BEIRUT/TRIPOLI: Eighteen Lebanese survivors of last month’s Indonesian ferry tragedy appeared in the Rafik Hariri International Airport Sunday morning with drawn faces and thin smiles.
The repatriated survivors were met by wailing relatives and a chaotic scene at the airport.
One man burst into tears and collapsed, overcome with emotion after embracing his kin.
Avoiding the swarm of media, security officials and MPs, female relatives waited to the side, many clutching fresh bouquets and dabbing teary eyes.
The joy of family reunions was tempered, however, with grief for the missing and deceased.
Survivor Omar Sweid was visibly distraught despite his friends’ embraces. Sweid, who sold his home to finance the trip, lost his three children and his wife when the Australia-bound ferry sank, friends said.
The bittersweet homecoming continued as survivors returned to the same villages in northern Lebanon that they had abandoned a few short months ago in hopes of finding a better life abroad.
Details of the harrowing journey soon emerged. The ferry departed from Indonesia carrying scores of illegal immigrants hoping to reach Australian shores. Survivors say the boat was visibly dilapidated and several people refused to board.
“After three hours at sea we discovered that we were actually lost,” said survivor Louay Baghdadi. “The ship captain was an Indonesian man who knew nothing about navigation. We stayed like this for four days lost at sea without knowing where we were or where we were going. Suddenly we ran out of fuel,” he said.
The passengers were told that the Australian authorities had been contacted and were dispatching a rescue team. The rescue never came.
Survivors told stories of sickly children with skin peeling off their backs after four days on the open sea without any provisions.
“Two kilometers before we reached the Indonesian coast, a big wave hit the boat and it split in half. Suddenly we all found ourselves in the water,” said Afrah Deeb, a 22-year-old survivor.
“I clung to a piece of wood, which helped me to reach the shore. Other people died when they hit the engines of the boat and the flotsam, and others because they could not swim,” Deeb said.
Hussein Khodr, who lost his wife and eight children in the tragedy, said he had no help recovering their bodies.
“I gathered my family, one body after the other on the Indonesian coast. I had no one to help me.”
It remains unclear if the Indonesian authorities launched any official rescue effort.
The Indonesian Embassy in Beirut has not responded to The Daily Star’s inquiries into the matter.
Of the 72 passengers on board, 28 survived. Eighteen of the survivors are Lebanese nationals.
Forty-three bodies have been recovered, according to forensic expert Fouad Ayoub, who is investigating the case on behalf of the government.
Louay Baghdadi said he and his companions were assured a smooth passage.
“We thought we were going in a very organized way, they gave us the impression it was very simple,” he said.
A mediator named Abu Ali, he explained, arranged the details of the voyage and met him at the airport in Jakarta. Once there, Baghdadi and his travelling group were told they must pay $8,000 directly to Abu Saleh, an Iraqi national currently imprisoned in Indonesia for the murder of a Saudi man.
Indonesian officers, he said, facilitated the illicit transaction.
“We were surprised by the way Indonesian authorities treated him [Abou Saleh],” Baghdadi said. “They led us right into his cell where we paid him.”
Now, families of the victims are waiting for the bodies to be identified in Indonesia and eventually returned to Lebanon.
“We have learned from several sources that several of the bodies have disintegrated because they were left for a long time in the water and because they were not stored properly,” the brother of victim Talal al-Ria said. “Our loss is great and we will not be relieved until we bury my brother.”
All of the Lebanese survivors hailed from the north Lebanon governorates of Akkar and Tripoli. They said that insecurity and the dearth of economic opportunities in the region were forcing young people to seek opportunities outside Lebanon, sometimes at great cost.
“We left Lebanon after we were fed up with the tragic life that we live,” Ahmad Kouja said of Tripoli’s impoverished Bab al-Tabbeneh neighborhood. His wife, who was six months pregnant, was lost. “We traveled to look for a good life.”
Standing beside family members clutching damp and shriveled tissues, a host of smartly dressed MPs made sure to emphasize this point.
Future MP Hadi Hobeich of Akkar, who led a delegation representing President Sleiman, mourned the “the martyrs who died in the seas of Indonesia,” and called for more economic projects in neglected regions.
Hobeich also suggested that the recent influx of Syrian refugees in north Lebanon had compounded the difficult economic situation there.
“The refugee issue should get more attention in those areas which are already suffering from unemployment and other social problems,” he said.
Caretaker Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour, however, underscored the importance of legal immigration and encouraged swift justice for those involved in coordinating the immigration scheme.
“The judicial bodies should pursue those who tricked the Lebanese in order to make money,” he proclaimed.
“The sinking of the boat opens the door for expanding the investigation. If there are multiple people or gangs tricking the Lebanese into traveling illegally, the judicial authorities should pursue them.”
Mansour added that economic and political difficulties should not push Lebanese citizens to emigrate.
Despite the ruinous trip, however, one survivor said he was willing to repeat it.
“I will consider traveling again. I knew there was death on the road I took, and in Tripoli, where I come from, there is death too,” Baghdadi said. “Death is in front of us here. We don’t know where the shooting comes from or where the explosions come from.”
“Of course I will consider traveling again because there is no state. If there was a state, I would not leave like this. If there was work, I would not leave. But I will definitely leave like this if I can.” – With additional reporting by Antoine Amrieh