Lebanese risk everything in perilous exodus from poverty
QABBAIT, Lebanon (Reuters) - Hussein Khodor sold his small poster shop in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli to pay the $80,000 cost of smuggling him and his family to Australia where he hoped to build a better life.
But the 44-year-old returned to his home in the nearby village of Qabbait on Sunday alone and empty-handed after the boat carrying his family sank off the southern coast of Indonesia last month, killing his wife and their eight children.
Despite the ordeal, Khodor says he will do everything possible to leave Lebanon again. "I cannot stay here any more. It's too hard," he said.
While the small Mediterranean country has become a refuge for more than a million people fleeing the civil war in neighboring Syria, some native Lebanese are desperate to leave, especially those from the impoverished northern Akkar region where violence spilling over from Syria has surged this year.
More than 230,000 Syrians have registered with the United Nations in the north, an influx that has pushed down wages and hiring and strained an already weak infrastructure. Gun battles and bombings in Tripoli have put surrounding areas on edge.
Lebanese media said at least 18 of the 31 victims of last month's disaster were from Akkar. The region receives only a few hours of electricity each day and has little access to drinking water. Schools and hospitals are desperately under-funded, locals say.
"It's like living in the jungle," Ahmad Khodor, Hussein's 62-year-old father, told Reuters outside his simple concrete home nestled in Akkar's verdant mountains. "There's no government here, nobody to take care of you."
His son told Reuters that he and his family waited for more than two months in Indonesia before boarding a "river boat" early one morning that took them out to sea. When the boat encountered strong currents, he said, its engine stalled and started taking on water.
"The waves were hitting the boat and the water was splashing all over us," said Khodor, his foot bandaged due to an injury sustained during the shipwreck.
Before finding his way to shore, he found the bodies of his wife and five of his children floating in the water. The police later told him that they had pulled the bodies of his three other children from the ocean.
While poverty and unemployment form the backdrop of the desperate conditions in Akkar, residents say the deteriorating security situation has become a pressing issue that has forced some to leave, sometimes without understanding the risks.
Ali Hassan, a 28-year-old agricultural worker from Qabbait, said he did not leave his family's modest but comfortable home in search of money.
He paid $10,000 to migrate to Australia by way of Indonesia, he says, because he wanted to get away from the security threats he encountered in Tripoli on his way to and from work.
"I thought life abroad would be better, safer," he said. "You can live in comfort, live in security, live something other than the condition in Lebanon."
Gun battles between Tripoli's Sunni Muslim and Alawite residents have taken dozens of lives this year and regularly shut down central parts of the city. The sectarian roots of the fighting go back decades, but violence has resurfaced in the past two years due to similar fault lines in Syria's civil war.
Car bombings in August near two Sunni mosques in Tripoli killed 42 people and wounded hundreds.
The violence has stirred fears of sectarian conflict across Lebanon and revived memories of the country's own 1975-1990 civil war, which killed more than 150,000 people.
Hassan said he spent more than two months in Indonesia, living in a room with eight other men. By the time he realized that promises of quick passage to Australia were false, he had already overstayed his visa and could not return to Lebanon.
He said Indonesian authorities arrested him in a raid on the apartment where he was staying two days before the September 27 disaster that took the lives of his fellow villagers.
Hassan returned home on Tuesday with a Lebanese ministerial delegation that brought back survivors of the shipwreck.
He said he was happy to be home, but still wanted to emigrate - "legally and respectably with my head held high."
Hours before Hassan's return, Lebanese authorities stopped a boat off the southern coast trying to smuggle Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians out of the country.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)