The inferno and the mystery ship

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BBC.COM-By Rami Ruhayem in Beirut and Paul Adams in London-  Picture Getty images

First, the ground shook, ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly. A quick look around confirmed the sensation; the wardrobes in the house were shaking.

One second, two seconds, three, and it stopped.

A moment of stillness, and then it struck – an earth-shattering blast.

This time the whole building shook, but that was nothing compared with  the sound.

And this was more than 10km from the site of the blast in Beirut.

An instinctive rush to the windows to see smoke billowing from the direction of the capital. Then, an instinctive rush away – what if there was another one?

For many, it was the loudest explosion in memory, and there’s no shortage of explosive memories in Lebanon.

On the highway into Beirut from the north, ambulances inched their way through heavy traffic – a stream of motorists desperate to get to the surrounding neighbourhoods, check on friends and relatives, and take them away.

On the opposite side, cars sped in the other direction, making their escape from the inferno.

With traffic at a standstill, radios and phones brought the most terrible news – of hospitals overwhelmed, of thousands injured, and of the raging fire.

Those driving towards Beirut were forced by the army to make a U-turn, or continue on foot if they chose.

Broken glass crunched underfoot on the last stretch of road before entering the city, and a tractor roared through, clearing piles of rubble.

Buildings were barely recognisable, with empty window frames and no lights in sight.

A few silent figures emerged from the dark, some wounded but walking, others sitting and waiting with empty stares and barely a sound.

The closer to Beirut, the darker it got.

It had started with a fire in the port. Even now it’s not clear the precise time the blaze started.

But by 17:54 local time, a tweet from a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times showed the smoke billowing into the sky.

What followed has been shown in a series of videos posted on social media. There is an initial explosion which throws denser, darker smoke and debris into the air.

A series of flashes can be seen, almost like fireworks going off. An intense area of flame can be seen at the base of the smoke.

Then, 35 seconds after the first blast, there is a second, massive explosion. A huge column of red/brown smoke goes up and a white dome-like cloud follows the blast out.

Scores dead. Thousands injured. The heart of a city destroyed.

And at the centre of it, a warehouse full of nearly 3,000 tonnes of a chemical used for explosive. Ammonium nitrate.

The ship no-one wanted

The sacks contain nearly 3,000 tonnes of high-density ammonium nitrate.

One man, in blue, slightly squinting into the camera, is on the phone.

He was a man with a lot on his mind. By that point Captain Boris Prokoshev and several of his crew had been stuck in the port for months.

The ship, the MV Rhosus, had set out from Batumi, Georgia, in late September 2013, apparently destined for Beira, in Mozambique.

Built in 1986, the Rhosus was getting old. On trips around the Mediterranean earlier in the year, she had fallen foul of inspectors. In July 2013, at the port of Seville, inspectors found 14 separate deficiencies, from corroded decks to poor fire safety.

From May 2012, it had had a new owner, Igor Grechushkin, a Cyprus-based Russian businessman. According to business contacts, the MV Rhosus was Grechushkin’s first foray into running his own ship.

In Batumi, the bill of lading – the document acknowledging receipt of cargo – lists Rustavi Azot LLC as the company supplying the ammonium nitrate and says the customer is the International Bank of Mozambique, acting on behalf of a small Mozambique firm specialising in the manufacture of commercial explosives.

Prokoshev, who says he joined the Rhosus as captain in Turkey, has told the BBC it was soon apparent there were major problems.

The ship’s original crew had left, he said, claiming they hadn’t been paid for four months.  According to Prokoshev, when the ship and its new crew arrived in Athens, food and other goods had to be returned to suppliers because the owner said he couldn’t afford to pay for them.

The ship spent four weeks there while the owner hunted for additional cargo to pay transit fees through the Suez Canal.

Eventually, this resulted in a fateful detour to Beirut.

Prokoshev told the BBC this was to pick up additional cargo – a consignment of road-building equipment, including heavy rollers.

But someone hadn’t done their calculations. When the cargo was winched on to the ship’s deck hatches, they started to buckle.

“The hatches were rusty, old,” Prokoshev said. “So we couldn’t take it. I refused. It would break the boat.”

The effort was abandoned. Now, with the new crew starting to fear that they might suffer the same fate as their predecessors, Prokoshev says he decided to head for Cyprus to sort things out with Grechushkin.

But before the Rhosus could leave Beirut, the Lebanese authorities intervened.

According to the Lloyd’s List intelligence database, the ship was eventually seized on 4 February 2014, due to unpaid bills totalling $100,000.

Some crew members were allowed to leave, but Prokoshev was ordered to stay, along with his chief engineer, third engineer and bosun, all Ukrainian.

They weren’t even allowed to leave the ship.

“They kept us as hostages,” he told the BBC.

Prokoshev says he tried to enlist the help of Russian President Vladimir Putin, writing to him every month. In a separate interview with Radio Liberty, he says he got a frosty answer from the Russian consulate in Beirut.

“you want Putin to do? Send special forces to release you by force?’”

The plight of the crew came to the attention of the International Federation of Transport Workers. In late March, an ITF inspector, Olga Ananyina, said the crew had no means of subsistence.

“The team is on the brink of survival,” she wrote on 28 March 2014.

She said Igor Grechushkin’s company had no money to pay debts, either to the crew or the port, and she sounded a warning.

“In addition to the above problems,” she wrote, “the crew is alarmed by the fact that in the holds of the Rhosus vessel there is a particularly dangerous cargo – ammonium nitrate. The port authorities of Beirut do not allow the unloading or reloading of cargo to another vessel. This fact further complicates the already difficult situation of seafarers.”

Hers wasn’t the only warning. Four months later, an article on the trade website FleetMon highlighted the same danger.

“Crew kept hostages on a floating bomb,” was the headline on an article posted 23 July 2014.

The article summed up the dilemma.

“The port authorities don’t want to be left with an abandoned vessel on their hands,” it said, “loaded with dangerous cargo.”

The ageing Rhosus was not in good shape, taking on water that had to be bailed out every day. Prokoshev said they were concerned about the cargo.

“We needed to be sure… the cargo was kept dry and not spoiled,” he told the BBC.

“If you live on a boat, you look after it. You don’t want it to sink.”

The crew sold some of the ship’s fuel to pay for legal help. After a three-month court process, Lebanese lawyers finally managed to secure their freedom.

“We closed all the compartments, locked them and handed the keys to immigration at the port,” Prokoshev says.

According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation, Prokoshev and his Ukrainian colleagues finally left Beirut in September 2014.

Grechushkin did apparently pay for their passage to Odessa, but Prokoshev says he’s still owed $60,000 in unpaid wages.

Some time later – it’s not clear when – the ship’s dangerous cargo was also removed.

Abandoned by its owner and its crew, and taking on water, Prokoshev says the Rhosus eventually sank.

Its whereabouts today remain a mystery.

Reflecting on the disaster of 4 August, Prokoshev is scathing about the authorities in Beirut.

“They themselves are to blame,” he told Radio Liberty. “They should have got rid of it [the cargo] as soon as possible.”

The authorities should have given it to Lebanese farmers to use as fertiliser, he says.

“If no-one is asking for the cargo, it means that it’s no-one’s!”

The ship’s owner Igor Grechushkin did not respond to BBC requests for comment.

An account of the case of the Rhosus, by two lawyers who represented the crew, said their successful appeal had been based on “the imminent danger the crew was facing, given the ‘dangerous’ nature of the cargo still stored in the ship’s holds”.

Their account, published in October 2015, ends with words that now seem chilling.

“Owing to the risks associated with retaining the Ammonium Nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouse. The vessel and cargo remain to date in port awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal.”

Into the abyss

Many of those seeing the blast and the domed cloud thought immediately of a nuclear bomb.

It wasn’t, but the strength of the explosion was immense.

Ammonium nitrate is used the world over as a high-nitrogen fertiliser in agriculture. But it’s also extremely effective as an explosive, especially in mining.

Comparisons with other explosive materials are often imprecise and misleading, but a former British Army bomb disposal expert says the Beirut blast was the equivalent of 1-2 kilotons of TNT. Some estimates have even been slightly higher than that.

By comparison it is estimated that the Hiroshima bomb in August 1945 exploded with an energy equivalent to 12-15 kilotons.

The ammonium nitrate should never have been stored this way in the middle of a city, but it still would have taken something to detonate it.

So what was on fire at the warehouse in the run-up to the disaster?

The flashes and the popping that preceded the main blast looked to many like fireworks.

The Director of Customs,  Badri Daher, asked by Lebanese media whether fireworks were stored in the vicinity, answered simply “most likely, yes”.

Other reports have suggested the fire could have been started by welding work.

“We were asked to fix a door of the warehouse by State Security and we did that at noon, but what occurred in the afternoon I have no idea,” CNN quoted the port’s general manager, Hassan Koraytem, as telling OTV.

Whatever started the fire, it led to a small crew of firefighters being sent to deal with it. Nine men and one woman were outside Warehouse 12 when the blast occurred. All are now missing.

But it is now clear a number of officials in the Lebanese state were aware for years of the danger lurking in the port.

Ordinary Lebanese only found out when it blew up their capital.

So customs officials, possibly anticipating the public rage, swiftly leaked documents to show that responsibility did not lie with them.

Between 2014 and 2017, they had sent no fewer than five letters to a Judge of Urgent Matters, asking for permission to re-export or sell the ammonium nitrate.

The letters show that they were aware of the material in store, and knew that it was dangerous.

Some might read these letters and assume that customs officials had done all they could, and that there was no response from the judiciary.

After the explosion more firefighters arrived to take on the blaze

But that narrative has been swiftly challenged. While no-one has contested the authenticity of the letters, the counter-attack has placed the correspondence in a different context.

Riyad Qobaissi, an investigative journalist at local broadcaster Al Jadeed, has spent much of his career investigating corruption at Beirut’s port and customs.

The night after the explosion he offered his analysis; that the letters did not follow the right procedures, and that the judge had repeatedly pointed this out, requesting further information.

Qobaissi says the customs officials simply kept resending the same letters.

At the request of the Ministry of Transport and Public Works, the judge had given permission for the cargo to be offloaded in the first place. But he said it had to be stored in an appropriate place with safety measures in place.

“The ministry stored it in the port, and handed it over to customs,” Nizar Saghiyeh of Legal Agenda, an NGO based in Beirut, told the BBC.

“That was a big mistake. The law… explicitly forbids the storage of such explosives in the port.”

Sagiyeh says the responsibility for the ammonium nitrate’s storage in the port lies with the ministry, customs, and port management.

“The judge here did not make a mistake, as there is a law stating that if a ship carrying a dangerous load is sinking, the Judge of Urgent Matters can allow it to be ‘floated’.”

The ministry of transport and public works is responsible for the load, he says.

“[The ministry] gave up that responsibility to customs. The judge had delegated responsibility to the ministry, the ministry delegated [in turn] to customs.”

What they should have done, he suggests, is to sell it, which they had the authority to do, ask for permission to destroy it, or even destroy it without asking.

“All they did was send those letters,” he says.

The Beirut story is not unique.

In February 2009, a Cypriot-flagged vessel carrying 98 shipping containers full of military propellant was intercepted by the US Navy in the Red Sea.

The containers were stored, in direct sunlight, at the Evangelos Florakis Naval Base in Cyprus where, on 11 July 2011, the entire stockpile blew up, killing 13 people and causing more than €3bn of damage.

Lebanon in freefall

“Will people die at the doors of hospitals?” a hospital owner was asked. “No, they’ll die inside,” he said, because drugs and medical equipment will run out.

You’d think he was speaking after the blast that simultaneously overwhelmed hospitals and destroyed the port.

But this was last year, long before the blast, before Covid-19, back when life in much of the world was “normal”, but Lebanon was already stepping into an apocalyptic nightmare.

Now 4 August 2020 has seen a terrifying blow, with the explosion at the port underlining the twin pillars of Lebanon’s unfolding tragedy – a corrupt system immune to accountability, and an economy seen by many people as rigged to serve the establishment.

Last year, the country’s post-civil war economic order already looked poised to come crashing down as protests attacked the status quo. They saw an entrenched elite scrambling to preserve its wealth and power, as people mobilised to hold them to account for three decades of plunder.

Anger was mixed with euphoria at what seemed to many the long-awaited dream of a radical, nationwide revolution against the system itself.

A new power formed on the streets, cowing the political class. Such was the rage that for a while, politicians wouldn’t show their faces, not on the streets nor even on the screens.

In squares across the country, tents were set up for night-time discussions. The political, economic and legal framework that enabled a narrow ruling elite to enrich itself at the expense of the people was deconstructed.

On trial was a century-old sectarian power-sharing system, a 30-year old economic model, and perhaps most of all, the banks.

Since the early 1990s, they’d been piling up profits from interest on government debt.

Political factions, representing different sects, carved up the state’s resources and dispensed welfare, jobs, and benefits to their respective communities.

Debt, and interest on debt, took more and more of what the government could spend.

The system endured several shocks: assassinations, a war with Israel, prolonged political paralysis. It even briefly prospered, with money flowing in after the global crash to the perceived safety of Lebanon’s banking system.

The implicit guarantee of Lebanon’s economy came mostly from France and Saudi Arabia.

Every time the country ran into trouble with its finances, the former would use its diplomatic clout and the latter its deep pockets to arrange for an international bail-out.

New, longer-term loans and grants would be extended, and Lebanon would keep paying interest on its old debt. On top of these guarantees, the country also relied on a steady stream of remittances from emigrants.

But in 2011, both remittances and the guarantee started gradually, almost imperceptibly, diminishing.

The war in Syria struck tourism and export routes. The 2014 oil price crash hit remittances, especially from Gulf states. And a tightening US financial noose aimed at strangling the Lebanese militant group and political party Hezbollah took its toll.

US allies in the Gulf withdrew their implicit guarantees, as did France, which now insisted on austerity measures and reforms before investing.

And so it began. The banks blocked people’s access to their savings, but big money seemed to find its way out.  The national currency crashed. Inflation edged towards hyperinflation, jobs were lost, the middle class plummeted into poverty, and the poor sank further into misery.

Meanwhile, the protest movement stagnated. It had displayed a stubborn resistance to organisation, and no leadership or well-defined coalition emerged to carry the early gains through the minefield of Lebanese politics.

Power seemed to gravitate back to various established factions and the economic elite.

The protest movement had vowed to exact a price for the economic collapse from those who had let it happen.

 

In the wake of the explosion, that feeling is now morphing into something more vengeful; many are wishing death on those responsible.

But Lebanon’s modern history reveals a system that’s almost designed to obscure responsibility, and allow everyone off the hook.

Throughout the decades, rampant corruption and profiteering have often been detailed and dissected in public, by journalists or by rival factions trading accusations.

But no-one has been held to account.

All attempts to do so would run against the sectarian barrier.

Officials and politicians have had cover from their respective factions, which in turn have had cover from their religious establishments.

Positions in the bureaucracy have been divided among various sects, with positions reserved for Christians, Sunnis, Shia, and Druze.

Political success for a party has not been linked to policy programmes, but to their ability to carry the banner of their sect, and become the gateway to their sect’s share of jobs and spoils. Office-holders have been more like proteges than civil servants.

But 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, sitting in the port of Beirut for six years, has just blown up. Who will pay?

Meanwhile, thousands are injured, and hospitals and pharmacies have exhausted precious supplies. Hundreds of thousands are displaced, and many can’t afford to rebuild their homes.

Every event over the past year, from the crash through to Covid-19, seems to have reminded the Lebanese of how broken and unproductive their economy is, how decimated their agriculture, and how lacking in economic sovereignty they are.

And also how utterly dependent they are – for their most basic needs – on imports.

Mostly through the port of Beirut.

Credits

Writers: Rami Ruhayem and Paul Adams 

Producer: James Percy

Research/additional reporting: Nader Ibrahim, Zulfiqar Ali, Shayan Sardarizadeh, Manisha Ganguly, Mamdouh Akbiek, Chavala Madlena, Radwan Mortada

Editor: Sarah Buckley 

Video & Photography: Getty Images, Reuters, EPA, Gaby Salem, Dima Sadek, Juan Dominguez

Graphics: Sean Willmott, Tom Housden

Published 8 August, 2020

 

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