Tragedy on the Mediterranean

Over a thousand refugees have drowned this month en route to Europe. Meet seven survivors and two rescuers.

April 21, 2015

We’re on the edge of Europe. Beyond the sheer cliffs in front of us, the azure blue Mediterranean stretches out as far as the eye can see. Just yesterday, three boats were rescued a few miles from here, packed with hundreds of refugees fleeing war and persecution and migrants desperate for work. Hundreds more are feared dead after their boat capsized this past weekend. Syria and South Sudan may be far away, but the conflicts there weigh heavily on people’s minds here on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Over on the other side of town, around 1,000 refugees and migrants are temporarily housed in a reception centre built to accommodate 400. Although most are men, there are women and children too. All of them risked everything they had to flee and undertake a terrifying ordeal at sea, only to find themselves now trapped behind a fence in Europe. Most will be transferred out within a week or so. But new arrivals will replace them soon enough.

The pearly white beaches and deep cyan waters of Lampedusa draw some 20,000 tourists to its shores every year. But few of them encounter people like Noor, the nine-year-old girl from Syria who lost the most important thing she fled with, or Guiseppe, the coastguard commander whose crew probably helped save her life.

 

The Twins

When Mohammed says hello and shakes my hand for what seems to be the second time, I start to wonder if the heat is getting to me. “Hello, again,” I say slowly, before realizing that there are two Mohammeds and one of them is laughing. Identical twins, Iyla explains. Indeed, his brown jacket is the only way I can tell them apart.

The smiling, blue-eyed brothers fled Aleppo, in Syria, back in 2013, when war began to tear their promising lives apart. “Our house was bombed and our restaurants,” 25-year-old Iyla recalls, as we talk by the gates of the Lampedusa reception centre. “If we had stayed we would have been dead. You only die once in your life, so we decided to risk dying by trying to reach here.”

“We were out at sea for a long time – 15 hours – and the motor started to die. We were thinking we were going to die any minute.”

From Syria, they travelled to Algeria, but life there became too expensive. Three thousand dollars for a dangerous sea journey to Europe seemed like a small price to pay for the chance of a better, more prosperous life. But they soon regretted their decision. “The journey was very difficult,” says Mohammed. “We were out at sea for a long time – 15 hours – and the motor started to die.”

“We were thinking we were going to die any minute,” he continues, looking to his brother, who has closed his eyes. “Every time it shook we felt it was going to capsize. We had children on board. We were very scared.”

Iyla and Mohammed were fortunate to survive the crossing. Now, together, they have the chance to rebuild their lives in safety, but still mourn what could have been. “We lost everything in the war,” says Iyla. “Syrians are forced to leave for Europe so they can secure their future.”

 

 

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Mudther fled fighting in South Sudan and made his way to Libya, before risking his life again on the Mediterranean Sea. UNHCR/Francesco Malavolta

The Football Fan

It is late afternoon and the sun-kissed streets of central Lampedusa are quiet when I come across Mudther, standing by a payphone with his friends. “Stephen Gerrard!” Mudther exclaims, with a grin, when he finds out where I’m from. Out here, the universal language of football bridges many divides.

Dogs sniff for scraps around us as Mudther explains that he is waiting to call his mother. He has not spoken to her since he fled South Sudan for Libya, and he’s excited about hearing her voice. Clutched tightly in his hands is a crisp slip of white paper – her phone number.

Three days ago, there was no guarantee he would ever hear his mother’s voice again, let alone see her. “There were maybe around 300 people on the boat,” he tells me, while he waits for a friend to finish his call. The overcrowded fishing vessel journeyed across rough, open water, until it finally reached the shores of Lampedusa. At times, he was terrified it would overturn.

He is waiting to call his mother. He has not spoken to her since he fled South Sudan.

Now, along with around 1,000 other migrants and refugees who have survived a nightmare voyage across the Mediterranean Sea, Mudther will sleep at the reception centre here until he is transferred to the mainland.

Everyday life, for the moment, is on hold. But Mudther’s plans are far from it. “I will go to London,” he says. “From Calais, in France. I know a way how.”

As soon as his friend replaces the receiver, Mudther picks it up and smiles. Our conversation may be over, but his is just beginning. As I walk away, there is a moment of silence – then, one simple word: “Mother?”

 

 

Guiseppe Cannarile oversees the search-and-rescue operations off the shores of Lampedusa Island in southern Italy.  UNHCR/Francesco Malavolta

Guiseppe Cannarile oversees the search-and-rescue operations off the shores of Lampedusa Island in southern Italy. UNHCR/Francesco Malavolta

The Commander

Guiseppe Cannarile, chief of the Lampedusa Coastguard, takes a sip of his early morning coffee and adjusts his eyeglasses. Outside, the day is just beginning, but he and his team are already on high alert.

“At the moment, we don’t have a call,” he tells me, as we gather around his desk at the Guardia Costiera, where an Italian flag flies proudly above the entrance. “But the weather is good today, so there is a possibility.”

Cannarile heads up an impressive team here in Lampedusa, commanding seven vessels that patrol the waters for boats arriving from North Africa.

“We have one mandate: to save lives at sea, whether it’s one migrant, fishermen or everyone.”

“During the past week alone, we have rescued more than 10,000 people in the Mediterranean Sea and conducted over 20 search-and-rescue operations,” he says. “We have seen dead people, ill people, pregnant women, and children.”

Many of the boats, he tells me, issue a direct distress call via satellite phone. However, merchant vessels and airplanes are also on the lookout, and Cannarile’s fleet strives to respond immediately.

As a husband and father to two young sons, he feels the weight of his responsibility. “We have one mandate: to save lives at sea, whether it’s one migrant, fishermen or everyone. For me – and my men and women of the Coastguard – this is more than just a job. It is a mission.”

 

 

Nine-year-old Noor fled the war in Syria. Her family risked their lives in a desperate bid to cross the Mediterranean.  UNHCR/Francesco Malavolta

Nine-year-old Noor fled the war in Syria. Her family risked their lives in a desperate bid to cross the Mediterranean. UNHCR/Francesco Malavolta

The Tween

I don’t speak Arabic, but nine-year-old Noor from Syria isn’t going to let a little thing like language get in the way of our conversation. “Hello!” she says, in her best English, bounding up to me from across the reception centre courtyard, in a sea-green tracksuit. Together, we sit in a small patch of shade, while she chats to me happily about the things she loves the most: accessories.

Proudly, she points to a silver ring on her little finger. You would hardly know it from her happy smile, but just days earlier Noor was on a packed boat with her family and hundreds of others, stranded on the Mediterranean Sea. The only time her expression changes is when she thinks about that journey.

Just days earlier Noor was on a packed boat with her family and hundreds of others, stranded on the Mediterranean Sea.

“Was it scary?” I ask, and she shrugs. “Cold?” She nods, but that’s not it. “Gone,” she tells me, sadly, and we soon establish that a bag of accessories, hastily packed before the family fled Syria, fell into the ocean on the way.

Her mother, who walked with the family through neck-high water to reach the boat, has promised to buy Noor new accessories, but right now, in the reception centre at Lampedusa, there isn’t much hope of that.

She’s only just nine but already Noor’s dreams – of “a little bed and pink walls” – are crumbling. Only time and opportunity can make them come true.

 

 

Brothers Ahmed, Mwafaq and Ali (from left to right) fled Syria together. They were reluctant to show their face to the camera.  UNHCR/Francesco Malavolta

Brothers Ahmed, Mwafaq and Ali (from left to right) fled Syria together. They were reluctant to show their face to the camera. UNHCR/Francesco Malavolta

The Three Brothers

“Do you know where I can find a phone shop?” Ahmed asks me when we meet in the courtyard of Lampedusa’s reception centre. He pulls a smartphone from his pocket and points to its blank screen. “Waterlogged.”

The 19-year-old Syrian was hoping to call his parents in Damascus, to tell them that he and his two brothers had made it here alive. They were soaking wet even before they boarded the boat, as the smugglers forced them to walk through the surf to reach it. They then travelled across the chilly open ocean for days, before finally being rescued off the coast of Lampedusa.

He pulls a smartphone from his pocket and points to its blank screen. “Waterlogged.”

Both Ahmed and his youngest sibling, Mwafaq, left their studies behind. The eldest, 28-year-old Ali, left an entire career, having worked as a cameraman on one of Syria’s top soap operas. He lights up at the sight of our video crew. “A PMW-200!” he exclaims, recognizing our camera model.

To the brothers, the future seems like an uphill struggle. With their parents still stranded in Syria, they will have to stick together. Ali is hoping to make a film about his journey from Syria to Lampedusa – and Mwafaq, whose name translates as ‘lucky’, just wants to return to his studies.

For now, all Ahmed is hoping for is the chance to talk to his parents – who still have no idea if their children are alive or dead.

 

 

Dr. Domenico Bartolo has been working around the clock to treat survivors brought to Lampedusa.  UNHCR/Francesco Malavolta

Dr. Domenico Bartolo has been working around the clock to treat survivors brought to Lampedusa. UNHCR/Francesco Malavolta

The Doctor

It’s been a long 24 hours for Dr. Domenico Bartolo. Last night, in the early hours, a search-and-rescue team found over 70 migrants drifting on a boat near the coast of Lampedusa and brought them to shore. When they arrived, many were covered with severe burns – the result of a gas canister explosion that had happened on land back in Libya. Among them was a six-month-old baby, as well as a 25-year-old woman who died. All had suffered at sea for two days.

Twenty-three people, so burnt that they could hardly walk, were stretchered to the local infirmary here on the island of Lampedusa. There, soft-spoken Bartolo and his team were waiting to receive them.

“At least 10 of them are in critical condition. It is possible that they might not survive, but we hope for the best.”

The next morning, I visit the infirmary to check on their progress. Many women are still sitting in the reception area, wrapped in emergency blankets and staring vacantly at the walls. I later learn that this is because the burns are so bad they cannot speak. Bartolo is on hand to treat and comfort them.

“They have severe burns,” he confirms. Dark circles line his eyes. “At least 10 of them are in critical condition. It is possible that they might not survive, but we hope for the best.” Nearby, a woman wearing paper shoes moans softly in pain, and Bartolo immediately heads over to comfort her.

Although he puts in long hours trying to save lives, Bartolo shares all credit with his fellow doctors and rescue workers. “I couldn’t do it without them,” he says, firmly.

 

 

Story by Kate Bond, based in London