Sydney lawyer Tom Zreika was two years old when his family fled war-torn Lebanon by boat. Thousands made the same trip before the civil war ended in 1990, and many died at sea. “Never in my wildest dreams” did he think he would see his countrymen making that desperate decision again, especially in peacetime.
But Lebanon’s economy has collapsed, and there are dire shortages of food, fuel and medicine. So in late April an estimated 80 people, including Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian nationals, boarded a boat designed for 12, choosing to risk the dangerous trip to Cyprus rather than stay in poverty-stricken Tripoli.
The boat sank. Up to 32 people – including children and women trapped in the captain’s cabin – died. The grief and anger at their deaths intensified civil unrest in Lebanon’s north and sent shockwaves through the Lebanese diaspora, many of whom remember their own boat trip and, like Zreika, thought that chapter of their country’s history had closed.
Word reached two prominent members of Sydney’s Muslim community – Zreika, the chair of Sydney-based aid organization AusRelief, and respected Bankstown doctor Jamal Rifi – that the families of the dead were calling for the bodies of their loved ones to be retrieved from the wreck and given a Muslim burial.
As the Lebanese government was not in a position to respond, Rifi and Zreika decided to take on the job themselves. They have hired a submarine to find the wreck, retrieve the bodies, and commemorate the disaster.
Their mission is costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, initially funded by a single, anonymous donor. It is complicated and has already faced many setbacks. It may not succeed. But they consider the attempt to mark of respect, not only for those who died on the latest voyage, but to all the refugees who have died at sea.
“No boat, ever, of any refugee, or would-be refugee… has been retrieved or their bodies retrieved,” says Rifi, who has long supported refugees in Australia and on Manus Island. “No government has made any attempt to retrieve the drowned bodies to give them a proper burial.
“If we can’t retrieve any bodies, if we can’t float the boat, then we’ll get a religious leader on this site … and we will place a plaque on the boat.”
Zreika says the mission is about honoring the dead, who were desperately trying to create a better life for their children as so many others, such as their own parents, have done. “Why invest so much in this project?” he says. “Because they’re not garbage. We’re not garbage.”
AusRelief has hired the Pisces VI, a deep sea submarine capable of taking passengers to a depth of more than 2000 meters, to find and retrieve the wreck. The Pisces is usually used by governments or scientists, but its owner has spent time in the Middle East and understands the importance of burial to Muslims, Rifi said.
The vessel is in a shipping container in Spain, and is due to leave for Lebanon next week. The trip will take several weeks, and requires complicated paperwork that has taken months to organize.
There have been myriad delays and its departure may be delayed again if European authorities decide another cargo takes precedence, or a European Union member country decides it needs the vessel. Once it arrives in Beirut, the Lebanese navy will provide transport to Tripoli, a barge to take it out to sea, a support ship and a security escort.
The Sydney team has identified a small search area and is confident it will be able to locate the boat, which is estimated to be around 450 meters below the surface.
They will have seven days to carry out their mission, which is likely to be in late August, unless there are further delays. “Seven days of diving,” says Zreika. “And at the end of the seven days it’s up to us to make a decision [about what to do next]. If we can’t recover it, we’ll consult with the locals. We may have a ceremony at sea. We’d place a plaque as far as we can go down, and take footage of it.”
If they do find the boat, they will attempt to attach deflated airbags, then slowly inflate them to lift it to the surface. They expect many of the bodies to be in the captain’s cabin, as eyewitness accounts suggest those inside could not open the jammed door to escape as the boat sank. Most of the people on deck were rescued.
A representative for AusRelief in Tripoli, where the organization has a kitchen that provides food, has also warned relatives that the bodies would likely have decomposed at sea. One father said, “even if the submarine gets me the shoes of my daughter, I will be satisfied.”
Zreika will fly to Lebanon to lead the mission when the submarine arrives. Rifi, however, cannot. He has a political profile there because his brother, Ashraf, is a prominent Sunni member of the Lebanese parliament and a former justice minister.
Last year, a military court sentenced Rifi sentenced in absentia, without any opportunity to present a defense, to 10 years in prison with hard labor for being a collaborator with the enemy, Israel, and a traitor. There is no avenue for appeal and, if he returned, he would be jailed. He has described it as a “de facto death sentence”, and has blamed the influence of Hezbollah, a Shiite political party and militant group.
He was found guilty of violating the 1954 anti-Israel boycott law for being a board member of Project Rozana, an Australian non-government organization that pays for the training of Palestinian medical workers in Israel and funds the transport of children from the West Bank and Strip for medical care.
He is hoping he will be pardoned when the new crop of Lebanese MPs, elected in May, is able to form a new coalition government. But he says there is no connection between the salvage project and his case.
The situation in Lebanon is still dire, particularly in the north, which is home to the families of many in Sydney’s Lebanese community. Due to decades of corruption and economic mismanagement, in which Lebanon lived well beyond its means, the currency has collapsed, queues for bread are growing longer, and hospital supplies have run dry.
Many fear the country will descend into full-blown violence and Lebanon will become a failed state.
There is also anger in Tripoli over reports that the boat’s sinking may have been the result of an over-zealous attempt by the navy to turn it back.
The anonymous donor provided the money to cover the upfront fee for the submarine of $430,000. However, Zreika hopes more donations will cover not only the cost of the project, but also provide money to support the survivors’ families.
“Australia gave me so much,” says Zreika. “It’s my duty to give back. We’ve made something of ourselves. But people who are stuffed in a corner, they don’t have an opportunity. In the scheme of things I don’t consider it to be an expensive project.
“It’s an unusual mission for a humanitarian organisation. With the support of our donors, I think we can achieve it.”
The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.