When his workplace blew to pieces, dockworker Yusuf Shehadi was waiting to hear back from colleagues who had scrambled to help firefighters extinguish a blaze in the port of Beirut. The fire was bad and getting worse, they told him in their last conversation before a giant explosion killed them, and 210 others, a year ago today.
The catastrophic blast laid to ruin the place Shehadi had worked for a decade. And he immediately knew its cause. “I had taken the nitrate from the dock to the hangar six years earlier,” he said of the massive stockpile of military-grade fertiliser that he had helped move from a freighter to a nearby hangar in 2014.
Six years later it had caught fire and pulverised Lebanon’s main port. “Their phones were dead,” Shehadi said of his eight colleagues, four of whom were also dockworkers who had helped unload the nitrate from a Russian freighter.
He soon learned their fate and that of his home town through the Armageddon-like images that reverberated around the world. Even in a city inured to trauma and loss, the shocking scenes of Beirut’s devastated waterfront broke new ground for the horror it caused at the time, and in the miserable year since when answers have been few.
One year on, the Lebanese capital remains a shell of a city; while most of the physical damage has been repaired, the scar on Beirut’s psyche remains raw and festering, its impact intensified by the anger of a people denied justice.
“Once, just once – especially now – this country could have delivered an outcome for its people,” said Fadia Doumit, as she stared at the tangled mess of metal and masonry strewn across what used to be the port, near where she works. The enormous debris field is in almost the same state as it was a year ago, a memorial to a day that has come to define the dysfunction of Lebanon and the complicity of its leaders.
Attempts at judicial inquiries over the past year have led to several dozen bureaucrats being detained, but leaders have refused to be questioned or to vote in favour of lifting immunity that protects them from prosecution. “The Lebanese state cannot and will not investigate itself,” said Shadi Haddid, from the town of Broumana, 30 minutes from Beirut. “No one here is competent to sit in judgment of the other.”
Questions about the ultimate beneficiary of the nitrate, how much of it detonated, how it caught fire and whether any of the stockpile was removed remain unanswered. “Everyone knows they don’t want to get to the bottom of this,” said Haddid. “It would implicate the whole political class, one way or another.”
In the absence of any effective local probe, it has fallen to local lawyers, journalists and civil-society actors to explore the circumstances around the arrival of the Russian freighter, the Rhosus, which later sunk at its moorings at the port, and what then happened to the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate unloaded from it.
“They never told us how much we were moving, but it was a lot,” said Shehadi. “And some of it was in bad condition, with water in the bottom of the bags. It was so caustic it eroded the front of the forklifts.”
Over the past year, the Guardian has been told by international investigators, Lebanese police sources and by one dockworker that some of the nitrate was moved from the hangar soon after it was delivered.
Lebanese investigators suggest that it may have been moved to Syria to be used in crude explosives, known as barrel bombs, that were dropped from Syrian military helicopters on to opposition-held parts of the country during the peak years of the civil war there.
“There were several trucks that were intercepted and turned back by [Lebanon’s] internal security forces circa 2015-16,” said one senior official. “They could never work out where the nitrate was coming from.”
However, this claim has been contradicted by European investigators, who say an extensive investigation of the port and its activities has shown that large-scale smuggling of nitrate from the site in question – hangar 12 – was unlikely.
Asked about an FBI report that suggested closer to 600 tonnes than 2,750 exploded, the authors of the report concurred, but said the remainder probably burned in the subsequent fire. A European investigator added a caveat that security cameras showing the hangar’s main doors had not been working for up to several years.
Shehadi too doubts that nitrate was smuggled out of the port either at the time it was delivered or subsequently. “There were six doors and they were monitored,” he said. “They would have needed forklifts to move it, and we would have known.”
Central to investigations has been the sudden diversion in 2013 of the Rhosus to Beirut, where it was tasked with picking up 160 tonnes of agricultural machinery to take to the Jordanian port of Aqaba.
The ship, however, was already at full capacity and not equipped to take on such heavy pieces. Its deck buckled after the first loading attempts, and the Rhosus was impounded in lieu of paying port fees.
For the next 10 months, the crew was not allowed to leave the ship as port authorities tried to trace the ship’s owners. “I used to take them food,” said Shehadi. “They had no idea where they were going at any point in the journey. “There was something strange about all this.”
Of further interest has been the shell company used to buy the nitrate. Savaro Limited – whose ultimate ownership remains unknown one year on – was used only once to facilitate a deal between a now defunct company in Georgia and a mine in Mozambique, where the nitrate could have been used for explosives for mining.
The use of a so-called sole purpose vehicle is seen by lawyers in the UK and in the region as irregular. The London address of the company was also used to register companies linked to two Syrian businessmen sanctioned by the US, for allegedly procuring nitrate for the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.
Unpicking the opaque mess of the Rhosus’s journey, the purchase of the nitrate, whether Mozambique was ever the intended destination and what happened to its cargo once it reached Beirut have led to cautious responses from most stakeholders.
Asked about a potential link to Syria at the launch of a landmark Human Rights Watch report into the explosion, the organisation’s crisis and conflict director, Lama Fakih said: “The investigation raises questions but we don’t have anything definitive.”
The HRW report delivered a scathing summary of the Lebanese leadership, which was repeatedly warned of the dangers at the port.
“The evidence currently available indicates that multiple Lebanese authorities were, at a minimum, criminally negligent under Lebanese law in their handling of the Rhosus’s cargo,” the report said. “The actions and omissions of Lebanese authorities created an unreasonable risk to life. Under international human rights law, a state’s failure to act to prevent foreseeable risks to life is a violation of the right to life.
“In addition, evidence strongly suggests that some government officials foresaw the death that the ammonium nitrate’s presence in the port could result in and tacitly accepted the risk of the deaths occurring. Under domestic law, this could amount to the crime of homicide with probable intent, and/or unintentional homicide.”
The report was seen as a validation by many Lebanese. “This is what a competent inquiry should do, and it needs to be replicated by an international team,” said Yusra Ahmad, at a Beirut cafe. “Finally something for the leaders to fear.”
Toby Cadman from lawyers Guernica 37 chambers said a credible international probe was vital. The special tribunal for Lebanon was “a costly and ineffectual academic exercise that delivered little,” he said of a 15-year probe into the killers of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.
“The international community needs to look to a more inclusive, efficient mechanism, such as those pursued to great effect in the western Balkans. We are exploring such an initiative currently, bringing together Lebanese and international legal experts in an independent commission.”
At a verge overlooking the port at sunset on Tuesday, Dana Salha stood viewing the carnage. “It should stay here for ever as a testament to what happened. Where else in the world could this remain unchallenged?”