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Ukraine and Beirut: Aftermath of tragedy, which cannot be repeated

Author : Anna Peshkova

Source : 112 Ukraine

Over the past few days, the whole world has been watching with bated breath what is happening in Beirut. The power of the explosion that destroyed half of the city is amazing. Eyewitnesses say people "flew like birds" and the shock wave was felt even in Cyprus. While the rubble is being dismantled, the death toll reaches second hundred
12:18, 10 August 2020

The explosion which took place in Beirut on August 4
Sky News

So far, not a single Ukrainian has been found under the rubble of the city. The interlocutor of 112.ua says that her Lebanese fiance was crushed by a concrete slab during the explosion, and she herself managed to jump aside. True, various sources claim that ships with our citizens and Ukrainian grain could have been in the port, although the Foreign Ministry denies this.

However, there is more Ukraine in this story than it seems. At least because the inhabitants of Odesa became the unwitting culprits of the tragedy. And the tragedy has direct consequences for our economy, politics and security. But first things first.

Ukrainian sailors held captive by Lebanon

Warm autumn day of 2013. A small motor ship named Rhosus leaves the port of Batumi with a modest crew of 8 people. And also - with almost 300 tons of saltpeter on board. Destination - Mozambique. But, by the will of fate, seven Ukrainians and the Russian captain will not reach this point.

Some time after the departure, the seamen realize that the vessel, speaking in a professional language, is not seaworthy. There was a gap in it. Sailing to Mozambique in such conditions and with such a load is too dangerous. It remains only to ask some of the nearest ports to accept them, so that repair work can be carried out and move on relatively safely. The port services always help the sailors, and in Beirut the crew was taken to anchorage.

As you might guess, the ship did not go further. The shipowner, a Russian by passport (however, he also had a second citizenship) Igor Grechushkin did not give money for repairs. The sailors, languishing in anticipation, were ready to sail away in the ruined boat. But they were not allowed to do this. The port dues had to be paid for parking, and the shipowner was gone. Through the fault of their employer, the crew was stuck in a port in a foreign country.

According to the captain of the ship Boris Prokoshev, Grechushkin has shown himself to be a calculating and, to put it mildly, indifferent person before. Upon arrival on the ship, Prokoshev was immediately embarrassed that the entire crew was changing. The members of the old team explained their synchronicity by the fact that they did not want to sail to Mozambique. Allegedly, it is too far and long, and they miss their families. The real reason turned out to be much more prosaic: Grechushkin did not pay salaries to the team.

The facts of non-payment were recorded by the International Seafarers' Union, which allocated compensation to some members of the old crew. Why the sailors were silent about the situation is not clear. Apparently, they feared that there would be no replacement for them, and they would have to pay from their own pocket. In freight companies, such incidents often occur when seafarers do not read contracts carefully enough. It cannot be ruled out that the crew was paid for the silence with cash.

Despite the flickering shadow of doubt, Boris Prokoshev takes over the ship as the captain. It is already familiar to him: he used to work there for 4 months. True, in a different position. The owners were different then – they were Cypriots. The captain thought that things would go even better with his compatriot.

But the first impression did not fail him. The shipowner even saved on food for the sailors. According to Prokoshev, in pursuit of additional earnings, Grechushkin ordered heavy road equipment to be loaded onto the ship. Arguments that it could simply fall into the hold due to weight were uninteresting to the owner. He demanded to somehow strengthen the hatch and still accept the load. The sailors defended their position, to their happiness and to the grief of the Libyans. Maybe if the ship then became out of order, the disaster could have been avoided.

The Internet also has the most unflattering reviews about the Russian company, which was called Teto Shipping.

But back to the eight sailors on the ship. The Lebanese authorities released four of them almost immediately, but the other four stayed on this ship as free guards for 11 months. The Lebanese authorities did not want to pay for the maintenance of the ship, so they took the documents from the sailors so that they could not leave the ship and looked after it while the litigation was ongoing. The crew had no other way out, because if they had not maintained the condition of the damaged vessel, it would have simply sunk together with the people.

It is difficult to describe how such a long stay in port affects the psyche. According to the Maritime Labor Convention, it is generally prohibited to be at sea for more than 11 months. The sailors were on the brink. The captain says that the crew did not receive any money or food from the ship owner. People ate at their own expense at the port.

Until now, Grechushkin owes the captain 60 thousand dollars, the chief engineer - 50 thousand, the third mechanic - about 20, the boatswain - about 10. It was extremely difficult to sue the unpaid money, since the claim would have to be filed at the location of the ship owner, at that time - on Cyprus.

Related: Explosions in Beirut: About 60 people reported missing

Interestingly, Grechushkin periodically got in touch with the team, but didn’t solve the problem: there was no money, he said. This despite the fact that he was paid a million dollars for the transportation of nitrate. The captain of the ship believes because of this the Russian abandoned Rhosus. The ship just wasn't worth it. The delivery was already paid. And if you hand the vessel over for scrap, you could get only 350 thousand dollars for it.

The more the ship stayed at the berth, the more Teto Shipping's debt to Lebanon grew. It was possible to let the ship go home, but the Lebanese authorities decided to at least "recapture" the port dues. Saltpeter was confiscated and placed in a warehouse in the port. This was a guarantee of getting money. The Ukrainians were caught between the greed of the ship owner on the one hand and the Lebanese authorities on the other.

Out of despair, Ukrainians sell part of the fuel, hire a lawyer and sue the Lebanese authorities. The return of Ukrainians to their homeland was achieved by the Ukrainian consulate in cooperation with the Assol Seamen Aid Fund, the chairman of the supervisory board of which Svitlana Fabrikant told us most of the above facts.

“We were less worried about the cargo. It was important for us to return the sailors home. As a result, the ship sank safely off the Lebanese coast two years ago, "says Fabrikant.

The media write that Igor Grechushkin still lives in Cyprus with his wife Irina, and his 20-year-old son is studying in Scotland. The family refuses to comment on this story.

Looking for the culprit

The explosive cargo has been stored in the warehouse since 2014. Why ammonium nitrate was not used all this time, or simply was not destroyed, is not clear. After all, the Lebanese authorities understood that these 300 thousand tons of saltpeter are approximately equivalent to 3 tons of TNT.

The supplier was the Georgian "Rustavi Azot", the recipient was the International Bank of Mozambique. The customs clearance was to be handled by Fabrica de Explosivos, which produces commercial explosives. That is, the cargo transported by Ukrainian sailors was originally destined to become explosives.

How it happened that it did catch on fire? We can only guess. Someone says that this is just a human factor, and someone believes that nothing can happen just like that. Especially after Donald Trump used the word "attack" in his comment on this situation. And although the US military has denied the existence of evidence of external interference, the president's statement sparked many theories about what happened. The news of the explosion in Lebanon in itself raises suspicions of military action, because the situation in the region is very tense.

In part, such a statement is beneficial for Trump, because he is fixated on the confrontation with Iran. In Lebanon there are allies of this country, who are considered terrorists in the United States. But, on the other hand, he built his campaign on the fact that he did not start a single war and is taking the Americans out of all possible hot spots, starting from Afghanistan. And in case of external interference, it will be necessary to increase its presence in the region.

If the event can be justified by human stupidity, it is more likely that such an explanation will be true. Two weeks before the explosion, the Lebanese attorney general drew up a report on the improper storage of nitrate. There was a hole in the wall of the warehouse, because of which the door did not close and strangers could get inside.

Just think: a hole. In the wall. After all, this is not a ship, in which there may be a gap, but a warehouse. Most likely, the substances could be simply looted. Only now the commission demanded that the breach be repaired and guards deployed. Most likely, during welding, the spark hit the explosives that were stored in the warehouse, and it set fire to the unfortunate cargo.

They say that pyrotechnics were kept in the warehouse along with saltpeter. Local residents also believe more in the version of negligence. They argue that the country has poor safety practices, and the city's electrical system leaves much to be desired.

Who should be responsible for this? The opposition, led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the Progressive Socialist and Right Christian parties, say the current government is to blame. And the Christian Free Patriotic Front and the Shiite movement blame the "supporters", the same Saad Hariri, who for many years ignored the problem of storage of substances.

Related: Explosion in Beirut: Number of injured reached 6,000

The Prime Minister said from the first minutes that he would announce within 24 hours who owned hangar No. 12. But more than three days of complete silence had already passed.

“This means that the warehouse is under the influence of powerful people. Since the prime minister does not call names, he is afraid of them. One of two things: either these people are connected with Iran or with Russia. If it were Israel or America, what happened would be immediately attributed to them. France, on the other hand, is the first country to offer assistance, and now it is biding its time,"Mohammad Farajallah, editor-in-chief of the portal Ukraine in Arabic, shares his opinion.

But this is just a guess. It remains to await the results of the investigation, within the framework of which 16 employees of the port are being interrogated. Both the domestic and foreign policy of the country will depend on it.

The consequences for Ukraine

If we assess the effect of what is happening for our country, then, of course, the main consequences are for the Ukrainian citizens who live in Lebanon.

Three dozen Ukrainians have already applied to the embassy of our country for a small amount of financial support due to damage to their homes. It is still difficult to count on money from Lebanon itself - the country is already in an economic crisis. The authorities are limited only by plans to temporarily eliminate taxes on aluminum so that people can replace their windows. In the meantime, according to the Ukrainians, the Slavs help each other.

Of the less obvious consequences are coronavirus. Everyone seems to have forgotten about Covid-19 in total panic. In the medium term, Ukrainians may face low availability of medicine. There are few cases of coronavirus in the region, but the destruction of hospitals is jeopardizing the ability to cope with the alleged outbreak.

The explosion will have some impact on the economy of our country. Ukraine is one of the largest wheat suppliers for Lebanon. Of course, there are also much larger markets to which we are tied: the same European, Russian (even during a war), Turkish. After the explosion, logistics will change, and we may lose a certain share of exports. We will either have to look for alternative supply routes or new markets. Other competing countries of the Port of Beirut may want to take over these routes.

There is also a political aspect. Ukraine's relations with Lebanon itself are well developed, but it will never be superfluous to strengthen them. Zelensky has already reacted to the situation: Ukraine has promised to send aid to Lebanon. However, so far without specifics. Like, we will help as much as we can.

Iliya Kusa, an expert at the Institute for the Future, believes that a moral and reputation race is coming, in which we should take part. Many countries will want to help Lebanon, as the Eastern Mediterranean is a potentially important region. The most obvious aid is humanitarian, as there is a deplorable situation with medicine in Lebanon. Maybe outside players will have a hand in compensating the victims for the apartments. Also, at the time of the explosion, there was a lot of flour in the port, and without a helping hand from its neighbors, Lebanon may find itself without bread in a week.

“Turkey hurried ahead and sent 400 tons of wheat to Beirut, a rescue team, medicines, food and an emergency medical team to help in hospitals. Similar maneuvers are being observed from Iran, France, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and even Syria. It is quite obvious that after the explosion in the region a race for humanitarian superiority began, "the expert writes on the social network.

We don't see a speck in our own eye. Beirut lessons

Experts believe that our country is highly likely to experience something similar. Considering the systematic nature of our management and the qualifications of the rulers, only large open spaces save us from a similar scale of disasters.

Beirut is a very small city, only 19.8 km². This is two times less than the smallest regional center of Ukraine - Uzhgorod. There everything is at arm's length. But the size of Balakliya is already closer to Beirut, only 35 km².

Those who followed the epic of the explosions in Ukrainian warehouses must have experienced deja vu. In 2017, 5 houses were completely destroyed, more than 250 were damaged. Almost the entire population of Balakliya was evacuated. Fortunately, no one died, and 3,000 families were eventually paid compensation. The city was restored for about half a year, but the quality of the work is poor.

Then, in 2018, the already collected ammunition was detonated. At the end of last year, there were explosions again: during demining, two sappers were killed and several military personnel were injured. Even now in Balakleia people continue to live like on a powder keg. Demining is still going on, and when it is over, it is impossible to foresee, because the sappers work in very difficult conditions. It is not excluded that even after clearing the territory will be used again as warehouses.

Of course, the explosions in Ukraine were much weaker than those in Lebanon. In Beirut, a capacity of 400-500 kilotons is recorded. You can compare this strength with 2-3 Hiroshima. Although this will not be entirely correct, because an atomic explosion has completely different damaging factors. But it is not the power that matters, but the precedents themselves. Can we say with confidence that our country has drawn conclusions after what happened?

Learning from your mistakes is good, but learning from others is even better. The State Emergency Service and the Department of Economic Protection, which is part of the SBU, must check whether the standards for the storage of explosives are met. At the time of this writing, Zelensky has already given the appropriate order.

But the problem is not only in warehouses. Ukraine risks becoming a landfill for storing hazardous substances. Nuclear waste is still stored in Russia, but soon the contract ends, and they will need another storage facility. In addition, none of our landfills meet environmental standards. There is no sorting, so toxic products of the chemical and oil refining industries end up in landfills. They are a source of landfill gas that causes fires and explosions.

There are also initiatives on the import of foreign pesticides into the customs territory of Ukraine and their storage and transportation within 2 years after the completion of the registration period. Will fire safety rules be followed during these two years? The question is rhetorical.

It is not surprising that in the context of security, the European Union looks at us with great apprehension. It is possible that a few months later, commissions will be sent to the country to monitor technologically hazardous activities and everything related to critical infrastructure. Europe does not need a second Beirut nearby.

Related: International donors collect $ 298 mlin on humanitarian aid for Lebanon

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