The tragedy underscores the desperate efforts being made by some Lebanese after their country’s economy collapsed, leaving two-thirds of the population in poverty with no hope of recovery.
Lebanon has now become a source for migrants making the dangerous boat crossing to reach European shores. There are no firm numbers, but hundreds of Lebanese have attempted the journey in recent months.
In Tripoli, Lebanon’s poorest city, residents say there is a steady stream of migrant boats departing from the shores around the city — even from Tripoli’s official port.
“The port has become like an airport. Young people, women and children go to Europe. The trips are daily,” said Amid Dandashi, Bilal’s brother, who was also on the boat with him and whose three children died when it capsized.
On Friday, police said they had arrested three smugglers who were preparing to set off in a boat carrying 85 migrants from the dock of a resort town near Tripoli.
Bilal and another of his brothers had attempted a crossing before, but the smuggler’s boat they were on stalled offshore.
So for a second trip, they took matters into their own hands. Working with two other families in Tripoli, they acquired a nearly 50-year-old leisure boat from a smuggler. The brothers spent three months renovating it and getting life jackets for it.
On the night of April 23, they set out: around 22 members of the extended Dandashi family along with members of the other two families. They were about 60 people in all, well over the capacity of the small yacht. The goal was to reach Italy – some 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) across the Mediterranean Sea, a common route for migrant boats from Lebanon.
An hour and a half into their journey, their boat was intercepted by the Lebanese Navy.
Disaster: The boat collided with the Navy ship and sank within seconds.
The Navy has blamed the boat’s captain, saying he maneuvered to avoid being forced to return to shore. It also accused the migrants of overcrowding the boat and not wearing life jackets.
However, Bilal Dandashi accused the naval vessel of intentionally ramming their boat to push it back.
He said the Navy crew insulted the migrants during the encounter. Their boat would have reached international waters outside of the Navy’s jurisdiction in just minutes, he said.
“If it hadn’t hit us from the front…we could have crossed it,” he said. “They made a conscious decision.”
The passengers weren’t wearing their life jackets because they didn’t want to draw attention when they left the port and the boat sank too quickly to put them on after the collision, Dandashi said.
Bilal Dandashi was rescued along with two of his children. But his wife and two other children remain missing.
His brother Amid’s three children were all killed and their bodies found later in the search.
Mitten recalled packing his children’s things for the trip and never thought he’d return home without them. He and his brothers felt reassured the boat was safe after the work they put into it, otherwise he would never have put his children in danger, he said.
“I blame myself as a father for taking that risk,” he said. “But I was sure that I would reach (Europe) … Everything was safe.”
The surge in migrants is fueled by desperation from an economic meltdown caused by years of corruption and mismanagement.
Rising inflation and the collapse of the currency have ruined people’s salaries and savings. Medicines, fuel and many foods are in short supply. Bilal Dandashi has diabetes and cannot find the medication he needs.
Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, has felt the brunt of the crisis. Almost the entire workforce in Tripoli depends on daily income.
Tensions have increased in the city since the boat sank. Angry local residents blocked roads and attacked a main army checkpoint in Tripoli, throwing stones at troops who responded by firing in the air.
The government held an extraordinary session and asked the military court to investigate the case.
“This whole country is drowning, (it is) not only us who have drowned. The whole country is drowning and they ignore it,” said Bilal Dandashi.
The 47-year-old acknowledged his attempted crossing was illegal but said he could not travel legally. With so many Lebanese applying for passports, the authorities are dealing with a massive backlog and recently stopped processing applications altogether.
“Give me a passport. I couldn’t get one for six months,” he said. “Why that? Because they want us to come here to bury ourselves here – or die in the sea.”