The impossible mourning of the families of the victims of the sinking of Tripoli

On the blue seabed of the Mediterranean, off the coast of North Lebanon, the crew of the specialized exploration submarine Pisces VI found its first corpse.

Captain Scott Walters, who is leading the Little Yellow Submarine’s quest to elucidate the fate of migrants missing since their boat sank on April 23, said the crew decided to return to the surface, half a -kilometer from the bottom, the remains in an advanced state of decomposition. But as it was hoisted to the surface, the body disintegrated piece by piece, scattering like sand in the water, leaving only clothes still clinging to the sub’s robotic arm.

The search submarine arrived in Lebanon last week as part of a mission by Australian NGO AusRelief to provide answers to the families of dozens of people still missing and presumed dead – answers the state Lebanese, dysfunctional and cash-strapped, still hasn’t been provided.

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The Pisces VI located the boat, which Mr Walters said showed no obvious signs of damage from the navy craft that intercepted it, along with 10 bodies. But the mission has since ended after the Lebanese army informed AusRelief of possible security risks, its chief, Tom Zreika, told Reuters. A former refugee who was himself taken by his mother on a similar journey to Cyprus at the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, Mr Zreika said AusRelief had unfortunately concluded that rescuing all the bodies and the boat would require much greater resources.

“There was a woman downstairs, stuck halfway through a window, holding her baby… She broke the [cœur] from everyone,” he said, referring to the mission team. “It reminded me of how my mother could have held me in her arms.”

The boat was designed to carry a maximum of a dozen people. But around 80 Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian migrants were on board, of whom around 40 were rescued, seven confirmed dead and around 30 are still missing. The distraught families of the missing hoped the submarine would reveal the fate of their loved ones and how the boat sank. They now fear that the bodies remain submerged for good, as well as potential evidence of its sinking.

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Although an investigation by Lebanese authorities into the incident is still ongoing, few families expect it to reach a fair conclusion, illustrating the population’s deep mistrust of the justice system and public institutions in Lebanon.

According to locals, the worsening economic situation in the impoverished region of northern Lebanon, from where the migrant boat departed, will encourage more and more people to embark on perilous sea voyages, looking for a new life in Europe.

Ready to go
The number of people who left or attempted to leave Lebanon by sea almost doubled in 2021 compared to 2020, and further increased by more than 70% in 2022 compared to the same period last year, said clarified by e-mail to Reuters the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The main reasons given are “the inability to survive in Lebanon due to the deterioration of the economic situation”, the “lack of access to basic services and limited employment opportunities”, he said. Lebanon has been grappling with a severe financial crisis since 2019 that has left eight out of ten people in poverty.

The migrant boat capsized and sank after colliding with a Lebanese navy ship trying to halt its journey to Europe. Authorities believe he set off from the sleepy seaside town of Qalamoun, just south of the major port of Tripoli, from the wharf of an abandoned beach resort where locals go to spend leisure time.

“All we want is to leave this country. There is nothing left here,” said Bilal Hamam, a 42-year-old day laborer at a local cement factory who was not called to work on Monday. “My friends left (on previous migrant boats). I was afraid to go there because I have children… but now I am ready to leave with my family,” he adds. “I am no better than those who died, nor are my children”.

A “parody” of justice

Some families of victims have filed criminal charges against the naval officer in command of the ship that intercepted the migrant boat and the dozen other crew members on board, after some surviving migrants said they were rammed by this military ship. According to the army, his vessel and the boat collided as the human trafficker in charge was maneuvering to escape.

An investigation is carried out by the Lebanese military court, composed of members of the army.

“It’s a travesty of justice in every sense of the word…that an institution is accused of killing people and also supervises the investigation,” argues Jihad Medlej, the father of Hachem Medlej, 22. , who was on the boat and is still missing.

“We will not remain silent about this… We want to live in a state with institutions and laws,” a lawyer representing the families, Mohammad Sablouh, told Reuters.

A military spokesman, meanwhile, told Reuters he could not comment on complaints and accusations from relatives of the missing due to the ongoing investigation.

In a May meeting with the grieving families of the victims, General Joseph Aoun, commander-in-chief of the Lebanese armed forces, promised a transparent and impartial investigation. But Mr. Medlej, rejecting the army’s account of the events, stresses that he had not been able to mourn his son because he had received conflicting reports on his fate, no body having been found, and that he thought he might still be alive.
A source from the troupe, who requested anonymity due to the ongoing investigation, said they had no information about Hashem Medlej.

A lawyer for the families tried to subpoena Scott Walters to appear in court to provide more information about the findings of the underwater mission, including high-definition images, but that attempt failed, the system Lebanese judiciary was currently on strike. The captain has since left Lebanon, and the military has so far only released low-quality footage of the wreckage.

For his part, Mr. Zreika indicated that he would soon make all the images public. He deplored the growing hostility between the people and the institutions in Lebanon. Before leaving, the mission team organized a small service at sea for those who perished, but the army advised against bringing the relatives of the victims, adds Tom Zreika. “They said, ‘We can’t guarantee your safety’.”

On the blue seabed of the Mediterranean, off the coast of North Lebanon, the crew of the specialized exploration submarine Pisces VI found its first corpse. Captain Scott Walters, who is leading the Little Yellow Submarine’s quest to unravel the fate of migrants who have gone missing since their boat sank on April 23, said the crew decided to…

The impossible mourning of the families of the victims of the sinking of Tripoli