Thirty years after the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, once again Beirut’s lively downtown and port areas have been flattened, though all in one terrible moment of carnage and destruction. History cruelly repeats itself in this tormented and divided city. Two full square-kilometres of rubble and crumbling buildings, over 100 dead, many more yet to be found, and 4,000 injured, 300,000 displaced from their now-non-existent homes.
The diversity of the names of the missing has made clear that the blast spared no community, age or class in this city of two million, also home to thousands of Syrian refugees. The focus now is on the massive rescue operation, both the tending of the injured and recovery of the dead and the challenge of accommodating, feeding and caring for so many displaced. International offers of assistance have flooded in with teams from France and Egypt already on the ground. Poland, Greece and the Netherlands, among others, are sending help. Ireland "is in contact with our partners on the ground to see how we can assist with their response," the Department of Foreign Affairs says. An Irish UN contingent is serving 50 miles down the road.
But hard questions are already urgently being asked about how some 2,700 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate could be stored, apparently without proper safety precautions, in the middle of a built-up area. It is a common industrial chemical used in fertiliser and in mining explosives, and was apparently confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014 and stored in a port warehouse since then. It becomes highly explosive if contaminated with oil or allowed to deteriorate.
Such apparent laxity reflects the dysfunctional nature of Lebanon’s administration, a legacy of the complex post-civil war compromises that buried sectarian divisions at the price of leaving corrupt and incompetent elites still in charge. The country is now also struggling with coronavirus and severe economic problems that have prompted mass demonstrations against economic mismanagement. Lebanon needs help.