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'I was aware that I could have easily died at sea. But I had to leave, I had no choice'

More than 1,800 people have died this year crossing the Mediteranean Sea. Here, people who have survived explain what drove them to such desperate measures.

Caitriona O'Neill and William Gallagher

NEARLY 60 MILLION people worldwide are currently displaced from their homes by war, poverty and human rights violations. Most leave for other parts of their home countries, or to neighbouring countries, but some risk a dangerous journey to Europe. With land borders closed, a perilous journey at sea remains the only option.

More than 1,800 people have died this year crossing the Mediteranean Sea. On average Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) teams are rescuing over 100 people per day. So far MSF has rescued over 2,600 people on the Mediterannean and provided medical care to thousands more at the port of Pozzallo, Sicily.

Here are the stories of four people, who have risked everything while attempting the dangerous crossing in overcrowded, leaky boats, in search of a new life in Europe. (Stories recorded by Médecins Sans Frontières medical staff.)

Dreams of football stardom shattered by war

Seventeen-year-old football prodigy Mohamed fled Syria after bomb killed teammate

Pozzallo migrant reception centre Source: Alessandro Penso

Mohamed had always dreamed of a career in international football. At the age of 17, he was captain of Syria’s national youth team, despite being their youngest player. He was a striker, number 10 in the team, scoring a record 64 goals in 52 matches. But on 15 April he left all this behind, escaping Syria to risk everything on a rickety boat across the Mediterranean.

“Where is our star?”, “Our star shouldn’t have left us” and “He’s gone to Germany” are some of the posts on Mohamed’s Facebook page, alongside photos and videos showing his prowess on the football field.

At first Mohamed was so caught up in football that he took little notice of the war. But soon the conflict began to encroach on his daily life. As he took the bus to his training sessions, explosions became more and more frequent – when this happened, he and the other passengers would throw themselves onto the floor between the seats. One day, a bomb exploded on the football pitch in the middle of a match and one of his teammates died. Mohamed realised he did not want to carry on.

At the same time, Mohamed’s eighteenth birthday was looming, bringing with it the prospect of forcible conscription into the Syrian army.

“We decided to leave Syria to protect Mohamed’s future,” says his father.

Accompanied by his father and uncle, Mohamed crossed the border to Turkey and made his way to the port city of Mersin, on the eastern Mediterranean. A distance of just a few hundred kms, the journey took 24 hours and was fraught with risk. They had to cross the mountains on foot, bargain for transport and avoid human traffickers, all against a backdrop of gunfire and explosions.

In Mersin, they found a boat that would take them to Europe: an old merchant ship, into which they were squeezed with hundreds of other Syrians. By day two, the boat had started to take on water. By the time they were rescued, the boat was barely afloat. It was five more days before they landed on the coast of Sicily.

Mohamed sits on a camp bed in the migrants’ reception centre in Pozzallo, surrounded by Syrian families. On the wall behind him are pinned drawings, messages written in Arabic, Syrian flags, and a picture of a leaking boat with the legend ‘the death ship’.

Mohamed’s gaze is serious and determined; it suggests someone who, despite all the difficulties, will not easily give up on his ambitions.

“I hope that European clubs will read my story and help me pursue my dream to play football,” says Mohamed. “I would like to get to Germany and play for Borussia Dortmund, or to Spain and play for Real Madrid. I cannot go back to Syria – I feel like a deserter.”

Someone brings a ball. Mohamed starts to dribble the ball before bouncing it on his head, then transfers it expertly from foot to knee to shoulder. A circle forms around him. The onlookers clap their hands and shout encouragement. For the first time, Mohamed smiles.

“In Eritrea, escaping is no joke. Those who try it risk being executed.”

Anna, 21, left Eritrea, but one day she is determined to return

Pozzallo Migrant Reception Centre Source: Alessandro Penso

The first time that 21-year-old Anna tried to leave Eritrea, she was still a child. Captured and arrested, she was taken to prison, where she was tied up and beaten. On her release, Anna began to concoct the ‘perfect plan’ to get out of Eritrea. “In Eritrea, escaping is no joke,” she says. “Those who try it risk being executed.”

Anna was still only 16 when she succeeded in crossing the border to neighbouring Ethiopia. Hoping to get permission to join her mother in Israel, she stayed in Ethiopia for five years, but her requests were rejected. Finally she decided to leave Ethiopia to embark on the long and dangerous journey to Europe.

The toughest part, says Anna, was in Sudan. After walking for 13 hours non-stop, she got a lift on a pick-up truck, crammed in with 25 other people. Her feet and legs felt as if they were paralysed, she says. In the desert, the truck was stopped by traffickers, who forced them to strip naked as they searched them for money and valuables. The traffickers stole everything of value – they even took some people’s shoes, leaving them to continue their journey barefoot.

Anna holds on tightly to a copy of the Bible as she speaks. She doesn’t cry, but her eyes water with unshed tears. “I was scared,” she says. “I didn’t know if I would make it. I prayed a lot, I trusted in God.”

In Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city, Anna bumped into some people she knew, and together they travelled on to Libya. On the Mediterranean coast, she managed to embark on a wooden boat along with 300 others. Just a few hours after setting off, the boat’s engine caught fire. The passengers managed to put the flames out with buckets of water, but the engine was damaged beyond repair. Someone called the emergency rescue services, who arrived nine hours later and took them to Pozzallo.

Anna sits in the reception centre in Pozzallo. Like most Eritreans in the centre, she knows some words of Italian, but it is thanks to Médecins Sans Frontières cultural mediator, Negash, that she is able to tell us her story in her native Tigrinya.

“I am alive and I have a lot of faith in God,” says Anna. “I don’t know where I will go – maybe to Belgium, maybe to England – but I do know what I want to do: I want to study Political Science. One day I want to work to bring peace back to my country. I have a very strong desire to go back to Eritrea.”

“In Libya everybody has guns and knives, even young kids”

Abdu, a 34 year old from Gambia, was rescued on 14 May by Médecins Sans Frontières from a wooden fishing boat carrying 561 people

MSF Mediterranean Search and Rescue: Third Rescue Source: Gabriele François Casini/MSF

“My name is Abdu. I am 34 years old and I am from Gambia. The journey to Libya took me five and a half months, during which time I passed through Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Algeria.

I left Gambia because I needed money to support my family. There’s no work in Gambia. Before getting to Libya, I stopped a little while in Algeria to work and gather a bit of money. There the situation is better than in Libya: you can work, make some money and if you have your documents nobody puts you in prison without reason. But my brother was in Libya and I wanted to find him to travel to Europe together, so I went there.

In Libya there are a lot of bandits that attack you and steal everything you have. They harass you, beat you and can even kill you. There’s no freedom in Libya. You can’t walk or go where you want. Often people that pretend to be police or army, but are neither, kidnap you and try to extort money from you to let you go. If you have no money they beat you or kill you.

I have been kidnapped several times in Libya. One time, for example, while I was going to meet a friend of mine who had just arrived in Libya, some people pulled me into a car. They drove for a long time and took everything I had with me. I asked them to let me go because I had nothing else and they abandoned me in the desert. I was lucky that some other people were passing by and helped me to get back to the city.

When you arrive in Libya it is easy to get in contact with many people just like me that left their country to look for a better future. They helped me find my brother and we started living together. My brother is younger and I am responsible for him. That’s why every time we needed to go out to get something I left him at home, for his security. And that’s how I got kidnapped several times. I was imprisoned in houses; they were never real prisons or camps. These houses are full of armed men and women – everybody has guns and knives, even young kids. They take your money and they beat you up. Every day they would ask me for money and every day they would beat me. If you have no money your life doesn’t have value for them. If you are lucky you know people that will pay for you – I was lucky.

It met smugglers through my friends. They told me that if I had some money on the side they could put me in contact with people organising boats to Europe. I said yes and decided to try my luck at sea. I paid $1700 and decided on a date of departure. The date was postponed twice because of bad weather. One day, three weeks after, they called me and confirmed that we would leave that night, and we did. The smugglers are very hard with people. I was lucky because I had a place to stay until they called me. But there are many people that are put in warehouses while they wait for the departure.

The journey on the boat is a question of life and death. You’re on a small boat without any safety measures and with so many other people. I was very aware that I could have easily died at sea but I told myself that I had to leave, I had no choice. I thought, if God allows me to live, it means I have a purpose – it is destiny.

We go away from our country because we have no choice. We need to earn money for our families. We don’t want to get the Europeans tired of us, to overwhelm them, but we have no choice. We risk our lives to help our families, or neighbours, our friends, our parents and our brothers. That’s why we embark on this journey.

Now that I have been saved I believe more in God and I think about my family and future. The first thought I had when I saw the boat that saved me was to my family and to God.”

Much more than a letter

Golleh, 20, experienced forced labour in a Libyan prison

Pozzallo Migrant Reception Centre Source: Alessandro Penso

Golleh was treated by Médecins Sans Frontières teams initially for intestinal problems, which healed after a course of antibiotics. But some scars are less visible. He told his story to Anna, an MSF doctor.

Four years ago, in Gambia, both of Golleh’s adoptive parents died. Deprived of his inheritance, living in poverty and completely alone, Golleh decided to leave.

Golleh spent five months in Senegal and a year in Mauritania before making his way to Libya. Unable to pay 500 Libyan dinars, he was imprisoned, and forced to work at gunpoint every day for two months to pay off his ‘debt’. “They checked me day and night, pointing their guns at me, and they beat me,” says Golleh. On his release, he decided to take a boat for Italy.

“Since 2011, when my father died, the first people to take care of me were you,” he tells Gaiaan MSF psychologist.

That day, Golleh sat down and wrote a letter addressed to the MSF doctor who had treated him when he first arrived in Pozzallo:

“Hi Anna, I want to thank you and all of the people in Pozzallo – the doctors in particular. I send my greetings to all of you because today I was very happy to see Gaia, who came from Pozzallo to pay us a visit here at the centre.

I am very happy, and I am writing this letter to greet every one of you. I saw the respect you demonstrate towards the human being. You give the right cure to those who are sick. You always smile because you want us to feel good. For this reason I want to thank you and pray for you.

Your friend from Gambia,
Golleh

Thank you for reading my letter!”

And Anna’s response?

“Thank you Golleh for writing it! When you’ve made a long journey to escape poverty and persecution, when you’ve been subjected to forced labour in a Libyan prison, when you’ve risked your life crossing the Mediterranean, the very least we can do is to help your visible and invisible scars to heal.”

Médecins Sans Frontières search & rescue teams have rescued over 2600 people so far this year from the Mediterannean Sea. When onboard medical teams treat people according to their needs. Basic medical care up to advanced life support is provided onboard two ships the Phoenix and Argos. To find out more about the work of Search & rescue operations in the Mediterranean see http://www.msf.ie/country-region/search-and-rescue-mediterranean-sea

 

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About the author:

Caitriona O'Neill and William Gallagher

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