Intercepted at Sea: The Deadly Reality of Border Control
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“My brother and I boarded the death boat together.”
In March 2022, Alaa Methlej al-Dandashi decided to leave Lebanon. Her husband’s family had bought a boat. It was small, but powerful enough to take them across the invisible but increasingly deadly border that separates Lebanon from the European Union.
Alaa was hoping to reach Italy first, and then move on from there to the Netherlands. She planned to finish her education and find work as an accountant. She was pregnant at the time; she didn’t know it yet, but she might have sensed it, because her dream, she said, was to provide a good life for her future children.
“I don’t want my children to tell me when they grow up: ‘Why did you bring us into this world?’” said Alaa, a 24-year-old with a long oval face and tired eyes underlined by dark circles. “I can't provide for them here in Lebanon.”
Alaa’s younger brother Hashem, who was 22 at the time, asked if he could join her on the journey. Hashem had always been a lighthearted boy, an artist who loved to sing and act and draw. But since Lebanon's 2019 financial collapse, which plunged 80 percent of the population into poverty, he had been depressed. Like many people in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, he was unemployed and growing more and more desperate. Maybe he could build a life overseas.
Since Lebanon's 2019 financial collapse, Hashem Methlej had been depressed, unemployed, and desperate.
At first, Alaa liked the idea of Hashem coming with them on the journey to Europe.
The two siblings were close: during the World Cup finals, Hashem and his cousin Mos’ab would cheer for Germany’s team, while Alaa rooted for Brazil. In 2014, when Germany beat Brazil, the boys teased Alaa relentlessly. Hashem was also close to his two younger sisters Mariam and Rahaf.
Hashem's friends and family described him as gentle, humorous and affectionate. He was famous for his good-natured catchphrases: “Rawa2, rawa2” (it's chill, it’s chill) and “it’s okay.” He was soft-spoken, mixed Arabic and English a lot, and jokingly called his friends “baby” or “qalbeh” (my heart). If Hashem came with her, they could be support systems for each other — first on the stressful journey by sea, and then in establishing their new lives abroad.
In the days before the departure, however, Alaa began to feel uneasy. The boat trip was too dangerous for her baby brother. She was willing to risk it because her husband and his family were set on going. Hashem had no such obligations.
He was soft-spoken, mixed Arabic and English a lot, and jokingly called his friends “baby” or “qalbeh” (my heart).
Alaa brought up her misgivings with her mother. Maybe she could help Hashem get a visa instead, once she got settled in Europe?
But Hashem overheard the conversation. “If you don’t take me with you,” he told her, with finality, “assume that you don’t have a brother.”
“I was afraid to lose my brother if I asked him to stay here,” Alaa told The Public Source, with tears in her eyes, in December. “And I was afraid for him to join me.”
On April 23, 2022, a little before sunset, Alaa and Hashem Methlej boarded the small yacht with her husband, Louay al-Dandashi, and around 22 others from his extended family. All told, 81 people crammed into the little boat. They packed into the deck, the upper deck and the small cabin below. As the boat pulled away, it was so crowded that people were standing on the gunwales.
The boat set sail from Qalamoun, a small seaside town five kilometers south of Tripoli. The weather that night was perfect: clear and not too windy, around 20°C. Hashem sent his parents a selfie from the boat. His face, lit by the blue light of his phone, glows with anticipation as the lights of Lebanon’s coastline recede behind him. [note:1]
Around 9:30 p.m., just minutes before the migrants would have reached international waters, the Lebanese navy intercepted their boat. All dispute what happened next. Survivors say the navy rammed into them. In a press conference the following day, Colonel Haitham Dinnawi said the captain of the migrant boat caused the collision by trying to evade the navy. All agree that the two boats collided: the small, overloaded civilian boat and the larger, more powerful naval vessel. The civilian boat sank within minutes.
“I was afraid to lose my brother if I asked him to stay here. And I was afraid for him to join me.” —Alaa Methlej, survivor
By the time they were rescued, around half the boat’s passengers had drowned. Many of those who died were women and children who had taken shelter from the chilly, humid sea air in the tiny cabin. “It was hard to see children dying in front of you, and you can’t even swim, and you don't know when God will take your soul,” said Alaa, her eyes growing glassy as she remembered.
That night, after the boat sank, the military pulled survivors out of the sea and took them to the port. From there, the Lebanese Red Cross and other ambulance services took most of the survivors to hospitals in Tripoli. Much later that same night, Alaa and Louay finally made it home. From then on the Methlej family sat up waiting for Hashem to join them from the hospital.
They were sure he had made it back to shore. Alaa and Hashem had been shouting back and forth to each other as they swam in the sea, waiting to be rescued. A neighbor who knew the family well told The Public Source that he saw Hashem in the port, wrapped in a blanket, with the other survivors. Mos’ab Methlej, Hashem’s cousin and childhood best friend, was at the port that night too, and one of the other survivors told him Hashem had made it. Most convincing of all: unofficial lists that began circulating on WhatsApp around midnight showed “H. Methlej” as one of the survivors.
But ever since that night, Hashem Methlej has been missing.
Nine months since the sinking of vessel J-1580, the Lebanese government has yet to release an official list of those who survived and those who drowned on the night of April 23. The government's indifference is compounding the agonizing limbo of all the families: those who know their loved ones drowned, and those who believe they might have been saved.
To this day, 33 bodies lie on the seabed. The families of those who drowned are waiting for anything — a bone, a piece of cloth — to bury their loved ones. Without that, they cannot grieve properly, let alone learn how to survive without their loved ones in one of the Mediterranean's poorest cities.
The families of those who drowned are waiting for anything — a bone, a piece of cloth — to bury their loved ones.
One family doesn’t even know if they should mourn. Hashem’s parents believe their son survived. The thought that he might have drowned has crossed their minds. But they are adamant that he is alive. They suspect that the military rescued him, and is holding him in detention for some undisclosed reason.
Their hearts believe the latter. But the government has repeatedly rebuffed their desperate attempts to find out what happened to Hashem that night. Until they know the truth, the uncertainty is destabilizing their relationships, weakening their health, and gnawing at their souls. Without answers, and without justice, they cannot heal.
Nights and Days
Alaa and Hashem were living in poverty long before Lebanon’s financial crisis. Born and raised in the Palestinian Beddawi refugee camp, they attended schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In grade eight, Hashem earned a scholarship to attend the High School and Technical School of the North. He specialized in interior design, because he loved to draw.
Hashem also loved to sing: he would play music and sing late into the night, recording love songs by George Wassouf, Tamer Hosni and others, and sending them to his girlfriend. Alaa, who could hear him from her bedroom, would ask him to keep quiet so she could sleep. When he didn’t stop, she would unplug the Wi-Fi router or bombard him with text messages to stop him from singing.
One family doesn’t even know if they should mourn.
When the family moved to the Baqqar neighborhood in Qobbeh, eight years ago, Hashem met Hadi Saab. Saab, who is now 23, was part of Shababic, a Tripoli-based theater group that specializes in interactive theater, puppet shows and plays about social causes. Hashem joined Shababic in 2018, and learned puppetry and acting.
On the stage, he would play the good wise friend, guiding Saab’s character away from drug use and other troubles. He loved to joke around in rehearsals and during sections of the plays that engaged the audience. “Shababic were like a family to him,” said Mos’ab, who was also part of the group.
He played the wise friend offstage as well. Omar Merhi met Hashem in the Baqqar neighborhood four years ago. The two quickly became best friends. Hashem, said Merhi, was the person he trusted most. “I used to tell him my secrets and feel relieved,” Merhi told The Public Source in Hashem’s living room one December evening after work. “When I lost that, I felt a big gap.”
About a year and a half ago, Hashem’s family could no longer afford his school. With only one year left to finish his education — an ambition his friends and family all said was important to him — he had to drop out.
When he had to quit his studies, and give up the dream of a job in his field, Hashem became depressed. He started sleeping in until 5 p.m. He stopped leaving the house. When Alaa encouraged him to go out, he would respond “I'm not in the mood to be around people.” When friends came to visit him, he would apologize and tell them that he wanted to sleep. Hashem was talented and confident, said Merhi, but he was feeling down and defeated.
“We are leaving,” Hashem told his father. “Pray for me. I will buy you our apartment to relieve you from rent. I will help you, and continue pursuing my dream.”
Hashem’s friends and family all said he felt particularly depressed that he couldn’t support himself and his parents. “Hashem was feeling that as a man, he needs to support his father, not rely on his parents,” Diya’ al-Rmeihi, known as Umm Hashem, told The Public Source. “He no longer wanted to be a burden on his parents.”
Months before he boarded the death boat, Hashem filled his sketchbook with ominous drawings that reflected his deep hopelessness: A hand tied in a noose. An empty grave. A sinking boat. [note:2]
When Hashem heard about the trip to Italy, it rekindled his hopes for a future. He would buy an apartment, get engaged, and marry the girl he loved. He knew he couldn’t do any of this in Tripoli. “He felt there was no hope here, and it’s true,” said Mos’ab. “He told me he wanted to leave, and he had already built his dreams.”
One thing made the journey especially appealing. In Lebanon, people pay up to $8,000 for such risky attempts to reach Europe. But as Alaa’s brother, Hashem could go for free. He could never have afforded it otherwise. This was his chance.
Both his parents were against his going. “I had a lump in my throat at the thought that my son would travel this way,” Abu Hashem said.
Umm Hashem opposed the trip too. But she couldn’t bring herself to ask him to stay. “I have nothing to lose,” he told her. “I will miss you and Baba, but I want to leave.”
A month before his departure, Hashem asked his cousin Mos’ab to look after his parents and girlfriend while he was gone. He knew Mos’ab wanted to open his own business instead of working at a phone shop. He promised to send Mos’ab money once he established himself in Europe.
Merhi was surprised when Hashem told him about the trip, almost two weeks before the departure. He knew his best friend didn’t like to travel, and that he was attached to his home. He took it as a joke.
“You won't leave me,” he told Hashem. “I know that.”
The night before his departure, Hashem asked Merhi to hang out with him. They stayed up talking all night until the morning call to prayer. True to his role as the wise confidant, Hashem spent the night giving Merhi recommendations and advice. “He told me things that gave me goosebumps,” Merhi said, speaking slowly, and pausing periodically, as if the memory of this last encounter with his best friend weighed heavy on him.
Umm Hashem did not expect her son to go through with the plan, she told The Public Source. But Hashem insisted. “I am depressed, mama,” he told her. “My nights and days are the same.”
The Death Boat
On April 23, 2022, a little before sunset, Hashem and Alaa bid their mother goodbye. They called their father, who was still at work. “We are leaving,” Hashem told his father, Jihad Methlej. “Pray for me. Hopefully we will arrive at our destination. I will buy you our apartment to relieve you from rent. I will help you, and continue pursuing my dream.”
Hashem and most of the men sat or stood on the deck of the yacht. The deck felt cold and wet, so women and children descended into the cabin, a couple of steps below the deck. But Alaa felt like she was suffocating in the tiny, overstuffed cabin. She went outside to sit with her husband and her brother, a decision that probably saved her life.
When they sailed, around 7 p.m., Alaa felt scared. But Hashem laughed. “Shut up, we’re going to make it,” he told her. “Don’t jinx it.”
When the navy vessels appeared, around 9:30 that night, Hashem called Abdel Rahman al-Rmeihi, his maternal uncle, on WhatsApp. Hashem told his uncle they were being chased. A little later, he told Rmeihi they had been hit.
The army’s directorate of orientation declined an interview request from The Public Source about the boat accident. The Public Source conducted separate interviews with three survivors from vessel J-1580: a boat mechanic named Ibrahim al-Jondi; al-Jondi’s mother, Bari’a Safwan; and Alaa. The following account of that night comes from their testimony.
Alaa told The Public Source that four navy vessels pursued the small yacht. Soldiers called on the captain of the migrant boat to stop. When he didn’t, one of the bigger navy boats started circling the smaller civilian boat, making waves that sloshed in over the sides of the migrant boat. The water beneath them began to swirl and roar, said Alaa, spiraling her finger to show a whirlpool.
When the migrant boat kept going, the navy vessel circled around in front of the migrants and cut them off, al-Jondi told The Public Source. The smaller civilian boat, unable to stop or turn in time, collided into the larger military one. At this point, Alaa said she heard someone shout: “I want to bury you in the water, die like this, you dogs.”
By now, said Safwan, the smaller boat was swinging left and right. Frantically, the passengers began to run from side to side to try to balance it. Like Alaa, Safwan was also on the deck of the boat instead of inside the cabin. The men started jettisoning suitcases full of clothes, only keeping food and other items they deemed necessary for life.
It was at this point, according to al-Jondi, that the naval vessel circled around behind the migrant boat and rammed the back of it. The front of the migrant boat lifted up, and the back sank, said Alaa, raising one hand and lowering the other to demonstrate the way the tiny boat tilted into the sea.
Al-Jondi ran into the cabin to find his two sisters. The migrant boat sank so fast that he had to break the cabin window to swim out of the wreckage. Most of the women and children who were inside the cabin died before they could make it out. Months later, when a submarine mission photographed the wreckage, they found the body of a woman trapped half in, half out of the cabin window, clutching an infant to her chest to protect it. Among those who did not make it out of the cabin in time were al-Jondi’s sisters, Salam and Ghania.
Months later, they found the body of a woman trapped in the cabin window, clutching an infant to her chest to protect it.
When the boat sank, Alaa and Hashem, al-Jondi’s mother Bari’a, and most of the other men were on the deck. They all tried to swim and help each other stay afloat.
Alaa was clinging to her husband Louay. But she lost her grip when she hit the freezing water and fainted. She woke up to find herself on top of a barrel that Louay had lifted her on. He was holding her with one arm and swimming with the other.
“Hashem!” she screamed. She heard him shout back from a distance, but she couldn’t see him in the dark.
“Where are you?” he told her. “Don’t choke, I’m coming to you.”
“I’m okay,” she shouted back. “Where are you?”
He shouted that the army vessel was coming towards him. She could see the army vessel, but it was far away from her. She told him to get on it.
Both Alaa and Ibrahim, interviewed independently of each other, said they were swimming for almost an hour before the navy rescued them. The Public Source was unable to independently verify this. If true, it would be a violation of international maritime law, as well as long-standing maritime tradition, both of which require captains to proceed with “all possible speed” to rescue anyone in distress.
Eventually, soldiers helped lift Alaa and Louay into a small army boat. One of the soldiers hit Alaa on her back. But another one stopped him, saying: “We have an order to save them.”
Once aboard, Alaa asked for her brother by name. “Was he wearing a red shirt?” one of the soldiers asked. “Does he have long hair and a scab on the nose?”
She said yes. “He went on the first vessel,” they told her.
The family name Methlej (مثلج) can be transliterated in many different ways. Hashem spelled it “Mthlej” on diplomas and social media. We used “Methlej” as it is among the most widely used.