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What caused the Beirut blast seems clear; now, harder questions

Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

BEIRUT -- Before the mass explosion that rocked Lebanon on Tuesday, many thought the country had already hit rock bottom.

Beirut had begun to resemble the scene of a dystopian film. Thanks to a deepening economic and currency crisis that has led to shortages of essential items including fuel, the streetlights were off.

With government-provided electricity coming sometimes only a couple of hours a day, diesel generators were running nearly nonstop, coating the city in a perpetual haze of smog. The number of beggars on the street -- many of them children -- had multiplied.

The only thing that could make the situation worse, many thought, was another war.

But the blast that came, in the end, was, according to all official accounts, neither a terrorist attack nor an Israeli strike. Rather, it was the result of an apparently accidental fire that detonated a stockpile of confiscated ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a hangar in the Beirut port for years -- the result, as many saw it, of the same negligence by those in power that had led to the economic crash.

"Now came this massive crisis -- because everything else that happened before it wasn't enough. Our state is doing everything it can to kill us," said Gisele Nader, a volunteer with Dafa Campaign, an initiative that was distributing food, water, clothing and other necessities Wednesday to families whose homes were damaged in the blast.


"I was here throughout the war, but I've never seen the country so damaged," Nader said.

And thanks to the preexisting economic crisis, it may now be much harder for Lebanon to bounce back from the after-effects of the explosion, which killed more than 100 people, injured an estimated 4,000, left as many as 300,000 people homeless and caused an estimated $3billion in damage.

As of Wednesday, civil defense volunteers were still combing through rubble looking for the bodies of the missing, while family members were desperately making the rounds of hospitals and posting pictures on an Instagram page set up to help Beirutis find missing loved ones.

"If this incident, this criminal incident, happened many years back I would tell you, it's problematic, but we can survive," said Jad Chaaban, a Lebanese economist and activist. "But right now, this is a question of Beirut becoming a failed city and a completely broken city if people do not mobilize very quickly and support it."


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