Escape From Hell: Lebanese Among Victims of Migrant Boat Disaster
By: Robert Abdallah
Published Saturday, September 28, 2013
Many stories will be told about what happened in the middle of the Indian ocean off the coast of Indonesia on September 27 when a boat sank carrying 120 people trying to reach Australia illegally. Around 21 people have been reported killed. At least 17 Lebanese were on board, their fates not yet officially determined.
Many stories will be told about those escaping Akkar, the region with the highest rate of poverty in Lebanon. Tales will be spun about the mighty gangs that can penetrate any border to take families from Qabiit and Wadi Mishmish to their death, trying to reach the other side of the planet, a place completely alien to them, like the thousands of workers arriving into Lebanon, turning their dream into a nightmare.
Yes. Many questions will be asked about what happened and what lead to this death. However, one question needs to answered now: Why did they die? Who is really responsible for their death?
The Lebanese have been enchanted with migration. They are spread around the world. Lebanese keep hearing about other Lebanese who went around the world, becoming rich, famous, and influential. However, before yesterday, they had not heard about this type of deadly migration. They might have heard it happens in Africa, where they can exercise their racism, because they believe they are better. But today, they hear about it here, among them. They will have to carry many bodies to bury them at sea.
Those who escaped in the Indonesian boat – all we know about them today is that they were poor. But it is enough to know who they are. They are whole families escaping the poverty of Akkar's villages. Maybe they know that they will not achieve their dreams. The reason, according to former minister Charbel Nahhas is "a firm belief that there is no future inside their country."
This is the new equation; where poverty is found, illegal migration is the only hope. It is an alarming indicator. When the welfare state is absent, the smugglers become active. This is the story then, one of a "black market" where the dreams of the poor are sold.
What do these people, who barely know the alleyways of Qobeiyat, know about Indonesia? Nothing – except that "the smuggler told them about the land of dreams. So they went there." It is similar to networks that operate the other way around, smuggling women from Sri Lanka and Ethiopia. What does the woman coming on a boat from the mountains of Ethiopia know? She knows as much as those escaping the mountains of al-Qaitei in Akkar to Australia.
The town of Qabiit and other villages in the Akkar mountainside are living a tragedy. The difficult road to this town, hanging between the earth and the sky, is enough to lead them to escape its hell. They screamed from pain, but nobody listened. It was a terrible sight yesterday. They say one family lost nine people, another lost five, and there are five more.
In Qabiit, everyone gathered at the home of Hussein Khodor, the only member of his family who is still alive. People flocked to the Kafroun neighbourhood in the west of the village, to the house that was inhabited by 10 people a few weeks ago. Nine are dead now and the head of the family lies in a hospital bed in Jakarta.
His brother, Zhahir Khodor, said the man sold everything he owned to escape with his family to what he thought would be a safe refuge, where he was promised education, work, health, and a future. But now he is alone in foreign lands and does not know when the sea will bring the bodies of his wife and children to the shore.
Zhahir is surprised when asked about the reason that led his brother to migrate in this manner. "Imagine, we live in the land of snow, but have to buy water for LL20,000 ($13) per tank, since we do not have a water network in Kafroun," he explained. "Imagine, tuition fees in the public school has been raised to LL250,000 ($167). How could my brother send eight children to school when he could barely feed them."
"I was going to travel also. The only thing that kept me was my sick son," he continued. "Do not think that this catastrophe will stop people from taking the risk."
More than a hundred people from the town emigrated to Australia, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea, where they might be killed by gangs, if not the harsh weather, he explained. He points to a gang run by someone called Abu Saleh, aided by his cohorts in Tripoli. He believes the gang has contacts and influence with Indonesian security who conspire to facilitate illegal migration. The immigrants become stuck between the clutches of the gang and Indonesian security forces.
Zhahir alludes to details provided by a man from Qobeiyat who was spared the journey of death by accident. He had traveled with the group that sank last August through Rafik Hariri International Airport, but he felt that "Abu Saleh, an Iraqi, was not being honest." He explained that he had paid someone called A. T. in Tripoli $2,000. Reaching Jakarta, he paid Abu Saleh $14,000. "Despite all this, I spent a month and 10 days there," he said. But Abu Saleh kept postponing, saying "the boat was caught or the sea is rough." Each day of delay costs a fee (bribe) of $20 per person.
"Hussein Khodor paid $16,000," he added. "When I told him I wanted to go back to Lebanon, believing something bad is going to happen, Hussein told me he had nothing to lose after selling all what he had in Lebanon to pay for the trip."
Hussein's cousin, Haj Abdul-Razzak explained that two thirds of Qabiit has emigrated, despite the high education rate in the town and the many engineers and university graduates. But most people here work as daily laborers. "If people could make a living day by day, they would not leave."
He added that Hussein told him he did not want to leave, except that his daughters suffered from visual impairments and "if he sold all of Qabiit, it would not cover their treatment." Not to mention education and the future.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.