By Laila Bassam
Seven members of a Lebanese family who died trying to reach Greece by boat were buried on Thursday in Beirut and survivors described watching their loved ones perish before their eyes.
Members of the Safwan family said the dead, who included a pregnant woman and two children, had left poor living conditions in Lebanon to seek a better life in Europe, like hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war in Syria.
Their leaking boat sank in the Mediterranean last week after setting out from Turkey for Greece. The bodies of the dead arrived in coffins late on Wednesday at Beirut airport.
“We left the country and told ourselves we could have a better future. We saw the future of Lebanon being slowly destroyed,” said 24-year-old survivor Moussa Safwan, whose heavily pregnant wife died at sea after the boat sank.
“She died in my arms because of the extreme cold,” he said, as relatives gathered to mourn. When he saw his wife’s coffin arrive for burial, he briefly fainted.
Family members dressed in black threw rice at the coffins, a Lebanese tradition, and fired guns in the air. Women wailed at the gathering in a poor district of Beirut.
More than half a million refugees and migrants have arrived in Greece this year by sea, including many fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.
Lebanon, which hosts more than one million refugees from the Syrian conflict, is at peace but has struggled to rebuild after its own 1975-1990 civil war. More than a quarter of Lebanese live below the poverty line and youth unemployment is high.
“There is not a Lebanese citizen who does not know the circumstances that led to this,” said Yousef Safwan, a cousin of the eldest victim Mayez Safwan.
“The country has driven people to risk their lives and migrate, as happened with the Safwan family.”
The seven victims flew out of Lebanon to Turkey with five other family members before attempting the crossing to Greece. Three survived while two are still missing.
The family paid $10,000 to a Turkish smuggler for the boat crossing. He is believed to have survived, family members said.
“Less than two hours after leaving, water started to leak into the boat,” said another survivor, Maher Safwan, 16. The family threw waterlogged bags overboard and the smuggler tried to increase the boat’s speed, crashing into the waves, he said.
The family had aimed to reach Germany, he added.
Before leaving Lebanon, the Safwan family had already moved once from their home in the Bekaa Valley, close to the Syrian border, to a suburb of Beirut.
On Wednesday the Lebanese army said its naval forces had returned to shore a boat carrying 53 people trying to leave illegally from the coastal city of Tripoli.
More than half the people returned were Palestinians, as well as 14 Syrians and eight Lebanese, it said.