Abandoned Ship: How a Russian Grifter Ignited the Tragedy in Beirut

Rachel Slade on ammonium nitrate, mining in Mozambique, international shipping, and criminal negligence in Lebanon.

ON AUGUST 4, forgotten cargo pulled off a sunken ship blew up half of Beirut. Suddenly, everyone was talking chemicals, oxygen, and explosives. I hadn’t thought much about NH₄NO₃, aka ammonium nitrate, or AM, since a 2013 “fertilizer factory” explosion destroyed an entire Texas neighborhood and killed at least 15 people. But then I remembered when two white guys with a vague plan to destroy the federal government blew up an Oklahoma City building in 1995 with a truck full of what we quaintly called back then “fertilizer.” Maybe those halfwit Robespierres were inspired by the Texas City disaster, when a ship full of the stuff exploded in a port in 1947, igniting nearby vessels also carrying the stuff, killing upwards of 600 people. In short, this is dangerous stuff.

How did AM get to Beirut, and why did it sit in a port warehouse for an astounding seven years before leveling the city? The answer has everything to do with the shipping and mining morass I previously wrote about at PREVAIL.

Before we focus on Beirut, though, let’s take a quick trip down the eastern coast of Africa to Mozambique, where that AM was allegedly heading, because the African backstory reveals how tightly we’re all yoked together in this tragedy.

Just to get our geographical bearings, Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony on the east coast of Africa, nestled between Tanzania and South Africa, across the Indian Ocean from Madagascar. For more than 500 years, the area served as a major African slave-trade hub, first regionally, then expanded to Asia and the Middle East by Arab merchants. When the Portuguese took over Mozambique in the 16th century, they spent a few hundred years muscling in on the slave trade, evicting Arabs, and digging for gold. By the early 20th century, shrinking Portugal divested, turning over control of Mozambique to its own state-supported, free-market capitalists. Three large private companies were allowed to “govern” the African country in exchange for whatever resources they could exploit.

A decade-long revolution led to Mozambique’s official independence in 1975, perfectly timed for the country to become yet another Cold War proxy. Mozambique officially went the Marxist route; capitalists based in the US, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and South Africa propped up a rebel army; bloody civil war ensued for two decades, leaving Mozambique one of the poorest and most undeveloped countries in the world. 

Although it was in bad shape, or maybe because it was in bad shape, by the 21st century, the country headlined bargain hunters’ lists of countries to exploit. Mozambique was a relatively unexplored pile of dirt with a long coastline, home to some 25 million men, women, and children desperate enough to mine the place to oblivion without asking for much in return.

A white paper produced by global accounting firm KPMG in 2013—the same year the Beirut-leveling AM was loaded onto a ship in Georgia—reported that “Mozambique is set to benefit from large coal demand from China and India and could well become one of the 10 largest coal exporters globally by 2017.” The only thing holding it back: lack of proper infrastructure.

The Chinese rushed in to help. In 2018, China was Mozambique’s “largest bilateral creditor at $2.2 billion,” according to MacroPolo, a University of Chicago think tank dedicated to “decoding China’s economic arrival.” Another major player also came on the scene around 2013: the Brazil-based multinational mining and shipping company, Vale. 

In 2012—one year before the AM was loaded on the ship in Georgia—Vale “won” the notorious Public Eye Award, given annually to a corporation whose “business activities have been characterized by human rights violations, environmental destruction, immoral tax practices or corruption.” (Vale had some stiff competition. Glencore won this dubious distinction in 2008.) As of 2018, Vale was the largest company in Mozambique and coal was the country’s largest export. (Warning: Any readers who share my obsession with mining should not spend a single moment mulling over Trump’s cozy relationship with Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro.)

Almost certainly, the AM warehoused in Lebanon was going to be used for blasting apart Mozambique to get at that coal. The buyer might even have been Vale.

So why didn’t the AM get where it was going?

Blame everything on the anarchic world of international shipping.

Unlike every other industry on Earth, shipping is truly global—meaning it’s inherently complex and difficult to regulate. Blue water shipping is nominally regulated by a division of the UN called the International Maritime Organization, or IMO. All kinds of thoughtful laws emerge from the IMO during its annual conferences; through these laws, participating nations have set emissions, labor, equipment, and safety standards for the global shipping industry. 

Individual countries can take or leave those laws. Even the US, a major IMO member, refuses to adopt some environmental standards set by this UN body.

The IMO is a lovely idea. But in practice, it’s only as strong as the entities that enforce it. And on the high seas, that’s kind of a tricky thing. Each country’s coast guard will go after ships once they’re in local waters, but it’s impossible to effectively police the oceans. Some nations have supported UN efforts to curb piracy off the coast of Somalia, for example, because pirates cut into profits, but generally speaking, the ocean is a lawless place.

Everyone in the industry knows this. The simple solution is to keep your papers in order even as you’re dumping all kinds of crap into the ocean when no one’s looking. Vessels are abandoned on the high seas—with their crews aboard—with alarming frequency when owners get bored of paying their employees, coast guard fines, and vessel maintenance costs. When the South Korean shipping giant Hanjin went bankrupt in 2016, it stranded many of its ships, forcing the mariners aboard to wander the oceans for months, shunned by the world’s ports. Completely abandoned ships, called ghost ships, can drift for months or years until they crash up on a coast, dumping all their toxic goo as their rotted hulls are ripped apart by the surf. In July headlines, inspectors determined that an abandoned tanker with one million gallons of oil, which has been moored off the Yemeni coast for five years, would likely explode or sink very soon. I wish I could say this was a rare occurrence.

Human rights abuses plague the industry. People from developing countries, especially the Philippines and India, compete for low-paying, months-long, super risky maritime jobs, keeping labor prices rock-bottom. Only the most desperate seamen are willing to crew certain ships. Once a decrepit vessel sails into international waters out of sight of land, the mariners aboard are at the mercy of a faceless company with an often nameless owner, and an onboard leadership that may or may not be competent or compassionate. Working conditions can be brutal, assigned tasks can be risky, abuse of power can run rampant. Oh, and sometimes, there’s no food.

The worst elements of this industry were at play in the story of the M/V Rhosus, the ship that delivered the ammonium nitrate to Beirut. An undisclosed buyer paid the “rough and tumble” Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin one million dollars to ship 2,750 tons of AM from Georgia to Mozambique. It’s unclear whether Grechushkin had any prior shipping experience, but clearly, that didn’t stop him. 

All you need to become a shipper is, well, a ship.

To carry out his end of the bargain, Grechushkin apparently used some of his windfall to purchase the Rhosus, a 27-year-old cargo ship, from a Cyprus-based company. He employed a fellow Russian, Boris Prokoshev, to helm the ship. The AM was manufactured in Rustavi, Georgia, by Rustavi Azot, a large chemical manufacturer, and loaded onto the Rhosus, which then sailed then across the Black Sea, stopping in Istanbul, Turkey; Piraeus, Greece; and finally, Beirut. 

Prokoshev spoke to Siberia Realities on August 5 about the horrors he experienced working for Grechushkin on that run. Shippers prey on the glut of men looking for work, and Grechushkin was no exception. Prokoshev agreed to be master of the Rhosus, an aging ship he’d helmed before, even though it was loaded with dangerous cargo. “The steamer, of course, is not very comfortable, the conditions are difficult, but where can I go?” Prokoshev said. “I needed the work.”

Prokoshev saw the first red flag during the Istanbul layover. “I see the whole crew is changing for some reason. It struck me as suspicious.” Grechushkin quickly dismissed his captain’s concerns, but later, Prokoshev learned that the seamen had jumped ship because they hadn’t been paid for four months. (They ended up filing a suit with their labor union.)

The Rhosus then made a pit-stop in Piraeus, Greece, for refueling and provisioning. There, Prokoshev says, Grechushkin “himself came and returned almost [all the food] back to the suppliers. He did not pay. He said there was no money.” Instead, to generate cash, Grechushkin sent the ship to Beirut to take on more cargo.

Although the Rhosus was already loaded with tons of ammonium nitrate, Grechushkin contracted to carry heavy road equipment on her deck. While docked at the Beirut port, Prokoshev was alarmed to see a hatch cover sagging under the weight of the machinery. The captain knew that an overloaded ship is a deadly ship, so he pushed back against the vessel’s owner, risking his job to save his life. “But [Grechushkin] didn’t care!” Prokoshev says.

The ship wouldn’t be able to leave anyway, because Grechushkin hadn’t ponied up the port fee. While the Lebanese were holding the Rhosus at the dock, the fresh crew heard that the previous crew hadn’t been paid. They went on strike and eventually left the ship. According to additional reports, Lebanese inspectors also determined that the Rhosus was in serious disrepair. The Rhosus was doomed to stay put, tied to a Beirut dock. She would never sail again.

While the Lebanese government allowed most of the Rhosus’s crew to leave, the ship’s captain, chief engineer, third engineer, and boatswain were refused permission to disembark. The men had become pawns in a woefully low-stakes game. Grechushkin refused to pay for his skeleton crew’s food while the vessel sat in port. (They survived through the kindness of local workers.) He refused to pay the Beirut port fees. He refused to transfer the cargo. In a word, he’d abandoned the whole mess and absconded to Cyprus with something like $1 million in his pocket.

The Rhosus and her stockpile of ammonium nitrate were now Lebanon’s problem.

But Lebanon had enough problems of its own. Its government was barely functioning. 

Once part of the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon’s borders had been arbitrarily drawn by a League of Nations mandate following the First World War. The British got Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq. France got Syria and Lebanon. Randomness underpinned the so-called Pax Syriana plan, which was designed to ensure eternal European dominance in the region. Drawing up fake borders sowed instability. Just stoke the ethnic and religious animosities that had smoldered over 400 years of Ottoman Empire rule, then sit back and wait for the cries for help.

The plan worked like a charm. Over the past century, Christian, Muslim, and Druze sects have torn each other apart in civil war after civil war, fighting for religious and ethnic dominance. The founding of Israel in 1948 added kindling to the blaze. And in came the white saviors—the US, the UN, the IMF—again and again, to mediate an always imperfect peace. 

By 2013, after decades of civil strife and Syrian attacks, Lebanon’s government was a sloppy mess.

The four men trapped on Rhosus while she was anchored in Beirut eventually peddled the ship’s fuel to pay for a lawsuit against the Lebanese government. After eleven months, they were released from their floating prison. Once they were gone, Lebanese officials found themselves with a ship they didn’t want and a cargo they couldn’t figure out how to sell. The cargo’s original owner—the mysterious entity that had paid Grechushkin $1 million for the ammonium nitrate—never claimed it. Maybe the buyer was embarrassed that they’d been duped. Another shady deal gone bad in a murky world of shady deals. This shit happens all the time in shipping, you know? Gamble on a Russian, pay in cash, and sometimes you get screwskied.

The Lebanese warehoused the AM and left the Rhosus rotting in the port. Prokoshev theorizes that the Lebanese didn’t sell their bounty because the officials there were so corrupt and incompetent that they couldn’t agree on how to divvy up the profits. Given that Lebanon’s government is paralyzed by graft, he’s probably right. Several port officials warned higher-ups—including the Prime Minister—about the danger of leaving the AM there, according to a Reuters report, but they were roundly ignored.

The Rhosus, meanwhile, rotted at the Beirut dock until someone cut her loose. She drifted north of the port and finally sank parallel to the breakwater opposite the explosion site. It’s still there. The New York Times analyzed satellite photos and precisely located the hull. That no one bothered to move the rotting hunk in all that time is astounding to me. A sunken ship is a major environmental and marine traffic hazard.

That fact, perhaps even more than the warehoused AM, speaks volumes about the state of Lebanon. Beirut’s port is Lebanon’s lifeline. We now know that 80 percent of the nation’s grain was stored at the port. At the very least, you’d expect a country so dependent on imports to keep its shipping lanes dredged and cleared.

When the exploding AM sent a tremendous shockwave through the city, the world learned what any ship’s captain pulling into port could have told you: Lebanon is broken. The fault lines created by western powers a century ago have only deepened. 

On Sunday, as if following the Pax Syriana script, French president Emmanuel Macron urged world leaders to rush to Beirut’s aid and “work together to ensure that neither violence nor chaos prevails.” On Monday, when Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced that the entire government would resign, Lebanon’s inability to rule itself seemed all but confirmed.

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Rachel Slade (@RachelSlade1) is a Boston-based freelance journalist and the Mountbatten Award-winning author of Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megasorm, and the Sinking of El Faro, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.


Photo credit: A neglected container from the now-defunct Hanjin shipping company rots in the weeds somewhere in upstate New York. Photo by Greg Olear.