Eighteen Lebanese asylum-seekers who survived when their boat sank off Indonesia last week returned home on Sunday voicing anger at the government’s failure to provide them with jobs and security.
They wept as they embraced relatives at Beirut’s international airport but also railed against the state, accusing it of indifference towards the insecurity plaguing Lebanon and rising unemployment, made worse by an influx of Syrian refugees.
In total, 68 Lebanese, mostly from poor areas in the north of the country like the Akkar region, were on board an Australia-bound boat when it sank on September 27 off the coast of Java.
Between 80 and 120 people, most of them from the Middle East, were on board the boat. Twenty-eight bodies, many of them women and children, were recovered but 22 people are still missing.
The survivors looked tired and some were clearly upset as they were welcomed by tearful family members.
One of the survivors fainted and had to be helped by a relative to get back on his feet while a woman welcomed he son by shouting repeatedly “God be praised” before breaking down in sobs.
“All I remember is seeing the sky, and then I was in the water,” Louai Baghdadi, 25, told AFP.
Baghdadi, from the Beddawi area near the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli, said he swam for half an hour to reach dry land.
“What really breaks my heart is that I saw children floating in the water without being able to help them.
“The children died because they were starving. There was no more food on the ship,” he said, red-eyed and hugging his mother.
Baghdadi expressed fury at Lebanon, which has for years been plagued by political and sectarian divisions.
The problems have been aggravated by the conflict in neighbouring Syria, which has divided Lebanon’s political establishment.
Lebanon has not had a government for six months because of a political standoff between a faction led by the Shiite Hezbollah movement, which backs the Syrian regime, and another which backs the uprising.
“I saw death at sea, but I had already seen it in Tripoli,” Baghdadi said in reference to frequent deadly clashes in the city between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“You’re walking in the street, and your friend can get shot dead,” he said.
“It was the insecurity above all that pushed me to try my luck. In Lebanon, there is nothing for us to do.”
Baghdadi never completed his high-school diploma, and had dreamt of starting a new life in Australia, home to a large Lebanese community.
Like the other survivors, he said he paid $10,000 for his passage on the boat.
Survivors hae said the trip was organised by an Iraqi man known as Abu Saleh, who they say runs a people-smuggling ring from his jail in Indonesia. The claim has not been officially confirmed.
Baghdadi raged against unemployment in Lebanon, and the burden created by a flood of Syrian refugees.
“Now there are more Syrians than Lebanese in our area” in the north, he said.
Hadi Hbeich, a lawmaker for the northern region present at the airport to welcome the survivors, said the accident should ring alarm bells for Lebanon and the international community.
“The unemployment in the Akkar region is frightening. The society is on the verge of an explosion. These people went to the ends of the earth to feed their children because they have lost all hope in their country and the state,” he told AFP.
“The last international statistics for Akkar show that for every six Lebanese in the region there are four Syrians,” Hbeich said.
“These are catastrophic figures for a region where people already live in misery.”
The UN refugee agency UNHCR says more than 770,000 Syrian refugees are in Lebanon, a country of four million people.