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‘My life’s empty’: Father who lost family in Lebanon boat tragedy

Mohamed Fares boarded a boat with his family in the hope of a better life. Hours later, more than 100 were dead, including his wife and four children.

Nahr al-Bared, Lebanon – The road leading up to Mohamed Fares’s house follows the shore of the turquoise blue Mediterranean Sea, the same waters where his wife and three children drowned on September 23.

Mohamad is one of the few survivors of the boat he and his family were on. It capsized off the coast of Syria, killing at least 104 people.

At the family home, neighbours and relatives sit in plastic chairs outside, and children run up and down the stairwell leading up to the apartment where Mohamad’s five brothers and sisters walk around the flat, smoking cigarettes.

“[It feels] empty,” the 40-year-old tells Al Jazeera, referring to the bedroom he shared with his wife, Soha. “Life is empty.”

The memories of what happened – the overcrowded boat, the wave crashing down, his daughter’s body floating lifeless, have scarred him, most likely forever.

The trip was supposed to be a chance for a fresh start.

Mohamad and Soha made the decision to leave a few weeks ago, despite their relatives urging. The couple sold their jewellery and borrowed money from relatives to pay $10,000 for the boat journey.

Like thousands of other people residing in Lebanon, the Fares family were hard hit by the country’s financial crisis, which has pushed 80 percent of the population below the poverty line, and many to seek dangerous smuggling routes to Europe.

Approximately 3,500 people have attempted the dangerous journey from Lebanon this year alone, double the number from 2021, according to the UNHCR.

Mohamad’s home is in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, near Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli.

Palestinians lack the Lebanese citizenship rights, even if the majority were born and raised in the country.

Mohamad has a job as a nurse, but was still desperate to leave.

Life, he says, had become unbearable.

His salary had previously been equal to approximately $1,000 – it was now worth $40, after the Lebanese pound lost 95 percent of its value in recent years, a direct consequence of the country’s financial crisis.

As he struggled to provide, his hope for his children’s future evaporated.

“I don’t know how we reached this level here,” Mohamad says. “OK, we were living in this country before and it had some problems, but not as much as now. Now, it’s complete, it’s enough. We can’t take it any more, we are exhausted.”

‘I couldn’t save my family’

As Mohamad tells the story, his brothers bring him his cigarettes, tissues and a water bottle. Mohamad lights a cigarette as he begins to recall the shipwreck.

“I was the last one who entered the boat. It was dark so I didn’t see how many people were there … and we moved immediately, so I didn’t even have time to complain or to change my mind,” he says.

Mohamad claims that the smuggler, who has since been arrested, had promised the family that they would travel on a “yacht”, with about 70 people. Instead, Mohamad estimates that more than 150 people were on the boat, 25 Palestinians he knew from Nahr al-Bared.

“He promised us a lot of things, a big boat, that it will be equipped with all means of comfort, as if we were in the Titanic,” Mohamad says.

“Turns out, it was a Titanic,” his brother, sitting next to him, adds.

Mohamad remembers that the sea was choppy, with only a few wearing the lifejackets that had been promised by the smuggler to everyone.

Big waves slammed against the boat, and then the electricity generator failed.

As morning came, the boat’s engine stopped completely and a big wave hit the side of the boat turning it upside down and throwing Mohamad and dozens of others into the sea.

A man sits alone on a bed in a darkened room
Mohamad Fares was unable to save his wife and four children – he now says that his life is empty [Mia Alberti/Al Jazeera]

“When I fell I tried getting my family out, not just them but whoever came up in front of me,” Mohamad says, his cigarette smoking all the way to the end. “I dived in 10 times but I couldn’t save anyone. I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t save my family and couldn’t save anyone else.”

That was when Mohamad saw his daughter floating in the water.

“Another wave came and we saw all the 70 or 90 bodies.” He knew immediately then that he had lost his entire family: 35-year-old Soha, 11-year-old Raed, 10-year-old Reem and four-year-old Karim, whose body is still missing.

Mohamad would survive a further 30 hours in the water until a boat from Tartous, Syria, rescued him.

Physically, he survived with only a few scratches. His eyes are surrounded by deep, dark circles – he has not been able to sleep properly since getting back to dry land.

Walking through the house, he finds the only printed pictures he has of his children, the others were lost along with his phone in the Mediterranean.

“That’s Karim’s Ferrari”, he says, pointing to a red and blue tricycle in his children’s bedroom.

Some survivors of boats that have sunk said they would do it again. When asked, Mohamad pauses, and thinks for a few seconds.

“Europe is not heaven, but it’s still better than here,” he said. “But no, my loss is bigger than all of Europe. I got married in 2010. Now, I’ve gone back to 2010, no wife and no children.”

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