QABEET, Lebanon: In the Akkar village of Qabeet, which is slowly coming to terms with a tragedy that wiped out many of its kinsmen, many say that the Lebanese migrants who died en route to Australia were the victims of dishonest people smugglers who prey on asylum seekers.
Little is known of the story behind the journey of these Lebanese migrants from their low-income communities in Bab al-Tabbaneh, Qabeet, Fnaydeq, Bibnine and Khreibeh, to distant shores. They had dreams of a new life in Australia, where instead of finding abundance they drowned in a grim humanitarian tragedy.
The families say the difficulties in obtaining an immigration permit to Australia, and the tough conditions for applying, have forced would-be migrants into the arms of an Asian mafia that specializes in smuggling people into Australia by taking advantage of lax asylum laws near Indonesia.
But it appears the Lebanese migrants may have also been victims of negligence. Sources in Qabeet say the boat they took to travel from Indonesia to Australia was not fit for such a journey, which normally takes four days.
Sheikh Ali Khodr, a local imam, said there was no concrete information on the mediators other than the role of an Iraqi man named Abu Saleh, who reportedly worked with Lebanese mediators. The negligence of these mediators is what led to the tragedy, he added.
“What is confirmed is that Abu Saleh is detained and being interrogated in Indonesia, but we have not confirmed until now the involvement of Lebanese individuals,” he said.
More than 30 people were still missing two days after a boat carrying the asylum seekers, many of them Lebanese, sank off the Indonesian coast, killing 29 people including seven children.
Qabeet, in the northern province of Akkar, lost many former residents in the incident, including almost an entire family.
The village is a remote one in the Akkar countryside between the towns of Hrar and Fnaydeq. Many of its youth join the Lebanese Army amid an absence of public services, schools and job opportunities.
The abandoned homes in the village tell the story of the suffering of the local families, many of whom were gathered in the courtyard of the Khodr family, exchanging details of what happened in Indonesia.
There, many wept over the news. Their voices caught as they described details of incident as they heard them, particularly the deaths of the children, some of whom drowned while others died of starvation out at sea.
“They departed this land and they must return to it,” said one mourner. “If they live then we will serve them and help them deal with a difficult life, and if they are dead, let only this land embrace their bodies.”
They await scattered tidbits of news, and the discussion centers around who might come back alive or when the bodies might be returned.
The only survivor from the Khodr family was the father, Hussein, who spoke by telephone to his cousin, Sheikh Ali said.
Hussein said he had been taken to a hospital in Indonesia to be treated for injuries sustained during the incident, including the severing of one of his fingers.
“Hussein was completely devastated when he informed me that his nine children had all drowned and he alone survived,” Sheikh Ali said.
“The Indonesian authorities told him they found the bodies of his wife and one of his daughters, and the others are missing,” he added.
Hussein departed after a long and arduous process which saw him pay $60,000 to mediators to secure his travel arrangements, according to local families.
In Bab al-Tabbaneh, near Asmar Square, locals point to the home of the Rai family. which lost four in the accident, alongside others like the Ghamrawi and Hraz families.
The men received condolences in the street while the women wept in the home of the Rai family, in mourning over the loss of Talal Rai, 37, his three children and his sister.
Nadima Bakkour, Talal’s mother, and her other son Khalil, survived the ship’s demise after the waves carried them to shore.
Amna al-Najjar, a local resident, is following up by telephone with the Lebanese chargé d’affaires in Indonesia, Joanna al-Qazzi. She said the Lebanese government was working hard to repatriate the bodies and bring back the survivors, in addition to determining the fates of about 25 individuals who were still missing.
“The difficulty of life here in Lebanon and the problematic security situation pushed Talal to think of emigrating abroad,” Najjar said, relating the circumstances of their departure and drowning.
Najjar said the tough immigration rules led the local mokhtar to advise Talal to fly to Indonesia and then contact a local mafia that smuggles individuals into Australia.
She said Talal agreed to pursue that plan because he knew of others before him who left for Australia the same way, after paying Lebanese mediators to complete the procedures and buy the airline tickets. Abu Saleh, the mediator, receives the full payment before the families depart from Beirut.
Najjar said the family left Beirut on Aug. 27, but Abu Saleh kept delaying taking them to Australia, saying the Australian Coast Guard had strengthened its procedures.
Eventually, the family got on a boat that took them out to sea before they were captured by Indonesian authorities, who told them they would be detained and then deported.
The smuggling mafia was able to secure their release, said Najjar, who added that locals asked Talal to send his family back and they would help pay for the trip.
But Najjar said Abu Saleh, who had disappeared for a while during the detention and resurfaced later, convinced Talal he was able to rent another boat to take them quickly to Australia.
She said the Lebanese migrants eventually made it near the Australian shores but were told to turn back by the authorities. Despite the ship’s captain informing the authorities that he had run out of fuel, he was told to leave, she added.
She wept as she talked of the families out at sea for four days, slowly starving and dying of thirst, before the water seeped into the bottom of the boat because of the excessive weight it was carrying. “Their sin was that they wanted to earn a loaf of bread in dignity,” Najjar said.