Many will recall the image of Alan Kurdi, the child whose death at sea became the icon of Syria’s agony when his photograph was spread across the world in 2015. Though his story is five years old, that awful photograph comes to mind these days as desperate Lebanese families follow the same path in a desperate attempt to flee the economic, political, and humanitarian storms which rule the day in their country. The recent deaths of many Lebanese, including two children on a smuggling boat headed for Cyprus, provides us with yet more heartbreaking details of the suffering of the Lebanese people.
“If you do not die in an explosion, you will die by a stray bullet. If you do not die by a stray bullet, you will die from hunger. And if you do not die of hunger, you will die from grief,” according to one tweet. Since last year, Lebanon’s downward spiral of a failing economy, the outbreak of COVID-19, the port’s explosion, skyrocketing prices for basic necessities, a dramatic increase in the percentage of those living below the poverty line (figures estimate that the percentages are between 70 and 80 percent), and the pound’s loss of 80% of its value against the dollar, have raised the specter of starvation on a scale comparable to the famine that swept the country in 1915.
On November 13, 2019, President Michel Aoun, in a moment that was reminiscent of Marie Antoinette, taunted demonstrators who were criticizing his failure to carry out political reforms, inviting them to leave the country. Apparently, some Lebanese heeded the president’s call, turning to illicit immigration to nearby Cyprus as their first choice. Among the many headed in that direction was Mustapha Masri, whose attempts to emigrate legally were denied, as cited by the Lebanese media outlet YaLibnan. The president’s insensitive remark on the people’s pain was reiterated by one of the passengers who was forced to return to Lebanon from Cyprus: he sarcastically said he followed the president’s “advice,” explaining that death at sea is preferable to life in Lebanon, which he compared to a slow death, while drowning in the ocean would instantaneous and less painful.
Last week, authorities rescued a small fishing boat stranded in the Mediterranean Sea after it had run out of fuel during its voyage to Cyprus from Tripoli. After it was abandoned by the smugglers, the migrants aboard the overcrowded boat waited for eight days without food or water, which was taken from them upon boarding, said Mohammed Sufian Mohammed according to the Associated Press. At least four adults and two children died, including Mohammed’s two-year-old son, Sufian, whose body was towed behind the boat for three days before they cut him free, according to the Times. The second child, two-year-old Mohamad Nazeer Mohamad, who also died of starvation, was cast into the sea. "I threw my son into the sea and saw his corpse floating away from me. I had no choice,” his mother told Sar Al Waqt, a weekly Lebanese TV program, last Thursday. Tripoli residents held a funeral for both children last Friday.
Like so many others, I have written enough about Lebanon’s colossal corruption, but nothing spells out the magnitude of the human crisis better than the sheer numbers of those wanting to leave the country – nearly 300,000 – legally. While we have no accurate statistics regarding illegal immigration, research suggests that between August 29 and September 14 of this year, there were 18 boats, more than the total number of last year. The country even underwent a change of status from a destination attracting the displaced – receiving more than a million Syrians – into an exporter of refugees.
These deaths at sea give a painful glimpse into the risks many are willing to take, and the loss they continue to suffer. The Lebanese president’s latest declaration that the country is “going to hell” in a press conference on September 21 provided more ammunition for sarcasm and resentment, popularizing the hashtags that the country was, in fact, already there.
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