The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A tragedy at sea shakes the poorest city in Lebanon

Mourners on April 25 in Tripoli, Lebanon, carry the bodies of a girl and woman who died when the boat in which they were riding capsized. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon — For more than two hours, Ahmad Taleb kept shouting his pregnant sister’s name. The 17-year-old desperately hoped she had survived after the small boat they boarded to flee Lebanon capsized and sank late last month.

His voice shook with anger as he recounted, a week later, that a bigger vessel rammed their boat, which passengers said was carrying some 75 people trying to escape crushing poverty in this northern Lebanese city. Taleb watched silhouettes grasp at the dark water’s surface and felt his clothes grow heavier, as he searched for his sister.

She never appeared. “I didn’t want to live anymore,” he said.

The boats carrying economic migrants leave often these days from Tripoli, a place long abandoned by political leaders and all the more desperate of late as the country suffers through the worst financial crisis anyone can remember.

Since 2019, Lebanon has been assailed by calamities that have upended every facet of life, including a financial collapse that obliterated the value of its currency and the explosion at the Beirut port in 2020 that destroyed much of the capital’s center and killed more than 200 people.

As Lebanon’s leaders have not addressed what the World Bank called one of the world’s worst economic crises, the population has given up relying on the government for services. Instead, the country has been carved into spheres of influence, with residents turning to political factions and leaders in lieu of a centralized, functional state.

Lebanon was famed for its medical care. Now, doctors and nurses are fleeing in droves.

But Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest and poorest city, seems bereft of a patron, despite its large size and the fact that it is home to some of the country’s wealthiest and best-known political figures — including the country’s prime minister.

So when the boat, which was headed to Europe, sank on April 23, amid allegations it had been rammed by a vessel carrying Lebanese military personnel, the tragedy unleashed a flood of long-simmering complaints in Tripoli about marginalization, government incompetence and the yawning gap between Lebanon’s wealthiest citizens and its vast and growing underclass.

Seven bodies were recovered from the water. Around 20 people are believed to be missing. Their relatives were told that government divers could not reach the boat. Enraged family members blocked roads in Tripoli last week, threatening to do the same again later this month, when voting in parliamentary elections will be held, unless bodies were recovered.

Ahmad al-Hamwi, whose brother died on the boat along with his two children, had one, plaintive demand: that religious leaders pressure the prime minister to do whatever was necessary to recover the victims’ bodies.

“Send us submarines so we can take out the bodies and honor them with burials,” he said.

Before he boarded the boat, Taleb had every reason to leave the country. Like many of his peers, he dropped out of school to make ends meet. Available jobs paid a pittance — about 30,000 Lebanese pounds a day, or slightly more than a U.S. dollar at the current black market rate, most of which went to public transportation to get to and from work.

He collected tin cans from garbage bins and resold them for a bit of cash. Lately, though, the city’s surging population of desperate people has stripped the bins clean. “Now you jump in a garbage bin and can’t even find a single can,” he said.

“How can I live off this?” he said. “We’re suffocating; I swear we’re suffocating,” he said. “I don’t have to live like this. I need to leave, even if I die.”

Just when it seemed Lebanon couldn’t get worse, it did

Like many in Tripoli, and across Lebanon these days, he reserved a special hatred for the country’s political class. “They didn’t lose anything,” he said. “They have the best drink, the best food, the best of everything,” he continued. “We are the least of their concerns.”

The walls and columns of Tripoli’s municipal building are still black from a fire more than a year ago that started when protesters, fed up with the lack of work during coronavirus lockdowns, clashed with the army and threw Molotov cocktails inside the building.

With no money for repairs, Riad Yamak, Tripoli’s mayor, has been forced to work from the relatively untouched second floor. Asked why Tripoli had suffered more than other parts of Lebanon, he blamed the disparity on a lack of investment.

“The businessman is a coward: He goes to wherever there is stability,” he said.

When reconstruction began after the civil war ended in 1990, would-be investors such as Rafiq al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005 after serving twice as prime minister, were apprehensive about committing to Tripoli, Yamak said — in part because the Syrian government, which was heavily involved in Lebanon’s politics in decades past, exerted especially heavy influence in Tripoli, including with its security forces.

The violent spillover from the Syrian war in 2011 produced other threats in Tripoli, including recruitment by the Islamic State militant group. In the past few years, the pandemic cut off what little employment the city had to offer.

Smugglers are partly behind Lebanon’s energy crisis. The army is struggling to stop them.

“The problems we have need a plan by the government to be fixed,” he said. “There are whole families whose members are unemployed.” His city has no money to provide even the most basic services: During heavy rainfall, sewage floods streets and houses because of failing infrastructure.

Adding insult to hardship, the city’s heritage is being looted, he said, with large chunks of Tripoli’s grand hilltop citadel being carried off by thieves and reappearing on tony mansions elsewhere in Lebanon.

Yamak described his city as a perennial afterthought: Some neighborhoods still clearly bear the marks of the civil war. Building facades are riddled with bullet holes or cavities caused by heavier weapons; some of the cavities are so large that pigeons nest inside them.

The city feels suspended in time. The streets are crowded with 1970s-era Mercedes-Benz cars that are held together with tape and rope. Neighborhoods are a crisscross of wires, delivering electricity to the city via tangled webs. Near a roundabout where protesters used to gather, one wall is spray-painted with big, block letters that read, “COPE.”

“I don’t hope for anything from the government,” said Ibrahim, a 45-year-old shopkeeper who sells cotton textiles and spoke on the condition he be identified only by his first name. “I’m not waiting for anything, and they can’t change anything, because it’s a mafia country … but legalized.”

“Our prime minister is from here,” he said, referring to Najib Mikati, a billionaire tycoon serving his third time as Lebanon’s premier. “What has he done?”

After passengers accused uniformed soldiers of being on a vessel that they say repeatedly rammed the migrant boat, the army launched an investigation. Mikati publicly supported the investigation but appeared to side squarely with the military, saying: “Our trust in the army’s wisdom and leadership is strong.”

After the deaths at sea, men spray-painted graffiti on what local television channels identified as Mikati’s apartment in Tripoli. “This billionaire’s wealth was gathered from the blood of the people,” it read.

Residents in Tripoli were also dismissive of a plan announced by parliament to develop northern Lebanon — the latest in a string of empty promises, they said.

“I’m worried about my kids,” said Ibrahim, the shopkeeper. “There’s humiliation everywhere: There’s no electricity. There’s no water. We grew up in the war: Nothing has changed. It’s worse.”

Haidamous reported from Washington.