'They just wanted to escape from their bad lives': Syrian migrant shipwreck drowns the dreams of a better, safer existence

Syrian boat capsize
5 min read
26 September, 2022

No more than three kilometres off the coast of the Syrian city of Tartous, the peaceful, serene island-town of Arwad sits majestically on the Mediterranean Sea.

Its laid-back residents — mainly fishermen and traders — famed for their maritime heritage had seen the island escape the clutches of war, but for the last three days, their lives have been turned upside-down after word came in of bodies floating in the sea.

Residents quickly scurried to the nearest ships and boats to lead a rescue effort after hearing a Lebanese boat sunk which had been carrying an estimated 150 passengers, other claims suggest up to 175.

"People were just looking to escape their bad lives, their poverty and problems, to start a new one. Others made it there, but most of those on the ship didn’t, and that will stay with us and their families forever"

It was mainly a local attempt to rescue those missing at first, but after finding out more details about how many were missing, the call was put out everywhere. 

Syrian state television confirmed that 94 people have been found dead so far, while 20 had been saved and dozens remain missing in the sea where some have been for three days in what remains an inconclusive toll thus far.

An Island United

While Arwad’s population numbers only thousands, all joined the rescue effort after death invaded this small island from all sides.

The bodies of drowned Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian immigrants of all ages who were just trying to seek better lives and find greener pastures, washed up tragically after a horrific chain of events led to an overcrowded and understaffed boat being capsized.

Reports from the Island suggest that the final destination of the boat was the shores of Italy, however, engine failure, strong winds and excessive weight ruined those plans. One survivor told Syrian state television that “around 160 people were on the boat.”

As the economic situation gets worse in Syria and Lebanon and people get more desperate, trafficking and illegal immigration to Europe is growing in popularity, but can be highly dangerous, and in this case fatal.

Bassel [42] a fisherman in Arwad who helped with the rescue, said the whole town was up aiding and searching, “Anyone and everyone who has a boat, a small ship, whatever, was out searching even at high tide for as long as they could, how can we sleep when death is all around us, the people [immigrants] were out there fighting the waves, trying to live, what a tragedy, it was a voyage of death.”

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“We’re a small island, everyone knows everyone, we’ve never seen anything like this before, so we always come together when things are hardest, these poor people, they were only looking to improve their lives, they didn’t do anything lots of people aren’t looking to do today, but the traffickers, they are the criminals, they must be punished.”

Several people from Arwad Tartous were gifting what they had of diesel fuel to keep the survivors, of which there are twenty, warm. But the search continues, as Syria and Lebanon come to terms with yet another crisis, that has broken the hearts of many.

Search is ongoing

Health Minister Dr Hassan Muhammad Al-Ghabash noted that the facilities in Tatous were working around the clock in case new survivors were found

“We are continuous alert, and have complete readiness across our health cadres in Tartous Governorate, especially in the ambulance and emergency services system and at the al-Basel Hospital (which is receiving those affected).”

While the Governor of Tartous Abdel Halim Khalil told the media, "The reason for the continuous rise in the toll is due to the recovery of new bodies from separate beaches.”

The victims all came of different ages and from different provinces, Some of the survivors, Muhammad Hassan Bilal was 52 years old from Aleppo whereas Roa’s Habbush is just 20 years old from Lattakia, others were not that lucky.

The General Director of Sea Ports, Brigadier Samer Kbresli who was helping to direct the operation since the start and was giving regular updates stated bleakly that it “would be unlikely that more survivors would be found.” Whereas the Syrian Red Crescent will deliver the bodies of the victims to the Lebanese Red Cross through the Arida crossing.

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The Syrian Arab Red Crescent Volunteers have been assisting with the searches, after being present on Tartous beach for three days.

One of them, Maher [25] told The New Arab that he still has some hope, “I have been praying and hoping that some more survivors are found, it is heart-breaking that all those dreams, all those people lost to the sea if we can find just one more it will be worth it. “

This is hard to understand, I’ve had difficulty processing it, people were just looking to escape their bad lives, their poverty and problems, to start a new one. Others made it there, but most of those on the ship didn’t, and that will stay with us and their families forever."

Danny Makki is an analyst covering the internal dynamics of the conflict in Syria, he specialises in Syria’s relations with Russia and Iran.

Follow him on Twitter: @danny_makki