'A lovely little trip': Economic desperation drives Lebanon residents to tragedy at sea

The death of more than 100 people heading to Italy by sea has not deterred Lebanon's increasingly desperate population

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In late September, Wissam Tallawi passed his wife and four children their life jackets, placed his faith in God and stepped into a rickety boat.

“Kasdoura,” the smuggler had assured him, using the Levantine slang for "a lovely little trip". Convinced, Wissam had signed over the deed to their home in exchange for his and his family’s passage.

By the time a fisherman near the Syrian coastal city of Tartus saw him floating semi-conscious and fished him from the water, Wissam Tallawi was alone.

He had drifted for hours with two of his children. As the blackness of the sea threatened to separate them, he had buckled his oldest son Ammar’s life jacket to his.

May, his nine-year-old daughter, clung to him as he drifted in and out of consciousness.

As the hours passed, Wissam watched Ammar’s lips slowly turn blue, his eyes go blank.

He unhooked his son’s life preserver from his, watched Ammar drift away, then lost consciousness. When he woke up again, May had also disappeared.

Wissam was the only surviving member of his family.

Days later, Syrian state news would report that search parties had recovered the bodies of more than 100 of his fellow passengers.

‘We’ll throw your children into the sea’

Four hours into the perilous journey, the boat — crammed with an estimated 150 Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian passengers hoping to reach Italy — ran out of diesel.

With the engine stalled, immense waves slapped against the hull. Water flooded in. The vessel careened dangerously from side to side, littering passengers into the sea. Then it overturned.

Most of the passengers had declined to board the boat when they saw the disproportionate number of people it was meant to host.

Even the designated captain, Ossama Hassan — a broker who had recruited clients for the smugglers in exchange for his family’s passage — refused to steer the vessel.

The smugglers cocked their guns.

“You’ll get on this boat or we’ll throw your children into the sea,” Wissam recalled their leader telling the captain.

They had no choice but to embark.

Sea migration on the rise

The capsizing of the boat in mid-September was the biggest migrant tragedy in Lebanon’s recent history, resulting in more than 100 casualties.

Attempts to migrate by sea are rising. Three years ago Lebanon’s economy collapsed — and with it, basic goods and services — slowly driving its population to desperation.

The number of people who have departed or attempted the deadly Mediterranean crossing has more than doubled since last year, according to the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency.

About 4,061 people have tried to or succeeded in migrating by sea this year, although the real number is probably much higher.

In previous years, migrant "death boats" out of Lebanon were mostly taken by Syrians and Palestinians desperate to break away from the limitations of a country barely able to support itself, let alone the weight of its significant refugee population.

But since 2019, Lebanese nationals who, like Wissam, are from some of the country’s most impoverished areas, have increasingly tried the dangerous trip to Europe.

Families wrenched apart by the waves

The boat stuffed with wary migrants departed on Wednesday morning shortly after dawn. By Thursday afternoon bodies had begun floating onto the shores of the small Syrian island of Arwad, near Tartus.

Days later, the number of bodies recovered would rise to at least 104.

Ibrahim Mansour had been swimming for 36 hours before he was saved by a Russian rescue party.

The Palestinian, 29, had reached out to Ossama when he learnt the seaman was acting as a simsar, or broker, for those seeking to escape Lebanon by sea.

Certain there was no future for him in Lebanon’s Nahr El Bared refugee camp, Ibrahim said he borrowed about $7,000 from relatives to pay the fare.

The smugglers had promised them a two-storey yacht, he told The National.

He scoffed at the memory. “They said it was fully equipped. That a mechanic would be travelling with us, that everything was taken care of."

The reluctant captain, Ossama, drove the vessel slowly from inside a makeshift cabin that was newly built to accommodate him, the navigation gear, the women and elderly, and about 24 children.

Ossama told passengers he would turn the boat around as soon as the smugglers were out of sight, Ibrahim recalled.

But the armed gang boarded two smaller boats and escorted the migrant vessel until it was out of Lebanese waters, then abandoned them.

The tide was strong, the wind unfavourable.

“That boat wanted to flip from the moment we left,” Ibrahim said, recalling waves at least six metres high.

When the boat eventually capsized, he clambered on top of the vessel with some other survivors. Within moments, he said, the vast majority of the boat’s occupants who had been thrown into the sea — mostly women and children — were dead.

Meanwhile, Wissam and his wife were in the sea, clinging to the side of the boat with two of their four children, Maya and Mahmoud. They had lost May and Ammar in the chaos.

“Go find them,” his wife screamed.

Wissam said he collected Ammar and May and returned; by then, his wife and the rest of his family had vanished.

The first and last survivors

Those on top of the overturned boat could see the vague outline of a coast in the distance. After hours of floating, Ibrahim and six other passengers made the decision to jump and swim for it.

They supported each other for hours, calling to each other whenever one would fall behind.

For a while Wissam, with Ammar and May in tow, was in Ibrahim’s line of sight. Whenever the tide would separate May from her unconscious father she would call out weakly. Ibrahim would return her to Wissam.

The arrival of night separated the swimmers from each other. Ibrahim was lost in the vast expanse of sea. When it rained, he floated on his back and opened his mouth to let the drops fall in.

By the time the sun came up on Thursday, the briny sea water had rendered Ibrahim nearly blind. He swam against the scorching sun.

The first survivor to be rescued was Wissam, who by then was alone.

The Russian search party found Ibrahim hours later, on Thursday evening. Of an estimated 150 people, he was the 20th and final survivor.

Out of 34 women, only one made it out of the sea alive. None of the children survived.

Escaping the 'forgotten north'

The north of Lebanon, from Tripoli to Akkar, is colloquially referred to as "the forgotten north", an allusion to the decades of economic neglect and isolation the region has suffered.

The collapse of the nation’s economy has made an already acute economic disparity all too evident, especially in "Lebanon’s second capital" of Tripoli, home to some of the country’s richest politicians and its most impoverished slums.

Since 2019, the economic crisis, which the World Bank has determined is among the worst in modern history, has exacerbated the already dire living situation of those in the north, driving a weary population to desperation.

For a three-month stretch, the state water supply was cut off in Wissam’s destitute Bab Al Tabbaneh neighbourhood of Tripoli, he told The National. It was not an abnormal occurrence.

The crisis has left the state’s ability to provide electricity — and in some areas, water — nearly obsolete.

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A policeman checks voters lists during parliamentary elections in Tripoli, Lebanon Saturday, May 14, 2022.  (AP Photo / Bilal Hussein)

To help, May would volunteer to lug large containers of water to the house from a nearby shop.

Wissam, who worked as a janitor for the past five years, said the guilt he felt at not being able to provide for his family overwhelmed him.

“Why should she have to carry them?” he asked. “Why should she be deprived of electricity and water?”

Wissam’s family struggled to make ends meet. Most of his salary, the equivalent of $100, would go towards paying the generator bill. With state electricity almost non-existent, Lebanon’s population relies on expensive private generators for power.

The local currency, in which most salaries are paid, has plummeted in value by more than 95 per cent. Salaries have not kept pace with inflation, and one third of the country’s workforce is unemployed.

Any thoughts of the future remain out of reach as most Lebanese struggle to meet their day-to-day needs.

With a bereft look, Wissam told The National the answer to a question many have asked since the tragic boat trip: Why did he take his family with him?

“It was for them. I wanted them to have an education. To walk safely down the street.”

‘From hell to a better place’: smugglers exploit economic desperation

Lebanon’s politicians have done little to bring the country out of its financial meltdown.

The International Monetary Fund stands ready to provide assistance but its help is conditional on the ratification of reforms that, over the course of three years, politicians have failed to pass.

The crisis is widely blamed on ineptitude and corruption within the nation’s ruling class.

“People want to escape from hell to a better place,” said member of Parliament Ashraf Rifi, who represents the north.

The Internal Security Forces stops about 10 per cent of illegal sea migrations organised by smugglers, says Mr Rifi, a former general director of the ISF.

“We can treat it from a security angle but the real treatment should be to address the causes of migration. Security means nothing if there's no treatment of the underlying causes.”

It is accepted by residents of Tripoli and nearby Minnieh-Dannieh, a town known as a centre for migrant smuggling, that Lebanese authorities — driven by economic need, with wages as low as $50 a month — are routinely paid by smugglers to look the other way.

“I paid people off, I secured the route, and now you have to go,” Ibrahim recalls the smuggler saying shortly before his group was made to embark the boat.

Repeating risk

The sprawling and reconstructed Nahr El Bared refugee camp is marginally better off than other Palestinian camps in Lebanon, most of which have been reduced to overcrowded slums over the decades.

But it is still a refugee camp, Ibrahim maintains, and he is still a Palestinian in Lebanon.

“I was dreaming of finding work,” he said of his ambition to claim asylum in Europe.

He lies in bed in his family’s Nahr El Bared home where he says he spends his time trying to forget about his disastrous migration attempt.

He was released from his job making sweets at a prominent Tripolitan dessert cafe when the Covid-19 pandemic closed restaurants down, and has struggled to maintain a job since.

Palestinians in Lebanon, who for 73 years have lived in the country since their forced expulsion from their land during the creation of Israel, are barred by the state from working in more than 20 professions.

I get the chance to get on one of those boats … I’ll take it
Ibrahim's brother Alaa

Their access to work, education, social services and health care is severely hindered, and the economic crisis has exacerbated their already limited lives.

Ibrahim pointed to his brother: “He’s an out-of-work dentist. Palestinians are some of the most educated people but in Lebanon there isn’t a future for us.

He will not attempt sea migration again. With the near-death experience behind him, Ibrahim said he dreaded a future in the country he risked his life to escape.

“I used to have dreams and ambitions. Not any more. It was an illusion.”

Later, when Ibrahim was preoccupied with some family members, his brother Alaa approached The National.

“Listen. I didn’t want to say anything in front of Ibrahim because it would upset him. But if I get the chance to get on one of those boats … I’ll take it.”

A relative standing near by nodded in agreement. “Come back next year,” he said.

“If the weather is good you won’t find any of us.”

Updated: October 18, 2022, 2:57 PM