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Lebanese wait in vain for `Titanic' payout

When the Titanic sank in April 1912, the tiny Roman Orthodox village of Kfar Mishki, dirt-poor in the cold hills of the lower Bekaa valley, went into mourning. At least 13 of its illiterate villagers went down with the ship, most of them kneeling in their steerage accommodation, vainly praying.

When the court of inquiry condemned Captain Smith and the courts of Britain and America handed out compensation, no one knew where Kfar Mishki was, let alone the names of those villagers who had drowned. In the dying Ottoman empire - Lebanon was then part of Syria - there were no courts to help the destitute peasants of the Bekaa valley.

It was a writer on the Beirut An Nahar daily who said last week that it was time they were paid for the loss of their loved ones. Why, he asked, should they be deprived of money just because the peasants of Kfar Mishki boarded the Titanic in France and never had their names registered in the liner's passenger manifest? Maybe, he wrote - prompted by news of the current Titanic exhibition in London - they should commence litigation against insurers of the White Star Line's most infamous ship.

Kfar Mishki is almost as impoverished today as in 1912, when famine and unemployment drove thousands of Lebanese to the Americas. Fawziah el-Haj, 84, recalls how her mother told her of her father Mansour's death. "My mother told me of how she pulled out her hair in grief when they brought the news. We were none of us paid anything. No one cared."

Mrs el-Haj lives in a draughty old house on a hill, 40 yards from the home of Nuallah Nasrallah, nephew of the only survivor of the Titanic in Kfar Mishki. "My aunt's name was Zeid Daher Nasrallah and she didn't stay below deck. She was a very tough woman. She told me how when the ship went down, she jumped in the sea and held on to a plank of wood until she was rescued." Zeid had left her husband and children behind in Kfar Mishki. She returned to the village, then went to Canada to make a small fortune before returning to die in the Bekaa Valley in 1935.

Boutros Saiqalay is 100 and lost a cousin on the Titanic. Almost blind, he remembered the day his cousin Assef left for America - "on horseback for the three-day ride to Beirut, some of our relatives walking along with him" - and the names of other villagers who never returned. "Who will give us anything now? It was the worst disaster that ever befell us here. Assef was married just before he left - I went to the wedding - and his pregnant wife was left with nothing."

The list of Titanic survivors published in the Times in April 1912 clearly names a "Miss Adelia Naseraell (Nasser)" among the survivors - "Adelia" a corruption of "Daher" and "Naseraell" of Nassrallah, presumably because she could not write her own name - but the Kfar Mishki dead are unlisted. Jenny Waite, a curator at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, is not surprised. "There were two passenger manifests for the Titanic and they were known to be inaccurate, especially for those passengers who boarded the ship at Cherbourg," she said. "If someone wasn't on the list and died when it went down, it would be difficult to identify them. The Titanic was insured with Lloyd's and the claim on the hull was settled immediately. White Star Line would have paid compensation to passengers in the courts but the White Star Line's files were destroyed when it was merged with Cunard in the 1930s."