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Lebanon tries to recover bodies months after migrant ship sank in disputed incident

Navy attempts but fails to launch submarine to find the 30 bodies trapped underwater since April tragedy; survivors accuse navy of deliberately ramming the fleeing refugees

Survivors with family members of a sunken migrant ship watch from a navy boat as Lebanese naval forces and technical personnel prepare to dispatch a submarine into the Mediterranean Sea to attempt to recover an estimated 30 bodies some 450 meters below the surface, Aug. 22, 2022. (AP/Bilal Hussein)
Survivors with family members of a sunken migrant ship watch from a navy boat as Lebanese naval forces and technical personnel prepare to dispatch a submarine into the Mediterranean Sea to attempt to recover an estimated 30 bodies some 450 meters below the surface, Aug. 22, 2022. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — In late April, Hussein Dinnawi, his wife Samar and several dozen other Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians set off by boat from northern Lebanon under the cover of night, entrusting their fate to smugglers on a treacherous sea voyage in search of better opportunities in Italy.

Several hours later, their boat sank about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the port of Tripoli, under circumstances disputed to this day. Survivors say their vessel was rammed by the Lebanese Navy, while the military claims the migrants’ boat collided with a navy vessel while trying to get away.

Four months later, Dinnawi returned this week with other survivors to the same spot where the boat sank, to watch anxiously as the Lebanese navy tried to launch a tiny submarine to retrieve the wreckage of the boat, some 450 meters (about 1,470 feet) below the surface.

About 30 bodies of the approximately 80 people who were on board are still believed to be trapped inside the sunken vessel, including Samar’s.

“They are mostly women and children inside, because it was really humid that night,” Dinnawi told The Associated Press, explaining that the men volunteered to stand on deck to make room for women and children below deck.

But due to heavy winds and a high tide Monday, the small, three-person underwater craft, a Pisces VI submarine, could not be launched. The navy said it would try later this week.

Lebanese naval forces and technical personnel prepare to dispatch a submarine into the Mediterranean Sea to attempt to recover an estimated 30 bodies some 450 meters below the surface inside a migrant ship that sunk at night four months ago (3.1 miles) outside the the port of Tripoli, Aug. 22, 2022. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

Dinnawi was disappointed but also angry that the authorities hadn’t taken swifter action to retrieve the bodies. “It shouldn’t have to take four months to do this,” Dinnawi said after returning to shore.

Tripoli lawmaker Ashraf Rifi facilitated the arrival of the submarine for the cash-strapped country through the Australian charity AusRelief, its Lebanese-Australian chairman Tom Zreika and his own brother, Jamal Rifi, who lives in Sydney. They said in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald in late July that an anonymous donor had given just over $295,000 to lease the submarine from an India-registered company.

The sinking of the migrants’ boat has put the Lebanese government further on the defensive, at a time when the country is in economic free fall and public trust in the state and its institutions is rapidly crumbling.

Survivors accuse the navy of deliberately sinking the ship, as it tried to stop the migrants. The Lebanese military says the migrant boat crashed into the navy vessel while trying to escape, and has received survivors’ testimonies supporting that version of the account.

Seven bodies were recovered that night, including one of a child, while 48 survivors were pulled from the Mediterranean Sea.

Two Lebanese navy boats with survivors and family members of victims of a sunken migrant boat watch as Lebanese naval forces and technical personnel try to dispatch a submarine into the Mediterranean Sea to attempt to recover an estimated 30 bodies some 450 meters below the surface inside a migrant ship that sunk at night four months ago Aug. 22, 2022. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

Dinnawi said the government has not compensated the families as it had promised. He has not heard from the authorities after giving his testimony about the incident. He isn’t hopeful for any justice at this point — he just wants to bury Samar.

“You’ll never get justice or rights from the government here,” he said. “Those who died had died. They’re gone.”

Lebanon, a tiny country of six million people, including about one million Syrian refugees, has been mired since 2019 in an economic meltdown that has plunged three-quarters of the population into poverty. The World Bank describes it as one of the worst economic crises worldwide since the mid-19th century.

Once a country that received refugees, it has become a launching pad for dangerous migration by sea to Europe. As the crisis deepened, more Lebanese, as well as Syrian and Palestinian refugees set off to sea, with security agencies reporting foiled migration attempts almost weekly.

Dinnawi’s wife was a pharmacist, while he ran errands at the same pharmacy. Before the economic crisis, they both earned enough money to comfortably make ends meet. But the free fall of the Lebanese pound, which lost over 90% of its value against the dollar, meant their income was just enough to cover rent and some of Lebanon’s skyrocketing costs.

“Sometimes we skipped meals,” Dinnawi said.

Lebanese line up for bread in front of a bakery in the southern coastal city of Sidon, on August 13, 2021, amidst a deepening economic crisis sparking various shortages of basic staples in the country. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)

The crisis has only worsened since Dinnawi’s harrowing migration attempt, with fuel and electricity costs skyrocketing. Lebanon has been without a full-fledged government since the May elections, and has struggled for over two years to reform its corrupt and wasteful economy and set along the path to make the country viable again.

Dinnawi has struggled to find consistent work. When he went back to the site where he lost his wife and nearly drowned himself, he allowed for a fleeting moment of daydreaming.

“When I was on the boat and we reached the point where it sank, I prayed to God that we could just continue to Italy,” he said.

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