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24 Nov 2020 16:43
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  •   Home > News > International

    Lebanese families are taking the treacherous journey across the sea to Cyprus. Little Mohammed didn't make it

    Zeinab, her husband Nazir and their four children were hoping to start a new life when they boarded a boat from Lebanon to Cyprus. Instead, they got lost, ran out of fuel and lost their baby son as they drifted at sea.

    Zeinab Mohammed knew her family was in trouble when the fishing boat meant to take them from Lebanon to Cyprus began drifting in the middle of the sea.

    "I knew then our life and our kids are in danger, but I didn't expect my child to die," Zeinab told the ABC.

    Zeinab, her husband Nazir and their four children were on a small boat with 43 others, adrift under the hot sun with no food or water.

    They had packed supplies for the journey, but their bags were taken from them by the organiser of the voyage and, they were told, put on another boat, which did not meet them as promised.

    They were lost, out of fuel, and had no way to call for help.

    On the second day of the journey, two small children aboard became unwell.

    "They are just babies and the sun was so hot, there was nothing to protect us," Zienab said.

    Zeinab Mohammed held her 18-month-old son Mohammed on her lap, pouring seawater on his head to cool him down.

    "The kids became thirsty. They were very thirsty, so we gave them seawater and they couldn't drink it," Nazir Mohammed said.

    "My nephew died on that day, and my son died the next day."

    With no other choice, Nazir and Zeinab put their son's body into the sea and watched it float away.

    Their boat kept drifting. When another person died, 10 men on board decided to swim for help.

    Eventually, a Turkish ship carrying United Nations peacekeepers found one young man drifting, then the boat, taking the asylum seekers to Beirut.

    The 172-kilometre crossing should have taken them a day and a half. Instead they spent eight days adrift at sea before finally being rescued.

    Six people from the doomed journey from Tripoli to Cyprus remain missing.

    The devastating moment a small boy was pulled from the water

    The Mohammed family hoped to start a new life in the European Union.

    An unemployed mechanic, Nazir had sold all his family's furniture and his wife Zeinab her jewellery to fund their journey from Tripoli.

    Then they borrowed money for the $7,000 fee for passage on a fishing boat, to seek asylum on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

    Days after returning to land, Nazir found out through social media that his baby boy's body had been found.

    "I opened my phone, I saw a picture that my father posted on Facebook," he said.

    "I called him right away, saying 'this is my son'.

    "We did all of this to ensure a better future for our kids and this is what we got."

    Instead of a new life, they have returned home without their youngest, broke and heartbroken, trapped once more in the poverty and hopelessness of Lebanon's collapse.

    Hundreds of Lebanese have been fleeing the country by boat this year to make the treacherous crossing to Europe.

    Cypriot authorities say this year they intercepted 779 people on boats from Lebanon by mid-September.

    Nearly half of those came in the six weeks after the devastating Beirut port blast in August, prompting the Government of Cyprus to make a deal with Lebanese authorities to return all asylum seekers.

    Lebanese risk their lives on the sea as their country spirals

    This is not the first time Lebanese have tried to flee. Many Lebanese left the country during its devastating civil war, which ended in 1990.

    But modern Lebanon was better known as a place that sheltered refugees, including 1.5 million from Syria, rather than generated them.

    Then came the collapse of the currency and banking sector, major increases in the cost of living and an ongoing political crisis that pushed many middle-class Lebanese into poverty and the poor into despair.

    "This is the first time that we've seen such huge numbers of Lebanese nationals trying to leave Lebanon," Nadia Hardman from Human Rights Watch told the ABC.

    "This is first time we've seen people get on boats and risk their lives to try to access Cyprus."

    Despite months of popular protests calling for deep reforms of Lebanon's sectarian political system and the collapse of two governments, the country's Parliament has just nominated former prime minister Saad Hariri to return to office.

    He has promised to implement a French-sponsored plan to reform institutions in exchange for a financial bailout.

    But few Lebanese expect the same crop of leaders who dragged their country into crisis to save it.

    "The reasons why people are fleeing are not going away," Ms Hardman said.

    "We expect to see those reasons increase as people are expecting the situation to get worse."

    The economic situation is worsening in Lebanon and food security experts estimate the majority of Lebanese will need some kind of food aid by the end of the year.

    "There is talk of lifting subsidies on fuel and bread," Ms Hardman said.

    "This is going to provoke an even bigger economic crisis.

    "So our expectation is that people are going to continue to risk their lives to try and access a better life in Europe."

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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