock in Beirut Port onnAugust 4th, 2020. But a pall of suspicionndoes fall on the successive governmentsnof Lebanon. In 2020, the new primenminister Hassan Diab and President Michel Aounnreceived warnings from the general directoratenof state security about the state ofnthe explosives, and in July 2020 the SupremenDefense Council sent its report to the minister fornPublic Works, Michel Najjar. Yet nothingnwas done. Surely, incompetence cannot be thenonly explanation for the disaster. In his months-longninvestigation, journalist Firas Hatoum hasntaken a critical look at the original deal between thenMozambique explosives factory and the ammonium nitratenproducers in Georgia. When I talked to the factorynin Mozambique their answers were not convincing for me,nand they told me that they had nothing to do with thisnshipment, they just ordered 2,750 tons of ammonium nitratenfrom a company called Savaro. “That’s all that wenknow.” So, I told them, “OK. What’s this company, do younknow with whom you were dealing, who was the personnyou were calling? Do you havenany emails?” They refused to givenall this information, so the presence ofna middle company, before knowing that it’s a shellncompany raised question marks in my approachnto the story. Because why should a factory,na big factory in Mozambique deal with another factorynthrough a middle company? The proximity to one of thenworld’s longest running wars, as well as the arms embargonimposed on the Syrian regime may have tempted friends ofnSyria to remove some of the powerful explosivenfor use in bombs. But so far, no evidence has beennfound linking the explosives to terrorist groupsnor Hezbollah. I tried to find all the shellncompanies that were in 2013 registered at the samenaddress as Savaro. There were aroundnseventy at that time. All of them they were shellncompanies, just like Savaro, with no real activity,nno people with real business activitynin charge of them, just front people,nfront people. The only company I foundnsharing the same address with Savaro with real businessnactivity was a company called Hesco, Hesco Engineering,nand construction. Hesco Engineering andnConstruction was owned by George Haswani, at that timenand George Haswani is a Syrian businessman who gotnsanctioned in 2014 for trying to help thenSyrian regime. That’s what the Americansnaccused him of. The ownership of thenvessel is not clear — first ownednby front men, then bought by a bank with closenties to Syrian businessmen. It is now subject tonan FBI investigation. They were all big clientsnin a bank called FBME, this bank was also later onnsanctioned by the Americans, for moneynlaundering, OK? In this bank where theynhave lots of accounts and where they usednto move lots of?. Used to move money all thentime from Russia to Britain and from Britain tonCyprus, in this bank… this bank is the same banknthat gave Charalambos Manoli, who seems to be thenreal owner of Rhosus, because in the beginning theynsaid that the owner was a guy, a Russian guy callednIgor Greschuschkin, and then it seems that Igor wasnjust the person who was the operator of the ship, butnCharalambos, was the real owner, Charalambos Manoli, sonCharalambos Manoli took a mysterious loan fromnFBME at the end of 2011, that’s almost one year, or one yearnand a half before the shipment. These dirty dealings led to thenblast that killed more than 200 people, injured 6,000,ndestroyed 70,000 homes and buildings, leftn300,000 homeless. It also sanknsix ships. Nearly a year after thentragedy, omissions and cover-ups in the investigationnare fueling concerns that the truth may nevernbe fully revealed, despite the courageous effortsnof investigative journalists. Once again, the Lebanese arenrebuilding their nation after a futile andndeadly tragedy. This may be Lebanon’sndarkest hour, but there is hope buriednbeneath the rubble. Hundreds of young Lebanesenhave returned to Beirut — or have decided to stayninstead of going abroad — to help clean up andnbegin building a new, more promising futurenfor a city that must once again risenfrom the ashes.