Nahr al-Bared, Lebanon – The road to Mohamed Fares’ home follows the shores of the turquoise blue Mediterranean Sea, the same waters where his wife and three children drowned on September 23.
Mohammed is one of the few survivors of the boat he and his family were on. It crashed off the coast of Syria, killing at least 104 people.
At the family home, neighbors and relatives sit outside on plastic chairs and the children climb the stairs to the apartment where Mohammed’s five brothers and sisters are loitering around the flat, smoking cigarettes.
“[It feels] Empty,” the 40-year-old tells Al Jazeera, referring to the bedroom he shares with wife Soha. “Life is empty.”
His memories of what happened – the overcrowded boat, the crashing waves, his daughter’s body floating lifeless, he is scarred, probably forever.
The trip would be a chance to start afresh.
Mohammad and Soha decided to leave a few weeks ago despite the insistence of their relatives. The couple sold their jewelry and borrowed money from relatives to pay $10,000 for the boat trip.
Like thousands of others living in Lebanon, the Fares family has been hit hard by the country’s economic crisis, which has pushed 80 percent of the population below the poverty line and forced many to find dangerous smuggling routes to Europe.
About 3,500 people have attempted the perilous journey through Lebanon this year alone, more than double the number in 2021, according to UNHCR.
Mohammed’s home is in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.
Palestinians lack Lebanese citizenship rights, even though the majority were born and raised in the country.
Mohammed has a job as a nurse, but was still eager to quit.
Life had become unbearable, he says.
His salary was previously worth roughly $1,000 – now worth $40 after the Lebanese pound has lost 95 percent of its value in recent years, a direct result of the country’s economic crisis.
As he struggles to provide, his hope for his children’s future fades.
“I don’t know how we got to this level,” says Mohammad. “Well, we lived in this country before and had some problems, but not like now. Now, that’s done, that’s enough. We can’t take it anymore, we’re tired. “
‘I could not save my family’
As Mohammed tells the story, his brothers bring him cigarettes, tissues and a bottle of water. Mohammed lights a cigarette as he remembers the shipwreck.
“I was the last to enter the boat. It was dark so I didn’t see how many people were there … and we left immediately, so I didn’t even have time to complain or change my mind,” he says.
Mohammed claims the smuggler, who has since been arrested, promised the family he would travel “on a boat” with about 70 people. Instead, Mohammed estimates there were more than 150 people on the boat, including 25 Palestinians he knew from Nahr al-Bared.
“He promised us many things, a big boat, that it would be equipped with all the comforts, like we are in the Titanic,” says Mohammed.
His brother, sitting next to him, added, “It was Titanic.
Mohammed remembers that the sea was rough, with only a few people wearing the lifejackets that the smuggler had promised everyone.
Big waves hit the boat and then the power generator failed.
As morning came, the boat’s engine stopped completely and a huge wave hit the side of the boat, overturning it and throwing Mohammed and dozens of others into the sea.
“When I fell, I tried to get my family out, not only them, but anyone who came in front of me,” Mohammed says, smoking his cigarette. “I dived 10 times but could not save anyone. I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t save my family and I couldn’t save anyone else.”
Then Mohammed saw his daughter floating in the water.
“The second wave came and we saw all 70 or 90 bodies.” He soon realized 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.
Mohammed would survive in the water for another 30 hours until a boat rescued him from Tartos, Syria.
Physically, he survived with only a few scratches. His eyes are surrounded by deep, dark circles – he hasn’t been able to sleep well since returning to dry land.
Walking through the house, he found only printed pictures of his children, the rest along with his phone were lost in the Mediterranean.
“That’s Karim’s Ferrari”, he says, pointing to the red and blue tricycle in his children’s bedroom.
Some of the survivors of the sunken boats said they would do it again. When asked this, Mohammad stops and thinks for a few seconds.
“Europe is not heaven, but it is better than here,” he said. “But no, my loss is greater than all of Europe. I got married in 2010. Now I’m back to 2010, no wife and no kids.”