The blast in Beirut shook the city resulting in widespread devastation. Questions remain over why the cargo was allowed to remain at the port for so long.
When the Moldovan-flagged cargo ship began making its way to Mozambique from Georgia, carrying with it 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate more than seven years ago, few would have thought it would go on to become the source of international news coverage.
Now, with the Lebanese capital’s main port of Beirut in ruins, and over 100 dead and thousands injured, many are asking how and why a ship destined for southern Africa remained in Lebanon for so many years.
Yoruk Isik, a naval observer, called the ship's route to Lebanon “illogical.”
The ship named Rhosus began its journey on 27 August 2013 from Batumi Port of Georgia. From there, it stopped in Istanbul for under two days before again departing on 3 October 2013.
The ship was said to have come up against technical difficulties docking in Beirut on 21 November 2013.
According to the naval shipping magazine, “Arrest News”, upon inspection by Lebanese authorities, the ship was impounded for incorrect documentation leading to suspicions about the ultimate destination of the ammonium nitrate.
“If it was going to Mozambique, there are very big ports and all sorts of facilities in Egypt or even in Cyprus that would have been more reasonable,” Isik added speaking to TRT World.
“However, the speculation is that the cargo was never going to Mozambique but that it was heading to Lebanon or even Syria.”
So far, such suggestions are not confirmed and Isik has been wary of placing too much credence on this theory.
During the early years of the Syrian civil war, Lebanese ports were often used for cargo destined for its neighbour. While ammonium nitrate is often used as a fertiliser, it also has explosive qualities.
What has shocked many people within Lebanon, as well as outsiders, is why so much potentially dangerous material was left at the port in the heart of the Lebanese capital.
Professor of International Politics and Maritime Trade, Laleh Khalili said that the practice happens “quite often”.
“It is important to remember that the primary use of ammonium nitrate is actually as a fertiliser. And the transport of such goods is something that happens all the time. Currently there is a tanker full of oil off the coast of Yemen and in the process of erosion. It is also in very dangerous circumstances,” opined Khalili when speaking to TRT World.
This is a letter sent by the head of the customs authorities in Lebanon in December 2017 to the courts of urgent matters highlighting the presence of the RHOSUS & asking to re-export the cargo due to the danger this substance might have on the Beirut port. pic.twitter.com/JptS95HPwT— Joe Macaron جو معكرون (@macaronjoe) August 4, 2020
One of the reasons the ship’s crew were allowed to leave was due to the “imminent danger the crew was facing given the “dangerous” nature of the cargo still stored in ship’s holds.”
The crew were all Ukrainian and its captain, the last to be allowed to leave the ship, was Russian. The vessel's owner, Grechushkin Igor, was also a Russian citizen and Cyprus resident according to the ship tracking website Vessel Tracker. Igor later abandoned his crew and his ship.
Court documents indicate that in 2017, Lebanese authorities were made aware the fertiliser was a potentially dangerous substance, yet they failed to take action.
The head of the customs authorities in Lebanon asked the courts as a matter of urgency to re-export the cargo due to the danger the substance posed.
“What is perhaps more unconscionable is that the cargo, once taken off the ship, was left at the port, rather than sold and the recuperated income being used to pay the seafarers etc. This would under ordinary circumstances surprise me, but in the case of Lebanon it doesn't,” says Khalili.
“The government has long been dysfunctional, operating on the basis of enriching and empowering sectarian elites, and not particularly focused on the well-being of ordinary Lebanese,” she added.
Even before yesterday’s explosion, which alone has resulted in damages of more than $3 billion, and damaged half of the city leaving thousands potentially homeless, Lebanon was facing economic, political and social crises.
The country’s prime minister, Hassan Diab, has vowed that he will hold those at fault for the blast fully responsible. Getting to the owners of the ship, however, may be difficult.
“Generally, if they have abandoned a ship, the country closest to the ship, detains the ship, and confiscates its cargo for use. Of course they can be further sued for damages etc, but in this case, if the ship-owning company's cargo was detained, transferred to the port, and the ship-owners themselves have declared bankruptcy, the liability really lies with the port and ultimately the Lebanese government,” says Khalili.
As Lebanon picks up the pieces and the dust settles, people will turn their eyes to the country's political elite who are now demanding to know why their country finds itself seemingly in a semi permanent state of crises.
Khalili says that the “the malfunctioning of the Lebanese government” and an inability to meet even the most basic services for its people is at the heart of what ails Lebanon today.
“The way the sectarian elite and the old warlords continue to hoard power and the country's economic resources; the decimation of a notion of a public good or even a "public" in toto has of course over the course of the last 20 years resulted in the deepening of divisions, and the emergence of popular movements against the government,” added Khalili.
The questions coming out of this crisis, argues Khalili, will be whether “the same foxes as before continue to guard the hen-house.”