On August 4, a massive accidental warehouse explosion rocked Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. More than 180 people were killed, more than 6,000 wounded, and another 300,000 left suddenly homeless. The cause of the catastrophe was simple and easily preventable: 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, offloaded from an abandoned Russian tanker originally bound for Mozambique, had been improperly stored by Lebanese authorities for six years. We do not yet know how it ignited, but the blast was so serious that it registered as a 3.3 magnitude earthquake on the Richter scale, and could be felt as far as Cyprus, 150 miles away.
These numbers are staggering, and the tragedy couldn’t have come at a worse time for Lebanon. The small Middle Eastern country on the Mediterranean, home to nearly 7 million people, was already facing civil unrest born of religious sectarianism. (Christians, including more than one million Maronite Catholics, make up 40 percent of the population, Muslims 54 percent, and the Druze sect another 5 percent.) Add to that widespread dissatisfaction with the government, the ongoing refugee crisis in neighboring Syria (almost one-fifth of Lebanon’s population is now made up of Syrian refugees), the devaluation of the Lebanese lira, and the strict lockdowns imposed to curb the pandemic, and it becomes easy to understand the fresh waves of anger. Mass demonstrations have already forced the resignation of Lebanon’s cabinet, leaving the country in political limbo.