TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — A week ago, the boat carrying Bilal Dandashi, his relatives and dozens of others hoping to escape Lebanon and reach Europe sank in the Mediterranean. Dandashi still doesn’t know if his wife and children are alive or dead.
Their boat sank in the darkness of night in a matter of seconds after a collision with a Lebanese Navy ship trying to stop the migrants. Of the around 60 men, women and children on board, 47 were rescued, seven bodies were found — and the rest remain missing.
The tragedy underscored the desperate lengths to which some Lebanese are going after their country’s economy collapsed, driving two-thirds of the population into poverty with no hope on the horizon for any recovery.
Lebanon has now become a source for migrants making the dangerous boat crossing to reach European shores. There are no firm figures, but hundreds of Lebanese in recent months have attempted the journey.
In Tripoli, Lebanon’s poorest city, residents say there is a constant stream of migrant boats, taking off from shores around the city — even from Tripoli’s official port.
“The port has become like an airport. Young people, women and children are going to Europe. The trips are daily,” said Amid Dandashi, Bilal’s brother, who was also on the boat with him and whose three children were killed in the capsizing.
On Friday, police said they arrested three smugglers preparing to set off with a boat carrying 85 migrants from the dock of a resort near Tripoli.
Bilal and another of his brothers had attempted a crossing once before, but the smugglers’ boat they were on stalled offshore.
So for a second trip, they took matters into their own hands. Working with two other families in Tripoli, they obtained a recreational boat, nearly 50 years old, from a smuggler. The brothers spent three months refurbishing it and getting life jackets for it.
On the night of April 23, they set off: around 22 members of the extended Dandashi family along with members of the other two families. They were around 60 people total, well over the capacity of the small yacht. The goal was to reach Italy — some 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) across the Mediterranean, a common route for migrant boats from Lebanon.
An hour and a half into their journey, their boat was intercepted by the Lebanese Navy.
Disaster struck: The boat collided with the Navy ship and sank within seconds.
The Navy has blamed the boat captain, saying he was maneuvering to avoid being forced to return to shore. It also blamed the migrants for overcrowding the boat and not wearing life vests.
Bilal Dandashi, however, accused the Navy ship of intentionally ramming their boat to force it back.
He said the Navy crew were shouting insults at the migrants during the encounter. Their boat would have reached international waters, out of the Navy’s jurisdiction, in just a few minutes, he said.
“If it hadn’t hit us from the front … we would have been able to cross,” he said. “They took a decision intentionally.”
The passengers weren’t wearing their life jackets because they didn’t want to draw attention as they left port and the boat sank too fast to put them on after the collision, Dandashi said.
Bilal Dandashi was rescued along with two of his children. But his wife and two other children remain missing.
His brother Amid’s three children were all killed, their bodies found in the later search.
Amid recalled packing up his children’s things for the trip, never imagining he’d return home without them. He and his brothers had felt certain the boat was safe after the work they put into it, otherwise he never would have put his children at risk, he said.
“I blame myself, as a father, that I went and took that risk,” he said. “But I was sure that I would reach (Europe.) … Everything was safe.”
The increase in migrants is fueled by desperation from an economic meltdown caused by years of corruption and mismanagement.
Spiraling inflation and the collapse of the currency have wrecked people’s salaries and savings. Medicines, fuel and many foods are in short supply. Bilal Dandashi has diabetes and cannot find the medication he needs.
Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, has felt the brunt of the crisis. Almost the entire Tripoli workforce depends on day-to-day income.
Since the boat sank, tensions have heightened in the city. Angry residents blocked roads and attacked a main army checkpoint in Tripoli, throwing stones at troops who responded by firing into the air.
The government held an extraordinary meeting and asked the military tribunal to investigate the case.
“This whole country is drowning, (it is) not just us who drowned. The whole country is drowning, and they are ignoring it,” Bilal Dandashi said.
The 47-year-old acknowledged his attempted crossing was illegal but said he was unable to travel legally. With so many Lebanese requesting passports, authorities have wrestled with a massive backlog and recently stopped processing applications altogether.
“Give me a passport. For 6 months, I couldn’t get one,” he said. “Why? Because they want us here to put us in the grave here — or go die in the sea.”