‘Bodies everywhere’: Survivors recount Lebanon boat disaster

Ninety-seven people have died – including 24 children – after a boat full of asylum seekers heading from Lebanon to Europe capsized in the Mediterranean.

Mourners react by the body of one of the victims who drowned in the shipwreck.
Those on board were mostly Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians, and included both children and the elderly, according to the United Nations [Fathi Al-Masri/AFP]

Speaking from a hospital bed, still in shock, Ibrahim Mansour, one of 20 people who survived one of the deadliest boat disasters in the Eastern Mediterranean, says he can’t forgive himself for not saving others.

More than 150 people were on board the small boat that sailed from crisis-hit Lebanon on Wednesday morning, with the hope of reaching Italy for a better life.

Those on board were mostly Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians, and included both children and the elderly, according to the United Nations.

Four hours after the boat set sail, the engine stopped. Mansour, 29, recounted to Al Jazeera that those on board called the smuggler on shore, but he said: “If you come back, we will shoot you.

“We also called 112 to seek help from Lebanese authorities, but no help came.”

Due to the high waves, the boat lost control and capsized off the Syrian port of Tartous, some 50km (30 miles) north of Tripoli in Lebanon. In a matter of moments, 100 people died, Mansour said. He saw “bodies everywhere”.

Those who survived were clinging onto the boat that overturned.

“I cry all the time; I’m in shock. I saw bodies and horrible images. My heart hearts,” Mansour said. “I tried to help children and another man; I tried to keep their spirits alive, but I couldn’t. This is hurting me, especially because of the child who was holding onto me before I lost him. They told me he died.”

Mansour eventually swam to the Syrian shore, reaching the coast on Thursday night.

Syrian state media reported that 97 people have died, 20 people have been rescued and others are still missing.

Among the dead are 24 children and 31 women, according to Lebanese Transport Minister Ali Hamie.

In a statement on Sunday, the secretary-general of Lebanon’s Higher Relief Commission, Mohammad Khair, said that five Lebanese and eight Palestinians, who were on the boat, are still being treated at the al-Basel Hospital in Syria’s Tartous city and will return soon to Lebanon.

The Lebanese army said it arrested a man it believes was behind the suspected “smuggling operation” to Italy.

Another young man, who survived what he calls “a nightmare”, told Al Jazeera his story from an ambulance as he made his way back from Syria to Lebanon: “It’s impossible to forget what has happened and the scenes I’ve been through.

When the boat capsized, “people onboard were pushed by waves to all directions, left and right, under and above the water. No one came to rescue us,” he said.

“I stayed almost 24 hours near the boat, which was overturned, floating; it hadn’t sunk. I managed to keep myself over the boat, and then I swam for 13 hours until I reached the Syrian Tartous coast. I’ve been told that some survivors were saved and rescued by Russian and Syrian boats, but I saw nothing until I reached the shore,” he said.

‘Situation is reaching a desperate level’

The disaster highlights the crippling poverty and mounting despair that has been forcing many people in Lebanon, including Mansour, to attempt the perilous crossing across the Mediterranean, in hopes of reaching Europe.

Lebanon, a country that hosts more than a million refugees from Syria’s war, has since 2019 been mired in a financial crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the worst in modern times.

Since 2020, Lebanon has seen a spike in the number of Lebanese citizens, who have joined Palestinian and Syrian refugees in attempting dangerous boat journeys in search of a better life.

Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Tripoli, said that “according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately 3,500 individuals attempted to make the journey this year alone, but security sources tell us that is a conservative figure”.

Many on the boat were Palestinian refugees, who, since the Nakba in 1948 (when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their homes by Zionist militias), have been living across Lebanon in overcrowded, makeshift camps that lack basic infrastructure. Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon do not have basic rights; they are denied citizenship and have no access to healthcare or education.

Tamara Alrifai, spokesperson for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), told Al Jazeera that there were an estimated 25-30 Palestinian refugees on the capsized boat. Most of them were from the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, “a camp that was very much destroyed around 15 years ago in one of the rounds of violence in Lebanon.”

“The situation of Palestine refugees in Lebanon is reaching such a desperate level, that they are willing to risk their lives along these perilous routes if there is hope on the other side,” Alrifai said. “The other side always looks better than what many of them describe as hell.”

“[Palestinian refugees in Lebanon [are] marginalised, disenfranchised, barred from owning property, barred from professions. The economic and financial collapse of Lebanon, particularly this last year, has hit the most vulnerable first [including Palestinian refugees].”

Alrifai said among the Palestinian group of migrants, two of them were UNRWA schoolchildren.

“These are people we know, these are young people who go to school, who have an education, who wanted to go to the other side, and search for a better life for them and for their kids. This is truly tragic and my colleagues at UNRWA are horrified at the news.

“No one wants to be a refugee. No one wants to live such a humiliating life as Palestinian refugees live in many of these camps,” Alrifai said.

Khodr, the Al Jazeera correspondent reporting from northern Lebanon, said many families are still waiting to receive the bodies of their relatives.

“Some have been identified and brought back for burial,” she said. “Others are still in Syria awaiting the results of DNA tests. Until they’re received, it won’t be known how many or who remains missing at sea.”

“Lebanese and Palestinian refugees [survivors] are arriving home, but Syrian refugees have not returned. Neither have their bodies. Their families who escaped the rule of President Bashar al-Assad will be afraid to cross the border to identify their loved ones.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies