by Fay Abuelgasim
Tripoli, Lebanon ( Associated Press) – A week ago, a boat carrying Bilal Dandashi, his relatives and dozens of others sank in the Mediterranean in hopes of escaping Lebanon and reaching Europe. Dandashi still does not know whether his wife and children are alive or dead.
Their boat sank within seconds in the dark of night after it collided with a Lebanese Navy ship trying to stop the migrants. Of the nearly 60 men, women and children on board, 47 were rescued, seven bodies were found and the rest are missing.
The tragedy underscores the desperate lengths some Lebanese are going to after the collapse of their country’s economy, leaving two-thirds of the population in poverty and no hope on the horizon for any recovery.
Lebanon has now become a source of dangerous boat crossings for migrants to reach European shores. There are no concrete figures, but hundreds of Lebanese have attempted to travel in recent months.
In Tripoli, Lebanon’s poorest city, residents say there is a constant stream of migrant boats flying in from around the city – even from Tripoli’s official port.
“The port has become like an airport. Youth, women and children are moving to Europe. The trips are daily,” said Bilal’s brother Amid Dandashi, who was also on the boat with him and whose three children were killed in the capsizing.
On Friday, police said they had arrested three smugglers with a boat carrying 85 migrants from the dock of a resort near Tripoli.
Bilal and another of his brothers had attempted a crossing once before, but the smugglers’ boat was stalled on the shore.
So for the second visit, he took matters into his own hands. While working with two other families in Tripoli, he obtained a recreational boat about 50 years old from a smuggler. The brothers spent three months refurbishing it and getting life jackets for it.
On the night of 23 April, he departed: about 22 members of the extended Dandashi family along with members of the other two families. They were a total of 60 people, much more than the capacity of the small yacht. The goal was to reach Italy – some 2,000 kilometers (1,200 mi) in the Mediterranean, a common route for migrant boats from Lebanon.
An hour and a half into his journey, his boat was intercepted by the Lebanese Navy.
Disaster hit: The boat collided with a Navy ship and sank within seconds.
The Navy has blamed the boat’s captain, saying he was maneuvering to avoid being forced to return to shore. It also accused the migrants of overcrowding on the boat and not wearing life vests.
However, Bilal Dandashi accused the naval ship of deliberately pushing their boat back.
He said that the Navy crew was insulting the migrants during the encounter. He said his boat would have reached international waters outside naval jurisdiction within minutes.
“If it hadn’t hit us from the front … we would have been able to cross,” he said. “He made a deliberate decision.”
Dandashi said the passengers were not wearing their life jackets as they did not want to attract attention as they left the port and the boat sank very quickly after the collision.
Bilal Dandashi was rescued along with his two children. But his wife and two other children are missing.
His brother Amid’s three children were killed, their bodies were found in a later search.
Amid remembers packing his children’s things for the trip, never thinking he would return home without them. He and his brothers thought they were safe after working in the boat, otherwise he would never have put their children at risk, he said.
“I blame myself, as a father, that I went and took that risk,” he said. “But I was sure that I would reach (Europe) … everything was safe.”
The increase in migrants has been due to frustration with the economic slowdown caused by years of corruption and mismanagement.
Rising inflation and currency collapse have ruined people’s wages and savings. Medicines, fuel and many food items are in short supply. Bilal Dandashi has diabetes and is not getting the medicine he needs.
Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli, bears the brunt of the crisis. Almost the entire Tripoli workforce depends on day-to-day income.
Tension has increased in the city after the boat sank. Angry residents blocked roads and attacked an army main post in Tripoli, pelting stones at soldiers who retaliated by firing in the air.
The government held an extraordinary meeting and asked the military tribunal to investigate the matter.
“This whole country is drowning, (it is) not us who drown. The whole country is drowning, and they are ignoring it,” said Bilal Dandashi.
The 47-year-old admitted that his crossing attempt was illegal but said he was unable to travel legally. With so many Lebanese requesting passports, authorities have wrestled with a massive backlog and until recently stopped processing applications altogether.
“Give me a passport. For 6 months, I haven’t got one,” he said. “Why? Because they want us here to put us in the grave – or die at sea.”