In the early morning of September 7, 2020, Mohammed Al Mohammed was preparing to board the boat that ―they promised him― would teleport him in just one hour from the poverty and despair of Lebanon, already then immersed in one of the biggest economic crises in the last 170 years, to Cyprus, the island 185 kilometers away that opens the door to the magic word: Europe. Sufian [su hijo de dos años] The milk will be taken here and when I am hungry again you will have arrived. You don’t need all that,” the person in charge of the journey told him when he saw him arrive with cans of tuna, biscuits, water and chocolates. Sufyan died on the way. A photo of the little boy smiling today hangs dissonantly in the living room of the family home in Bab Al Tabbane, one of the poorest neighborhoods of the poorest city in the Mediterranean, Tripoli.
The launch was lost and ran out of fuel the first day. Seven days later, she was rescued and returned to Lebanon with 35 of the 45 people who had left. Al Mohammed, now 23, and his wife, Obaida Ismail, 22, survived. The sinking of Lebanon, coupled with repatriation plans to Syria and growing hostility towards refugees, have boosted the eastern Mediterranean migration route (arrivals in Cyprus have risen from 2,995 in 2020 to 13,474 in the first nine months of this year ), which last September added 95 corpses in its worst shipwreck. Although he lost a son on the first try, Al Mohammed wants to try again: “But this time alone, so that if something happens, something of this family remains.”
The Tripoli in which it was born is just a memory of its bonanza as a commercial capital. The push of Beirut and, later, the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) fueled the decline of the city, the second largest in the country (500,000 inhabitants) and cradle of great fortunes such as that of the Prime Minister, Nayib Mikati, fourth man richest in the Arab world. The name of the Al Mohammed neighborhood, the Sunni Bab Al Tabbane, is associated with the lumpen and the Islamic State, which recruited a thousand fighters here. Also to the decades of confrontations with its neighbor with an Alawite majority, Jabal Mohsen, divided by loyalty around El Asad in Syria. Signs of shrapnel and gunshots can still be seen in the buildings. The economic crisis that began in 2019 gave the umpteenth finishing touch to Tripoli, which went from “pride of the revolution”, finally frustrated, to the main migratory focus of the country, especially Syrians, but also Lebanese, Palestinians and migrants from other countries.
After four years unemployed, with his wife pregnant again and shocked, he says, by the explosion in the port of Beirut, Al Mohammed felt that 2020 was the time to “take control” of his life. His mother, a widow since 2009, sold a refrigerator, a television and a stove; and his sister, a gold bracelet. So he added up the $2,000 it cost to illegally reach Europe by boat. “It didn’t matter because as soon as I got there, I would make it up to them,” he says. The mafia that organized the voyage charged more to those who had relatives in Europe and they presented it to him, through a familiar intermediary, as a simple trip to a nearby island, where they would transfer to a larger yacht with which they would reach Cyprus. . “The idea was that, in the worst case, if we regretted it once there, we just had to go to the Lebanese Embassy and they would send us back by plane,” he adds. That morning, on Al Minia beach, north of Tripoli, he came across a 10 meter by four boat for 45 people and no life jackets. Most were Syrians, although there were also other Lebanese, Yemenis, Bangladeshis and Palestinians.
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On the third day, with hardly any water and with just a couple of chocolates to eat, Sufián began to feel really bad. “For him to drink, we took the diapers and soaked them in the sea, thinking that part of the salt would remain in the diaper. The sun was very strong, I was very confused and we were very thirsty”, he affirms. In desperation, Al Mohammed gave his son a mixture of seawater with Nescafé and powdered milk. “He thought that, somehow, God would take the salt away from him”, he justifies himself. Sufián began 20 minutes of vomiting and diarrhea. “I understood that I had killed my own son and I fainted. When I came to, I hardly even recognized him, because I was beginning to see the death in his face. He got on my wife’s lap and started moaning. On the other side of the boat they were already reciting the fatiha for his soul, but she was unaware that he was already dead. I told him: ‘Let’s go to sleep and we’ll see what we do in the morning.’ I woke up to my wife’s screams when she saw the child’s face. I was confused, as if I didn’t remember that my son had died, as if it were a dream. Shortly after, I picked him up and said: ‘I’m sorry, I killed you. I wanted to give you a better life, I did this for you, but I killed you.’ People thought he had driven me crazy. I felt very guilty, ”she recalls.
Al Mohammed did not want to part with the corpse, but the rest urged him to throw it into the water so that it would not endanger everyone by rotting. And they insisted that it was better that this was the last memory of his son’s face, and not a disfigured one. Unable either to keep his child or to get rid of him, she grabbed a rope and tied him to the boat so “she could see him all the time.” “Every day I went down to the water to hug him. But, at night, when he heard his body crashing against the boat, my heart broke. At that point, what he wanted was for someone else to die so my son wouldn’t be the only one. And the son of [su familiar] Nasir, who was one and a half years old. I’m sorry… but he calmed me down. I began to see everything more calmly, ”he admits embarrassed. Three days later, Sufyan’s head was so swollen that she untied his body. “I saw him walk away. I don’t understand what I felt at that moment. I do not know yet. Sometimes I think: How could I leave my son in the sea?
On the fifth day the health, physical or mental, of other passengers began to give way. A Bangladeshi man died and a woman “who had started to go crazy” woke up lifeless, he says. “A man with diabetes started saying strange things and jumped into the sea. We forced him up and he did it again. That time we already let him go, ”she recalls. Five more adults swam out for help. Some of their corpses ended up washing up on the coast.
Al Mohammed remembers how, in the dead of night, with no lights in the distance, two things kept him hopeful. One, feeling mosquitoes, which made him think they were approaching the mainland. The other, when his wife put her hand to her belly and felt the baby.
On the eighth day they sighted a ship. Al Mohammed swam towards it. “I was amazed at how well I did after eight days without eating or drinking. I only thought about my survival, ”he admits. He notified the crew and returned to the boat. Ten minutes later, they were rescued. “I just kept saying: ‘God is the greatest!’ We were so nervous that we broke the bottles that were thrown at us trying to catch them. The water burned you when you drank it, ”he says.
It was a UNIFIL ship, the mission of blue helmets in southern Lebanon. Instead of sailing northwest, they had drifted to the southern border with Israel. Al Mohammed recalls that the military were Turkish and wore protective suits, at the height of the covid. “We told them: ‘Take us to Turkey. A jail in Turkey is better than Lebanon. Take us anywhere, but not to Lebanon!’ They told us we were going to Turkey, until we began to see that in 20 minutes we were close to Beirut. And that we thought we were so far from everything…”
Al Mohammed is in a worse situation today than he was that day. He owes more and more money. After his second child was born with hydrocephalus, he received $500 from a collection. He invested them in a chicken business. “He had never touched a chicken, nor dealt with suppliers or customers. A year later he already owed double. He was so frustrated that one day I pulled down the blind and left everything there. There it goes, ”he says. He seems stuck: he lacks the money to resume the business, but he refuses to end the lease to stop accumulating debt to the landlord. He is not looking for work nor has he requested the DNI that he lost on the sea voyage. It is cold in the house even during the day. The government only provides one hour of electricity a day. Some neighbors give them three amps from the private community generator, which they give them for the fridge, light “and, sometimes, watch a little TV.”
Just think about going where everything is “easier”. “That my son have food, education and health. And I understand that, outside of here, the State takes care of all that. I would go again, because now I know how it works. I would take water, food and a life jacket. What I don’t have is the money to pay for it.” Fear? “Nope. If you put yourself in my shoes, you would do the same.
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