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Blame in Beirut
Sensemaker audio

Blame in Beirut

Blame in Beirut


Nimo, narrating:

Hi, my name’s Nimo and this is Sensemaker.

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world. 

Today, a ticking time bomb in Beirut – who was responsible for one of the worst chemical accidents in history?


“And we begin with that massive deadly explosion rocking the capital of Lebanon.”

ABC News

On 4 August 2020 the third largest non-nuclear explosion in history brought the city of Beirut to its knees. 

You probably remember the videos that were coming out of Lebanon that day. 

Confused residents started filming the grey smoke rising in the distance at Beirut’s port. Then, in what feels like no time at all, the smoke is overtaken by an intense white flash and within a split second…

[Sound of explosion]

An orange and black chemical cloud fires into the sky causing a shock wave that tore through Lebanon’s capital. 

218 people died and thousands were left wounded. 

The blast was reportedly caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical. Now, a year later, all that’s left at the epicentre of the blast is the smell of sewage, dead rats and rotting grain. 

And the people of Lebanon are still asking: how did this happen? 

One of those people is a lawyer named Camille Abousleiman. And he’s taking his questions to the High Court in London. 

Camille Abousleiman discussing in Arabic the initiative to boost employment of Lebanese workforce in the hospitality sector

That’s Camille Abousleiman. He left Lebanon during the civil war in the early 80s, to study at Harvard Law School. He’s since made a name for himself as a heavyweight in financial law. 

He also still maintains close ties to his home country. In 2019 he even had a brief stint as Lebanon’s labour minister. Now, he’s back as a partner at a law firm in London. 

And earlier this month Camille Abouslieman announced that he, alongside a number of other lawyers, had filed a lawsuit against a UK-registered company called Savaro Ltd. 

Savaro is a chemical company, and a pretty elusive one at that. 

According to the Canadian paper Globe and Mail, Savaro says it has no employees.

The lawsuit alleges that Savaro was the owner of the ammonium nitrate that caused the explosion. 

So, the lawsuit contends, the company was responsible for it and should be held accountable for failing to properly store or dispose of the chemicals. 

A lawyer at the legal firm representing Savaro has denied being involved in the transactions which are part of the claim, saying that the company has “never traded”. But Camille Abouslieman is not the only one looking at Savaro.

At the start of the year two senior British parliamentarians called for an investigation into the company.  

“Those calls have not gone unheard. A letter from MP Margaret Hodge, who chairs the British parliamentary group on anti corruption has written to the UK business secretary urging immediate action.”

Sky News

There is a question about whether the blame for the explosion can be placed at the door of one single company. Chronic negligence and corruption has plagued Lebanon for a long time. The explosion was an example of it. 

The ammonium nitrate had been sitting at Beirut’s port – one of the busiest in the region – since November 2013. It’s destination wasn’t even Beirut – the chemicals were supposed to be going to Africa.

“This ammonium was on its way from the eastern European country of Georgia to the African state of Mozambique. In Mozambique it would’ve been used by an industrial company. Instead the ship carrying the ammonium nitrate was impounded.”

Guardian explainer

Instead it arrived in Lebanon on an old Russian-owned cargo ship, because it had issues at sea. 

The Lebanese authorities declared the ship unseaworthy and the shipment was eventually entirely abandoned. 

And so the highly volatile, combustible ammonium nitrate was moved into a warehouse, where it stayed for over six years, even though the surrounding area housed about 100,000 people. 

Senior customs officials realised the danger posed by these chemicals. So they wrote to the Lebanese judiciary several times in the following years, warning about the ammonium nitrate. None of the warnings were acted on. 

Human Rights Watch has called the Lebanese government, at minimum, criminally negligent for failing to act. 

And to make matters worse, a few months after the explosion the FBI did their own investigation. They found that only about 500 tons of the ammonium nitrate actually exploded – no one seems to know where the rest of the chemicals actually went. 

And in the last year things have gotten worse in Lebanon. Economic decline, mismanagement of the pandemic, and a domestic investigation that has, for all intents and purposes, flatlined has left the Lebanese public angrier than ever. 

“People are angry, I’m angry, I can’t take any more. We have to do something about it..”

Protestor speaking to Channel 4

So where does all of this leave Beirut?

The case against Savaro Ltd is only just beginning. 

The lawyers say this is one attempt to hold at least one part of the puzzle accountable. 

While a number of arrests have been made, including Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister Hassan Diab, the government has been accused of a cover up.

Officials have rejected requests to lift the immunity of a number of high-ranking politicians and security chiefs so they can be questioned by the judiciary. 

It looks like all those left behind, the families of the deceased, those whose businesses have been destroyed, will be waiting for answers for a long time yet. 

Today’s story was written by Nimo Omer and produced by Xavier Greenwood