This is the story of how the Syrian war reached out 5,000 miles across the globe and destroyed at least 29 Lebanese lives in the Indian Ocean. It is a story of tragic irony; the destitute Lebanese families who wanted to live in Australia and left their arid villages in the hills of the northern Akkar plateau had been warned by their relatives not to leave their homes, and they died just off the coast of Indonesia. And it is a story of a country whose authorities take no responsibility for the deaths of their own people.
The sinking of the overcrowded refugee boat that set off from the Java district of Cianjur 10 days ago cannot match the hundreds of fatalities of the north African boat that sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa last week, where up to 350 people are thought to have died and divers were still recovering bodies from the Mediterranean yesterday. These disasters do not match in terms of scale of loss, but some features are the same: the desperation of the passengers to find a new life, the involvement of ruthless people-smugglers, the wooden hulks in which they sought illusory safety. What is different is the nationality of the refugees. For Lebanon – of all Middle East countries – is a place of comparative security and wealth, despite the Syrian conflict and the violence it has brought to Beirut and Tripoli.
In some south-west Asian countries, television advertisements warn would-be asylum seekers of the fate that awaits them. Scarcely an hour passes on an Afghan TV channel without an ominous man’s voice – against a black screen – telling viewers in Dari (Farsi) and Pushtu: “Australia is not a country to reach by boat. If you attempt to go by boat, you will not be allowed onto Australian territory. You will be sent to the island of Papua New Guinea and will never be allowed to live in Australia…” No such warning has ever been broadcast on Lebanese television. There seemed to be no need.
Unlike the anonymous victims off Lampedusa, where there were too few coffins for the dead, the Lebanese who lost their lives and drifted ashore from the Indian Ocean have known identities. Careful investigations by the local Lebanese press have discovered their Sunni Muslim home villages: Qabaait, Khreibet and Nabaa Fnaydaq, close to the Syrian border, and the Tripoli suburb of Bab el-Tabbaneh, whose militias have been at war with pro-Syrian Alawite gunmen east of the city for two years.
The remote hamlets astride the Bared river – which dribbles into the Mediterranean from the Palestinian refugee camp of the same name – have been neglected for years by the Beirut government, no more so than now, when the political feuds between pro- and anti-Syrian Lebanese parties means that no new Lebanese cabinet can be created.
There are no schools in much of the Akkar countryside, few hospitals, almost no jobs. The young men have no money to get married. Many of them are forced to join the Lebanese army in order to survive. The “outgoing” Lebanese government – elected in a poll now hopelessly out of date – didn’t care. Almost an entire family were lost from Qabaait. The Khodr family’s only survivor was the father, Hussain, whose wife and nine children all perished. The remains of his wife and one daughter were brought ashore. In Tripoli, the Gamrawy and Hraz families lost their loved ones, while Talal Rai died with his three children and his sister, Ahmed Abdo, the father of Mustafa who was 24 – who is still missing – borrowed $10,000 from his friends to pay for the journey to Australia; the total cost for each family was $60,000 to be paid to an Iraqi smuggler known as “Abu Saleh”.
Many relatives had begged the families not to leave. Abdo told one local paper that “my son is one of the good young boys who sought to live in peace. The economic and security problems we have suffered through forced him to emigrate and look for peace of mind”. To the Lebanese government, Abdo declared: “You should look after your people, and your country, and enough of your disputes.”
A photograph survives of the passengers aboard their boat, sitting on rough, wooden benches in the choppy seas off Java. The picture is spotted with raindrops, but you can clearly see the doomed Lebanese aboard. One smiles broadly, another waves at the camera, most stare at the camera. Behind them is a bleak, grey sky and a sinister, frothing sea. They are only minutes from death. We know that in the last moments, one Lebanese used his mobile phone to call a relative in Melbourne to seek help. The relative called the Australian naval authorities, who later launched helicopters and jets in a hopeless search for a boat that had already sunk.
But when the scale of the Lebanese losses reached Beirut – only 18 Lebanese survived – their pseudo-government sprang into action. It promised that survivors would be brought home, and that all those whose bodies were found would be brought back to be buried in the barren soil of their own land. In fact, they spent more time making pledges about the dead than they did about the living. And what does that tell you about Lebanon?