The sad man


“The sad man” now lives in a West German city. He would rather not be photographed as he wishes to remain anonymous. He fears for himself and the life of his family.



By Karin Völkner

“It was very dark. When we came closer I could hear the sea, it made a lot of noise. At first I thought it was a machine, it was that loud. The waves were very high, the water was above, below, everywhere. It was the first time in my life that I had seen the sea. I was so afraid. But the men had weapons, and I couldn’t say anything.“ This is the beginning of the story which a young Somalian refugee is telling me. He is one of the many thousands of refugees who set off from the Libyan coast in a rubber boat, hoping to reach Europe.

He left Somalia at the age of 15. Alone. His mother saw no other option than to send him away to prevent his forced recruitment into the Al-Shabab militia. She stayed at home together with the younger brothers and sisters; his father died a long time ago. Once I asked him about his family, how they were doing. His eyes filled with tears and he whispered: ”I cannot talk about them. They are not doing well.“ This time I do not ask.

“It is better to die at sea than to live in Libya. There is no life there.“
He spent one year in Libya. Some of the time in prison. He was picked up in the street like many other refugees. And he was beaten and tortured. “I saw other people being tortured. I was also tortured.“ He sighs and shows me the large, dark scars on his legs. “I have to forget the torture, but it is difficult, sometimes it is not possible.“ His family was supposed to pay a ransom to free him, but they could not come up with the money. He had to do forced labour, in the stifling heat, without water, for endless hours. “I was so tired and so thirsty all the time,“ he says, ”and they kept on beating us.“ When one of the inmates of this Libyan prison received money from home, he would share some of it, if at all possible, so as to help the others. He was finally freed as well. This kind of mutual support has deeply impressed him.

He simply had to leave Libya, he says. “It is better to die at sea than to live in Libya. There is no life there.“

How was it when you stepped onto the rubber boat, I ask. Did you know that one cannot possibly reach Europe on such a boat? “No, I didn’t know that. The Libyans said the boat is fast and you will be in Italy in no time.“ But the boat still looked scary to him. Four men inflated it, but “it was so small, and we were so many, so many…..women and children, men, young people, older people. So many, more than a 100. And we all had to get onto that small boat.“ The men with the weapons pushed the refugees on board.

“When the engine stopped, I thought, now it is over. Today is my last day. I was thinking of my family. I was afraid, so afraid!“
They were moving for 24 hours. “We did not eat or drink anything. I was very nervous, we were all nervous, we were terribly afraid. There were waves and more and more water sloshed into the boat. It was all around my legs. We tried to bale it out. Some petrol spilled and mixed with the water. There were people who got burned by that. We were all crying.“ The Libyans had given a satellite phone to one man, and he tried again and again to call for help. The engine broke down three times; the first time after eight hours. “When the engine stopped, I thought, now it is over. Today is my last day. I was thinking of my family. I was afraid, so afraid!“

He says that he doesn’t remember some of the events very well. They are not clear in his head, it was too terrifying. He is not sure who exactly rescued them. “The ship was not very big. Maybe a navy ship. A man spoke Italian with us, he said he would help us. We all went onto that ship. We got some food and there was a doctor for those who were ill. And later they put us on a much bigger navy ship. And then again onto a smaller ship. And in the end onto a very big one. It was like a town, so big.“ Everyone on his boat survived, thanks to the rescuers.

The ship took them to Sicily. Upon arrival adult and under-age refugees were separated. The adults were taken to a refugee camp, the young people to a house. He only stayed there for seven days and then took a bus to Germany.

In Germany he spent several months in an accommodation for under-age refugees, then further months in a shared flat with other young men, in a protected environment. “In the beginning it was very difficult, I couldn’t forget,“ he says. He is now going to school. He wants to help people. It is part of his religious beliefs and his conviction, and he wants it to become his profession. He hopes to train as a nurse, and maybe, in the distant future, as a doctor. He has turned 18 now, and he dedicates himself to his schooling and his internships in hospitals with great discipline. But he says “sometimes it is hard to study. The teacher tells me, you have to study, but sometimes my head simply isn’t there. Really!“

When I tell him that I do not want to use his real name for this story and that he should choose a name for himself, he looks at me with his gentle smile and says “there is no good name for me. I am a sad man, and that is what you must call me. The sad man.“

Would you like to meet the people again who rescued you in the Mediterranean? I ask. “Yes,“ he says calmly, ”they were good people.“ They saved his life. And I hope that one day life will give him back his joy.