On Lebanon's Shores, the Poor Board Deadly Dinghies
Suad Mohammad had hoped for a better life when her husband climbed into a dinghy to flee poverty-hit Lebanon, but he disappeared into the waves before he reached Cyprus.
In her family home in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, Mohammad, 27, said she believed the Syrian father of her two small children, 35-year-old Shady Ramadan, was dead.
"I'm waiting for my husband's body," she said, tears streaming down her face, as she clutched her baby boy on her lap.
Ramadan is among dozens of Lebanese and Syrians to have tried to make the illicit sea crossing to European Union-member Cyprus in recent weeks, fleeing Lebanon's worst economic crisis in decades.
His family said he was on a boat that drifted without food or water for a week in the Mediterranean sea before a United Nations peacekeeping ship rescued survivors on Monday.
Mohammad recounted how desperation drove her diabetic husband to embark on the dangerous trip to the shores of the island of Cyprus, 160 kilometres (100 miles) away.
"He fled Lebanon because of the grinding poverty to try to find us some money," she told AFP, a lively toddler girl playing at her feet.
Lebanon's financial crunch has seen tens of thousands lose their jobs or part of their salaries, sparked sharp inflation and pushed poverty rates up to encompass more than half the population.
Tripoli was one of Lebanon's poorest cities even before the crisis, which has been compounded in recent months by the novel coronavirus pandemic and a catastrophic explosion at Beirut's port that killed 190 people.
- 'Stranded at sea' -
Before he left, Ramadan had tried to peddle ice creams from a cart, but earned no more than 20,000 Lebanese pounds a day (now worth around $2.50 at the black market rate).
"A bag of nappies alone costs 33,000 pounds, without even considering rent," his wife said.
The UNIFIL peacekeeping force rescued 25 Syrians, eight Lebanese and three others from a boat off the country's coast on Monday, the UN refugee agency said.
UNIFIL also said it retrieved the body of someone who had died at sea.
But relatives of those on board -- who included several other members of Mohammad's extended family -- claim at least four more either died or have gone missing.
Ziad al-Bira, a relative, said two children had died of hunger and thirst, and their bodies had been pushed overboard, while Ramadan and another had disappeared at sea.
It all started on September 7, when they climbed into a dinghy after having paid a smuggler five million pounds each (more than $660 at the market rate), he said.
With the boat far over capacity, the smuggler "prevented them from coming aboard with their belongings, which included water, food and baby milk," Bira said.
They ended up "stranded at sea without a guide, with communication cut off for days on end, until the UNIFIL ship found them," he added.
After the two children died, Ramadan swam off to try to find help.
"He left and never came back," Bira said.
- 'Slow death' at home -
Another young man -- 27-year-old Mohammad Mohammad -- tried the same and also disappeared.
Sitting in front of his home in Tripoli, his father Khaldoun, 54, said his son was unemployed and had left along with relatives without telling him.
"The smuggler kept reassuring us that the boat had arrived safely, until we discovered three days later that he was lying -- by which time we could no longer speak to any of our children," he said.
Distraught family members have filed three legal complaints against the smuggler, who has since disappeared.
In Tripoli, however, not everybody is relying on a smuggler.
This month, dozens of people chipped in to buy their own boat and spent 40 hours at sea trying to reach Cyprus before being turned back by the Cypriot navy.
Two of them said they would jump at the opportunity to try again.
Khaled Abdallah, 47, said life was no longer sustainable working 17-hour shifts as a school security guard for a daily wage of 25,000 pounds (around $3).
"I'm determined to try again, whatever the cost," he said.
Mohammed al-Khanji, 37, said he could no longer provide for his two young children as an ambulant vegetable seller.
"I will do the impossible to feed my children," he said.
"In the end, we will go. We might get there or we might die straight away, but in this country, we are dying a slow death."