09/28/2022, 12.38
LEBANON - SYRIA
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Beirut: anger and grief at the worst sea tragedy in eastern Mediterranean

by Fady Noun

At least 100 victims, including 10 children, have been confirmed in the shipwreck of the 'coffin ship' loaded with migrants on 23 September. Volunteer teams are still searching for the missing. There were about 150 people on board, only 20 survivors. The desperate stories of those who managed to save themselves. 

Beirut (AsiaNews) - The emotion aroused in Lebanese public opinion by the recent shipwreck of a boat full of migrants that left Lebanon has still not abated days later and is a source of both anger and pain. According to the official Syrian news agency Sana, which cites hospital sources, a new body was recovered the day before yesterday off the Syrian city of Tartus, where the drama occurred, bringing the total number of bodies found following the sinking to 100. The Syrian navy mounted a massive rescue operation in search of further survivors and the bodies of the victims, who were then transported to the Bassel hospital in the coastal town, to be identified and repatriated.

The death toll of this shipwreck is the deadliest in the eastern Mediterranean, with only 20 survivors so far rescued and recovered, compared to at least 150 passengers. The people on board the ship that set sail from the city of Tripoli (northern Lebanon) were overwhelmingly Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians. According to Unicef's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. Adèle Khodr, the victims of the sinking included 10 children. 

On the so-called 'coffin ship', as it was nicknamed in the Land of the Cedars, there were also about 15 Lebanese. Among those who escaped the tragedy was Wissam al-Tallawi, a family man who lived in Tripoli and was originally from Akkar. The bodies of his two daughters, aged five and nine, were repatriated to Lebanon. Tallawi's wife and two other sons are still missing. 

Among the survivors is a taxi driver from Bab el-Raml, one of Tripoli's poorest neighbourhoods. When Moustafa Misto, that is his name, decided to try the adventure with his family, he dreamed of nothing but one thing: to live a dignified life. He died at sea with his three children, only his wife managed to survive yet another tragedy. Moustafa paid the smugglers almost five thousand euros per adult and half the price for his children. To do this, he had sold his car and borrowed money from his brothers. His mother had even sold some jewellery in order to help him.

Zein El-Dine Hamad, a young groom and his pregnant wife were only saved by the passage of a Russian navy patrol boat. At the moment of the shipwreck, the man had the reflex to throw himself into the water with the woman, before the boat capsized. His wife lost the baby she was carrying after drifting more than 12 hours at sea, clinging to a piece of the wreckage of the boat.

"The most difficult moment," the man told Al-Jadid television, "was when my wife started to become delirious and ask me to buy her a fizzy drink." He added, his voice broken with emotion, that many of those who escaped the sinking tried to save themselves by clinging to the ship's debris, only to let go and drown. All the passengers who found themselves underneath the vessel at the moment it capsized later drowned.

According to several witnesses, the passengers allegedly begged the ship's pilot to turn back when the engine broke down and the vessel began to be rocked by the large waves hitting the hull. However, the smugglers recovered a spare engine and brought it on board. The pilot allegedly even received death threats if he changed course.

The owner of the boat, Bilal Nadim, was detained for questioning. According to an army note released today, the man confessed his involvement in the affair and confirmed that he was the head of a network of migrant smugglers from the north Lebanese coast. It seems that he played a role not only in organising illegal crossings, but also in the drug trade, exploiting the passage through the northern coast of Lebanon, which is cheaper and more complicated than the Turkish route. In this regard, journalist Jana el-Douhaybi, quoted by the French-speaking daily L'Orient-Le Jour, speaks of 'organised crime' that benefits from the complicity of local law enforcement agencies. This would also explain why arrested smugglers are all too often released after only a few days.

The Lebanese NGO Legal Agenda states that the cost of operating a migrant ship is around 30 to 50 thousand euros per voyage and the remuneration per 'chief' varies between 30 and 40 thousand euros. For the activists, almost every day there is an attempted crossing from Lebanon to Cyprus or the coast of Italy.

In any case, this shipwreck is not only a telltale sign of the enormous depth of Lebanon's economic and financial crisis, but is also symbolic of a 'moral shipwreck' of its leaders, engaged in an unbridled race for power. And who have abandoned to their fate the majority of the population, deprived of any minimum assistance. 

Today, all social indicators are in a state of alert. Some people no longer have any qualms about stealing electric cables and parapets, in order to secure a source of income. According to a testimony collected in Tripoli, one man sold the iron railing of his balcony in order to replace his gas cylinder. Interviewed by Afp, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi branded this shipwreck as 'a new tragedy'. He therefore urged the international community to come to the aid of 'improving the conditions of people forced to flee their country, as well as those of the communities that receive them'.

Lebanon is home to more than one million Syrian refugees who have fled the war in their homeland and whose repatriation is being hindered by regional political issues raised by the international institutions themselves, although calm has returned to much of the Syrian territory.

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