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At around 6pm on Aug 4, 2020, a massive explosion caused by more than 2,750 tonnes of high density ammonium nitrate shook Lebanon’s capital Beirut. The explosive compound was being stored in a warehouse in the port. Some 100,000 people lived within a kilometre of the warehouse.

The explosion, which measured 3.3 on the Richter scale, damaged or destroyed around 6,000 buildings, killed at least 190 people, injured a further 6,000, and displaced as many as 300,000.

The ammonium nitrate came from a ship that had been impounded in 2012 for failing to pay docking fees and other charges, and apparently abandoned by its owner.

Customs officials wrote to the Lebanese courts at least six times between 2014 and 2017, asking how to dispose of the explosive. In the meantime, it was stored in the warehouse in an inappropriate climate.

It is not clear what detonated the explosion, but contamination by other substances, either while in transport or in storage, appear the most likely cause.

Many citizens saw the incident as symptomatic of the ongoing problems the country is facing, namely governmental failure, mishandling and corruption.

In the days after the blast, tens of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets of central Beirut, some clashing with security forces and taking over government buildings, in protest against a political system they saw as unwilling to fix the country’s problems.

A woman being carried to safety on Aug 4, 2020, in the devastated Gemmayzeh neighbourhood, a historic, predominantly Christian quarter of Beirut city with a high concentration of old buildings. On the first night after the explosion in the port of Beirut, many cars were unusable and roads were blocked by debris, so injured people had to walk or be moved on foot to safer areas of the city. Title: Port Explosion in Beirut © Lorenzo Tugnoli, Italy, Contrasto

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