A tragedy at sea rocks Tripoli, Lebanon’s poorest city

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TRIPOLI, Lebanon — For more than two hours, Ahmad Taleb kept calling his pregnant sister’s name. The 17-year-old was desperately hoping she had survived after the small boat they boarded to flee Lebanon capsized and sank late last month.

His voice trembled with anger as he recounted a week later that a larger ship had rammed their boat, which passengers said was carrying about 75 people trying to escape the crushing poverty in this northern Lebanese city. Taleb watched silhouettes clinging to the dark surface of the water and felt his clothing heave as he searched for his sister.

She never showed up. “I didn’t want to live anymore,” he said.

Boats carrying economic migrants today often depart from Tripoli, a place long abandoned by political leaders and made all the more desperate in recent times by the country’s worst financial crisis on record.

Since 2019, Lebanon has been plagued by disasters that have turned all facets of life upside down, including a financial meltdown that wiped out the value of its currency and the 2020 Beirut port explosion that left much of the capital’s center dead destroyed and killed more than 200 people.

With the Lebanese leadership failing to address what the World Bank calls one of the world’s worst economic crises, the people have stopped relying on the government’s services. Instead, the country was divided into spheres of influence, with residents turning to political factions and leaders instead of a centralized, functional state.

Lebanon was famous for its medical care. Now doctors and nurses are fleeing in droves.

But Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest and poorest city, despite its size and the fact that it is home to some of them, seems to have no patron the country’s richest and most prominent political figures – including the country’s prime minister.

When the boat en route to Europe sank on April 23 after allegedly being rammed by a ship carrying Lebanese military personnel, the tragedy in Tripoli sparked a spate of long-simmering complaints of exclusion, state incompetence and the yawning gap between the richest citizens of Lebanon and its vast and growing underclass.

Seven bodies were recovered from the water. About 20 people are believed to be missing. Her loved ones were told state divers could not reach the boat. Angry family members blocked roads in Tripoli last week and threatened to do the same later this month when voting in the general election takes place unless the bodies are recovered.

Ahmad al-Hamwi, whose brother died on the boat with his two children, had one plaintive demand: that religious leaders pressure the prime minister to do whatever is necessary to recover the bodies of the victims.

“Send us submarines so we can get the bodies out and honor them with funerals,” he said.

Before boarding the boat, Taleb had every reason to leave the country. Like many of his peers, he dropped out of school to make ends meet. Available Professions were paying starvation wages – about 30,000 Lebanese pounds a day, or just over US$1 at the current black market rate, most of which went to public transport to and from work.

He collected tin cans from garbage cans and sold them for a little money. Recently, however, the growing number of desperate people in the city have been cleaning out the trash cans. “Now you jump into a trash can and you can’t even find a single can,” he said.

“How can I make a living from this?” he said. “We are suffocating; I swear we’re suffocating,’ he said. “I don’t have to live like this. I must go even if I die.”

Just when it seemed like Lebanon couldn’t get any worse, it did

Like many in Tripoli, and now throughout Lebanon, he harbored a particular hatred of the country’s political class. “You have lost nothing,” he said. “They have the best drink, the best food, the best of everything,” he continued. “We’re the least of their worries.”

The walls and pillars of Tripoli’s Municipal Building are still black from a fire more than a year ago, which broke out when protesters, fed up with the lack of work during the coronavirus lockdown, clashed with the army and threw Molotov cocktails into it threw buildings.

With no money for repairs, Tripoli Mayor Riad Yamak is forced to work on the second floor, which is relatively untouched. When asked why Tripoli had suffered more than other parts of Lebanon, he blamed a lack of investment for the inequality.

“The businessman is a coward: he goes where there is stability,” he said.

As reconstruction began after the end of the civil war in 1990, potential investors like Rafiq al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005 after twice serving as prime minister, were wary of investing in Tripoli, Yamak said — partly because of the Syrian government that was in power heavily involved in Lebanese politics in recent decades, exerted a particularly strong influence in Tripoli, including with its security forces.

The violent escalation of the Syrian war in 2011 led to further threats in Tripoli, including recruitment by the Islamic State militant group. In recent years, the pandemic has cut off what little the city has to offer for employment.

Smugglers are partly behind Lebanon’s energy crisis. The army tries to stop them.

“The problems we have need a plan from the government to be solved,” he said. “There are whole families whose members are unemployed.” His city has no money to provide even the most basic services: When it rains heavily, the sewage floods streets and houses due to failing infrastructure.

To add insult to distress, the city’s heritage is being plundered, he said, with large swathes of Tripoli’s great hilltop citadel being carried away by thieves and reappearing atop elegant mansions elsewhere in Lebanon.

Yamak described his city as one of perpetual reflection: some parts of the city still clearly bear the marks of the civil war. Building facades are riddled with bullet holes or cavities caused by heavier weapons; Some of the cavities are so large that pigeons nest in them.

The city feels suspended in time. The streets are crammed with 1970s Mercedes-Benz cars held together with tape and ropes. Neighborhoods are a cross of wires that deliver electricity to the city through intricate networks. Near a roundabout where protesters used to gather, a wall is spray-painted with large block letters reading “COPE”.

“I don’t expect anything from the government,” said Ibrahim, a 45-year-old shopkeeper who sells cotton textiles and spoke on condition that he be referred to by his first name only. “I’m not waiting for anything, and they can’t change anything because it’s a mafia country … but legalized.”

“Our prime minister is from here,” he said, referring to Najib Mikati, a billionaire tycoon who is serving as Lebanon’s prime minister for the third time. “What has he done?”

The army launched an investigation after passengers accused uniformed soldiers of being on a ship that they said had repeatedly rammed the migrant boat. Mikati publicly supported the investigation but appeared to side with the military, saying “our confidence in the wisdom and leadership of the army is strong.”

After the deaths at sea, men spray-painted graffiti on what local TV stations identified as Mikati’s home in Tripoli. “This billionaire’s wealth was gathered from the blood of the people,” it said.

Tripoli residents also rejected a plan announced by parliament to develop northern Lebanon — the latest in a string of empty promises, they said.

“I’m worried about my kids,” said Ibrahim, the shopkeeper. “There are humiliations everywhere: there is no electricity. There is no water. We grew up in the war: nothing has changed. It is worse.”

Haidamous reported from Washington.

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