Sydney lawyer Tom Zreika was two years old when his family fled war-torn Lebanon by boat. Thousands of people made the same journey before the end of the civil war in 1990, and many died at sea. “Never in my wildest dreams” did he think he would see his compatriots make that desperate decision again, especially in times of peace.
But Lebanon’s economy has collapsed and there are severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine. So end of April about 80 people, including Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian nationalsboarded a boat designed for 12 people, choosing to risk the dangerous trip to Cyprus rather than stay in impoverished Tripoli.
The boat sank. Up to 32 people – including children and women trapped in the captain’s cabin – died. The grief and anger over their deaths intensified civil unrest in northern Lebanon and sent shockwaves through the Lebanese diaspora, many of whom remember their own boat trip and, like Zreika, believed this chapter of the history of their country was closed.
The news has reached two prominent members of Sydney’s Muslim community – Zreika, President of Sydney aid organization AusReliefand respected Bankstown doctor Jamal Rifi – that the families of the dead were demanding that the bodies of their loved ones be recovered from the wreckage and given a Muslim burial.
Since the Lebanese government was unable to respond, Rifi and Zreika decided to do it themselves. They hired a submarine to find the wreckage, recover the bodies, and commemorate the disaster.
Their mission costs 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 view the attempt as a mark of respect, not just for those who died on the last voyage, but for all of the refugees who died at sea.
“No boat, ever, of a refugee, or a potential refugee…has been recovered or their bodies recovered,” says Rifi, a long-time refugee supporter in Australia and Manus Island. “No government has attempted to salvage the bodies of the drowned for proper burial.
“If we can’t recover any bodies, if we can’t float the boat, then we’ll have a religious leader at this site…and we’ll put a plaque on the boat.”
Zreika says the mission is to honor the dead, who were desperately trying to create a better life for their children like so many others, like her own parents, have done. “Why invest so much in this project? he says. “Because they are not garbage. We are not garbage.
AusRelief has hired Pisces VI, an offshore submarine capable of taking passengers to more than 2000 meters deep, to find and recover the wreckage. Pisces is usually used by governments or scientists, but its owner has spent time in the Middle East and understands the importance of burial for Muslims, Rifi said.
The ship 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 took months to arrange.
There have been a myriad of delays and its departure may be delayed again if European authorities decide another cargo has priority, or if a European Union member country decides it needs the ship. Once in Beirut, the Lebanese Navy will provide transportation to Tripoli, a barge to take it to sea, a support vessel and a security escort.
The Sydney team have identified a small search area and are confident they will be able to locate the boat, which is believed to be around 450 meters below the surface.
They will have seven days to complete their mission, which should take place at the end of 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 cannot recover it, we will consult the inhabitants. We can have a ceremony at sea. We place a plaque as far down as we can go and take pictures of it.
If they find the boat, they will try to attach deflated airbags, then slowly inflate them to bring it to the surface. They expect many bodies to be in the captain’s cabin as eyewitnesses suggest those inside were unable to open the jammed door to escape when the boat sank . Most people on deck were rescued.
A representative of AusRelief in Tripoli, where the organization has a kitchen that provides food, also warned relatives that the bodies would likely have decomposed at sea. get me my daughter’s shoes, I’ll be satisfied.”
Zreika will fly to Lebanon to lead the mission when the submarine arrives. Rifi, however, cannot. There is a political profile as 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 of the enemy, Israel, and a traitor. There is no possibility of appeal and, if he returned, he would be imprisoned. He described it as a “de facto death sentence” and blamed the influence of Hezbollah, a Shiite political party and militant group.
He was found guilty of violating the Anti-Israel Boycott Act of 1954 for serving on the board of directors of Rosana project, an Australian non-governmental organization that funds the training of Palestinian medical workers in Israel and funds the transport of children from the West Bank and Gaza for medical treatment.
He hopes he will be pardoned when the new generation of Lebanese MPs, elected in May, will be able to form a new coalition government. But he says there is no connection between the rescue project and his case.
The situation in Lebanon remains dire, particularly in the north, which is home to the families of many members of Sydney’s Lebanese community. Due to decades of corruption and economic mismanagement, during which Lebanon has lived far beyond its means, the currency has collapsed, lines for bread are getting longer and hospital supplies are shrinking. dry up.
Many fear that the country will descend into large-scale violence and Lebanon will become a failed state.
There is also anger in Tripoli on the reports that the sinking of the boat may have been the result of an overzealous attempt by the Navy to turn it back.
The anonymous donor provided the money to cover the sub’s initial costs of $430,000. However, Zreika hopes more donations will not only cover the cost of the project, but also provide money to support the families of survivors.
“Australia has given me so much,” says Zreika. “It’s my duty to give back. We made something of ourselves. But people who are stuck in a corner, they don’t have an opportunity. In the scheme of things, I don’t consider this to be an expensive project.
“This is an unusual mission for a humanitarian organization. With the support of our donors, I believe we can achieve this.
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