With salty water rushing into his nose and mouth and by sheer survival instinct, Ghazi Kadour, 12, stroked his arms and legs with difficulty to stay above the water surface after the migrant boat he was on with his mother and two younger brothers capsized off Tripoli’s coast in Lebanon. The family was venturing out on a lethal sea crossing last month to Europe, fleeing the country’s miserable living conditions and grueling economic crisis.
He recalls fainting a couple of times before a random stranger grabbed his arm and helped him mount a wooden plank which they rowed toward the navy army’s vessel as he yelled for his brothers. His mother and his four-year-old brother, Ameer, did not make it.
“I can’t sleep; my little brother is still underwater, and we buried our mom after she drowned,” Ghazi said, sitting next to his nine-year-old brother Hammoudi with his eyelids loose and lip corners pulled down. The mother’s body, Khadeeja al-Nemr, was found one day after the boat plunged deep into the Mediterranean Sea. Before rescue teams pulled her out, a video circulated on social media showing her face down, floating on the water’s surface.
Upon watching the video, her husband, who prefers to stay anonymous as a soldier, recognized his wife from the white tennis shoes he had bought her days before she and the kids set sail on the deadly journey.
The recent shipwreck marks the latest tragedy in the series of unfortunate events Lebanon has been reeling from since the onset of its economic and financial tailspins in 2019. Due to the country’s currency depreciation, two-thirds of the population, groups at the highest and lowest ends of the educational ladder, are now living in poverty, with Tripoli classified as the country’s most impoverished city.
The last moments
The overloaded boat set sail for Italy’s coast from the Al-Qalamoun region of Tripoli. A collision with the armed forces’ cutter damaged the boat, tragically claiming the lives of would-be asylum seekers, and stole their dream of turning over a new leaf in Europe. Of the 84 Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian passengers on board, around 45 people were rescued. Six perished, including a 40-year-old baby, and over 30 individuals, primarily women and children, remain unaccounted for.
“I wanted to leave Lebanon with my family to escape the humiliation we live in,” Ghazi said. “My dad’s salary is no longer enough.”
The Kadour family was sitting inside the cabin, as most women and children were, before the boat filled with water and sank. The father was not on board with them as he stayed behind in Lebanon to sell their house and sort out some logistics before making the same journey later.
He thought the boat had crossed regional waters when he lost contact with his wife. He did not believe that things went wrong until he received a call from a relative who revealed the breaking news about a shipwreck in Tripoli’s waters.
Zulfiqar Mneimneh was having a morbid last video call with his 21-year-old nephew, Hashem Betlashi, who told him that the armed forces rammed into them. It was the last thing he heard from his nephew.
Betlashi was on board the migrant vessel with his newlywed sister and her husband, who survived the shipwreck. Betlashi did not. His mother’s only son, he held a degree in Graphic Design but could not find a job nor had any hopes for a decent future in Lebanon.
“They were escaping hunger, humiliation, and deprivation,” Mneimneh said, paralyzed by grief, swallowing his words with a pause. That’s why we put our kids on death boats; we want them to live in dignity.”
Lebanon’s stream of migration
There have been no official updates on the search efforts from the army or the government that entrusted the military with probing the incident.
Refuting the survivors’ accusations that the military intentionally caused the boat to sink, the commander of the naval forces, Colonel Haitham Dannawi, cleared the armed forces from these allegations.
Mneimneh does not count on the Lebanese government to find the sunken boat or the bodies lost at sea nor conduct a transparent investigation to uncover the truth behind what caused the shipwreck.
“All my nephew wanted was a decent life abroad, but he lost his life instead,” Mneimneh said.
The incident is part of the ongoing stream of migrant boats that Lebanon has witnessed over the last two years. At least 38 boats with over 1,500 passengers attempted to risk the perilous journey in unseaworthy boats in 2020, hoping to win asylum and find better opportunities in Cyprus and other parts of Europe. However, over 75 per cent of these boats were thwarted or returned, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
This year, UNHCR has also reported on three migrant boats carrying a total of 64 passengers, besides the tragic incident on April 23.
Six days after the shipwreck, a migrant boat carrying 85 passengers and another carrying 23 Syrian passengers were intercepted off Tripoli’s coast by a patrol from the Lebanese Intelligence Directorate. According to the Internal Security Forces, the security sea guards arrested seven smugglers who charged passengers thousands of dollars.
Mneimneh was contemplating making the sea journey himself, but his wife was panic-stricken about the thought of drowning. “If my wife weren’t scared, I would’ve joined my nephew and niece because the yacht was sturdy and well-equipped.”
He had endeavored to relocate to Europe last year, where he traveled to Serbia on a tourist visa and smuggled into Germany through Hungary and then Austria. His wife and four children could not bear his absence, so he decided to return to Lebanon.
Bare’a Safa was cradling her friend’s 40-day-old baby when the army’s vessel started circling their boat, creating towering waves that flooded the boat, and drowning the infant. The migration attempt cost Safa, who was traveling with her four children, the lives of her two daughters, 31-year-old Salam and 27-year-old Rania.
“It’s known why we were fleeing – because of the terrible living conditions we are experiencing,” Safa said, her body covered in bruises and wave-related injuries.
The mother makes around one million Lebanese pounds a month, less than $40 at the black market exchange rate, but her rent and electric bill alone cost over two million. “I have been borrowing money from family members to keep things running in the house.”
Safa’s son, Shadi al-Jundi, decided to join his family only 10 minutes before the boat set sail. He wasn’t convinced it would be safe until his uncle in Italy, where the boat was headed, talked him into it.
“I was scared when the boat left the coast,” said al-Jundi, whose forehead bears scratches from the cabin glass he broke to escape the sinking boat. “I was on the phone with a friend telling him I’m scared we won’t make it to land.”
For days after the shipwreck, Ghazi and Hammoudi Kadour have been receiving help from a therapist to process the loss of their mother and little brother. Their father still plans on leaving the country with his two boys, one way or another.
Although her daughters remain lost at sea, Safa would also venture out on a boat crossing again. But her son, distraught over losing his sisters, does not dare to take a similar risk. The traumatized man, who has been working as a skipper for years, wonders how he will ever be able to set foot on a boat again.
In Tripoli, bereaved families have started printing eulogy papers, a widespread tradition in the Arab region where family information about the deceased is printed out and distributed. Across mosques in the city, absentee funeral prayers, known as Salat al-Gha’ib, an Islamic prayer performed upon dead Muslims whose bodies are lost, were called for by Lebanon’s Sunni authority on the morning of Eid al-Fitr on Monday.
“We can no longer live in this country; it has become uninhabitable,” Mneimneh said. “Who wants to go on a boat and die? Do you think we enjoyed it? The circumstances made us take this step.”