April 23, 2022: a new date has been added to the list of catastrophes suffered by the Lebanese city of Tripoli, whose people have experienced precious little except deprivation, neglect and marginalisation. This is the date on which a boat sank, one carrying passengers trying to escape a country they no longer saw as fit to live in.
A deliberate cover-up?
Days have passed since the incident, yet the boat has still not been retrieved from the sea's depths despite the vital evidence it carries.
Moreover, Lebanese authorities have issued no official numbers relating to the number of passengers, the missing or even the confirmed victims. Survivors see this as part of "a deliberate attempt to cover up the flagrant negligence of the search and rescue operations".
The government has ordered the army to investigate the incident under the supervision of the judiciary, and appears to support the Lebanese navy's account alongside documents and photos it has presented, which, the navy states, show they "were not involved in sinking the boat".
However, survivors and family members of the missing confirm that "the army vessel rammed the boat, causing it to sink, and those onboard received a barrage of insults from the soldiers".
They say they don't trust any investigation run by Lebanon's authorities and fear the truth will be concealed, and those responsible will evade punishment.
'I'm going to bury you'
Survivor Maher Hamoudeh (23) recounted to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication, how the boat had set off that evening at 7:15, carrying 60 passengers.
"At 8:30 pm two army boats appeared and started chasing us, one was big. They were causing waves, then the big one rammed us and doubled back on us to sink us, which didn't work," Maher reveals.
"Then the officer took a phone call, and when the call ended he said: "I'm going to bury you.
"He steered the boat around and rammed us from the front which made us spin round, then hit us again in the middle. We went straight into the water and the army left, sailing away, putting a big distance between us. I swam for over an hour before reaching one of the army boats.
"Some soldiers threw out a rope so I could climb on, then I helped five others who were close by to get aboard by throwing them the rope, then I stopped when a soldier said, "leave that one", cursing and saying: "the boat can't hold more than that."
Families were on board
Maher says he managed to follow the naval boat by following its small green radar light and says they only went back to start rescuing people two hours after the incident.
He says he was heading to Italy, and claims he paid nothing: "There were families on the boat, we weren't going with a smuggler, but with the Dandashi family. Being logical, if someone was a smuggler, they wouldn't take their children, including their eight-year-old son, who died, and their 11-year old daughter and wife who are still missing, nor their brother's children one of whom was a 40-day old baby."
He continues: "We simply want justice done, and ask who is responsible for the fate of our children and call for an international investigation into what happened because we have no faith in any investigation run by the Lebanese state."
He calls for the search for the missing to continue, repeating that "the officer received an order, over the phone, to ram the boat, as in the beginning the army was content with chasing us and did not come that close."
Headed for a better future
Fadi Dandashi (Abu Taymour) says his three brothers were on board: Bilal, Ameed and Ra'id, who was driving the yacht, and was arrested but has since been released. All his brothers survived.
Abu Taymour describes the yacht as new and fully equipped, with "two brand new engines." He says he had sailed to Byblos one week before the trip to check the boat's condition, which was excellent, and claims there was room for up to 100 people on the boat, so he decided to sail with his brothers, cousins and neighbours of theirs.
He adds: "Before this, around five months ago, we took a boat and crossed the territorial waters, but then the boat stalled, and an army patrol boat towed us back [...] The reasons people are trying to leave are well-known. My brothers can't afford a piece of bread; they decided to head to Italy for a better future for their children."
He stresses: "They could have used other ways to return the passengers instead of giving a death sentence [...] There were two naval boats, and the officer ordered the soldiers to attack the boat, but a decent soldier with a sense of religion and humanity refused […] saying, 'you're sentencing them to death, there are children, we should find another way,' but the officer ordered him to obey. The soldier refused again, then all the lights were turned off, and we couldn't see anything.
"They claim it was the yacht that crashed into the navy boat, but if the yacht was being chased and followed, why would it have been behind it [the naval vessel], to have collided?"
He adds: "The navy boat was staying close to us to cause waves […] trying to make water flood our boat, which in five minutes would have been out of the territorial waters. But then they turned and rammed us from the front […] and then the officer said, 'I'm going to bury you'."
They weren't animals'
Saif ad-Din Mereb, is still looking for his sisters Maha and Hanan, their children and other members of his family.
"I didn't know the timing of the trip, I hadn't really treated the matter seriously. They had said they were going to Germany, but I didn't know they were going to try this way, or I wouldn't have let them go.
"I learned that the boat's owner told them that he would sail that day, took their phones and switched them off. Then we learned the boat had sunk. We tried to call them but the phones were off. We heard that the boat sank at about 8:45 pm, and the names of the passengers started to appear and families began discovering that this boat had been carrying their children.
"I don't know the smuggler who spoke to my brother-in-law, and told him he was going with his family, the boat was taking 30 people, and was in good condition, and sent him photos. However, it has become clear that this was commercial, it wasn't just families: there were 85 people on that boat, among them Syrians and Palestinians."
Saif ad-Din is shocked at how the passengers were treated: "They weren't a criminal gang, they weren't armed. There were a million ways they could have stopped the vessel and the smugglers. The army knew there were women and children aboard, and those behind this need to examine their conscience."
He continues: "The army's job was to pursue the smugglers, but they should have done that without hurting anyone. It is clear huge negligence occurred in the search and rescue operations – my brother-in-law was in the water for an hour before they got him out. An investigation must take place in order to preserve the dignity of the victims at least.
"I heard the price was $7,000 per person, but how did they afford this? Did they borrow, planning to return the money when they reached Germany? And who in Lebanon could have lent them these amounts in the first place? There's no question they decided to go because of the poverty. My sister was pregnant and there were complications which needed expensive treatment, and if she had wanted to travel in a legal way, she wouldn’t have been able to obtain a passport for months."
Saif ad-Din points out that "what happened might be blamed by some on smugglers, however, what happened was a crime – it cannot be that a boat sank in front of two army vessels with soldiers who should have known how to make a pursuit, and how to rescue those on board… the people on that boat had families waiting for them... they weren't animals."
This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.
Translated by Rose Chacko
This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.
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