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COMMENTARY: The Beirut blast was a rare event in terms of its brute force and power

Beirut explosion: Mother plays “Auld Lang Syne” on piano surrounded by wreckage
Beirut resident Hoda Melki captured a touching video of her mother playing 'Auld Lang Syne' on a piano amongst the debris of her damaged apartment on Wednesday, one day after a massive blast tore through the Lebanese capital.

Few alive today have experienced anything like the 2,750-ton ammonium nitrate blast that created a shockwave that ripped through the port of Beirut and much of the city centre on Tuesday, killing more than a hundred people, injuring thousands and leaving more than 300,000 homeless.

Unless there is still someone alive from the Halifax Explosion in 1917 — which killed more than 2,000 people and is still the largest accidental explosion ever — the only others who have witnessed something like the Beirut blast are the last survivors of the nuclear bombs that exploded several hundred metres above Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

READ MORE: Beirut explosion — More than 100 killed, thousands injured in blast in Lebanon’s capital

Cellphone videos of Tuesday’s explosion and the ominous mushroom cloud that almost instantly appeared over the eastern Mediterranean can only convey a fraction of the violence of that terrible moment. It would be difficult for anyone who was not in Beirut to imagine the scale of the blast or the shockwave that followed it, nor to comprehend the emotional aftershocks that are still convulsing a city that was called the Paris of the Middle East before sectarian violence tore it apart between 1975 and 1990.

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I have come to know and love Beirut, its frantic pace of life and its exuberant people over the years, though every time I ended up going there, I had been sent on urgent business to report on one horror or another.

Sometimes it was a political assassination. At other times it was in response to a bloody act of extreme terrorism, or to witness Israeli airstrikes on Shia areas of south Beirut that usually followed a blitz of Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel.

The last few occasions I was in the city, I tried to explain the shattered lives of streams of dazed refugees escaping the war raging two mountain ranges away in Syria.

Search for survivors continues after Beirut blast
Search for survivors continues after Beirut blast

Beirutis are resilient people because they have had to be. But the anguish and sorrow that has once again rent their lives is grotesquely unfair.

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The long-suffering citizens of Beirut live in a lovely city set against a stunning mountain backdrop, and featuring the heavily used beachfront Corniche promenade, vibrant Sunni, Shia, Druze and Maronite and other Christian neighbourhoods, saucy nightlife, marvellous falafel and shawarma stands and sweets shops, outstanding French bakeries and tony restaurants. Beirutis deserved much better from their government than a freighter full of explosives docked on the harbourfront.

READ MORE: Beirut explosion investigation sparks anger, calls for change

The Canadian troops who served outside the wire in Kandahar know more than they would wish to know about ammonium nitrate and its lethal consequences. It was by far the leading killer of Canadians there.

The worst bomb damage I saw in Afghanistan was caused by an improvised explosive device packed with ammonium nitrate that combat engineers later told me weighed about one ton. That much of the highly combustible chemical was enough to flip a 35-ton armoured personnel carrier 30 metres in the air, instantly killing the five Canadians inside and leaving a crater about 40 metres across and 25 metres deep.

If you were able to multiply that powerful IED blast on a dirt road south of Kandahar City by nearly 3,000 times, you might get a sense of the force of the blast that ripped Beirut apart and was heard 240 kilometres away in Cyprus.

The concussive effects of the Beirut blast were extraordinary, too. The shockwave knocked out windows, twisted sheets of metal and shook the foundations of big buildings many kilometres away.

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Beirut explosion: Bride’s photoshoot interrupted by massive blast
Beirut explosion: Bride’s photoshoot interrupted by massive blast

My personal experiences of bombings are hardly comparable to those of Beirutis, but I have experienced the extraordinary power of blast shockwaves in Chechnya and Kandahar.

The first time an invisible force suddenly threw me to the ground was in Grozny after a Russian artillery shell slammed into a building about 500 metres away. The same thing happened again in Kandahar when a Chinese-made rocket exploded about 100 metres away as I walked near Canada’s Task Force Afghanistan headquarters. Even though it only had a relatively small warhead, the shock from it sent me sprawling.

Israel is usually accused — often falsely — whenever a big explosion occurs anywhere in the Middle East. From the first moment on Tuesday, Beirutis understood that this was not the work of Israel and that there was no point even trying to claim it was. Like so many of Lebanon’s problems, this one was entirely homegrown and another deadly consequence of decades of misrule that have crippled the once vibrant Lebanese economy and the political process.

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The provenance of such a staggering quantity of ammonium nitrate is murky and suspicious. The Rhosus, a freighter owned by a Russian based in Cyprus, flying the Moldovan flag and with an unpaid Ukrainian crew, was shipping the load of volatile chemicals from the Georgian Black Sea town of Batumi to Mozambique when it got sidetracked and mysteriously ended up marooned in Beirut nearly seven years ago.

READ MORE: What we know — and don’t know — about the Beirut explosion

The first and last question that Beirutis will be asking is how the Lebanese government and its port and customs authorities allowed such a staggering quantity of ammonium nitrate to be left for years in an open area that was surrounded by a horseshoe of densely populated high-rises and business offices.

The government is promising a thorough investigation and the most severe penalties for the guilty. However, while it has a much different feel than other cities in the region, Beirut is still part of the Middle East. People have low expectations of their leaders. Fingerpointing is commonplace. Culprits are seldom found.

There will likely never be a reckoning for those in power responsible for the heinous calamity that seized Beirut and transfixed the world on Aug. 4 or for Lebanon’s latest economic collapse.

Heroic Beirutis will just piece their lives together again and keep going.

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Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas.