Escape stories: The roaring of the waves

By Karin Völkner

“There were two boats that should leave the same night. It was in January and the weather was horrible. You could hear the waves from far away. They were roaring!” Aliou (name changed), a young man from Guinea, is sharing his memories with me of the night when he left Libya on a rubber boat.

Standing shivering at the coast, Aliou was already looking back on a dangerous escape from his country, a perilous journey through the Sahara and several months of misery in Libya. He had spent the two preceding days in a connection house (collection point for boat refugees). “There was just a fence and a ceiling, so it was windy. No mattresses, we slept on the soil. We were not safe there. The traffickers are soldiers or police, and the connection house was close to the barracks. We heard them talking and laughing.” Only occasionally would the soldiers bring food.

The evening of the departure something unexpected happened. “The people who were supposed to board the other boat ran away. They were too scared because of the bad weather,” he says. “They scattered in all directions. One came towards us to hide. He really wanted to leave and said he needed a second chance with us. They were looking for him, but we did not tell on him. We protected him.”

Upset by the flight of the first boat’s passengers, the trafficker approached Aliou’s boat “He begged us,” Aliou says, “He almost cried, it was the third time in one week that this had happened. He said that if he didn’t “push” us, it would mean a major loss of business, millions of US dollars.” I can barely believe that a people trafficker whose business is all about greed and brutal exploitation has the nerve to appeal to the refugees and say so.

“It is better to die at sea than being in prison in Libya.”
But Aliou says, “He was begging for his business. And we were motivated, because staying there is worse than going. We were so tired of the connection house. There was so much shouting around the house that we were sure that soon the police would attack us and throw us into prison. And that is the worst. It is better to die at sea than being in prison in Libya. And even out in the street, it was so dangerous for us. Young Libyan guys will attack you, wound you with a knife, or hit you with a car. Some injuries in life are so bad that dying is better, and dying slowly is worse than dying at sea.”

The refugees encouraged each other to be brave. “We said, let us work like a team and have faith in God. Whatever happens, it is God’s will. Living here is a risk, going in the sea is a risk. It is possible that some will die. And some won’t die. But if we succeed, there is the possibility of a better life.” They formed an orderly line, walked to the sea and sat down in the sand. “The trafficker was very impressed,” Aliou says. “Then we stepped onto the boat. 130 people, one after the other. And I was the last one, at the back. I was one of the smallest.”

Then they left. “It was horrible for the first 200 metres,” he remembers. “We were going forward, and the water would push us back. The waves were so high. That day was cold. I was wearing several layers of clothes.” But valued personal things were lost. “I left my bangle there,” he sadly says. “The traffickers took it from me. And my ring,” he sighs. “Maman, my mother, gave it to me, it was very beautiful.”

The coast guard accompanied them, at a distance of about 300 metres. “In the beginning they have to show you the way,” he explains. “Each time the boat’s driver lost the way, they flashed a light. When we saw the flashing, we were scared that they would catch us and take us to prison. They sometimes do that. But the boat’s driver, a Senegalese, said they were just escorting us.” The designated driver and the compass man had been separated from the rest in the connection house to receive instructions from the traffickers.

“People started quarrelling. We could not change seats, we were not supposed to move. But some people did move too much, and sometimes we almost capsized.”
How long were you on the boat, I ask. “About 12 hours. We wanted to act as a team, but on the boat it was difficult. Someone sits on your leg for two or three hours and he is heavier than you. Or if your leg is bent at the knee for a long time, you cannot stretch it afterwards. Everyone’s feet swelled up very badly. Some people got injured. Some people vomited. People started quarrelling. We could not change seats, we were not supposed to move. But some people did move too much, and sometimes we almost capsized.” They only had a minimal amount of water and food. The traffickers had told them that they would reach Italy in a few hours.

The Italian navy rescued them, accompanied by a helicopter, whose crew took photos of the refugees from above. Aliou explains that they were looking for the boat’s driver to arrest him for people smuggling. “But the drivers are just refugees, like the rest of us,” he says. “The driver was wearing a red pair of jeans. And I was wearing red trousers, too. I later took them off and tied them around my neck in case I would fall in the water. Easier to swim without heavy trousers. The rescuers tried to identify the driver. They asked me to stand up. Then they asked the driver to stand up, but luckily he had also taken off his red jeans. They could not figure out who the driver had been.”

Upon arrival in Italy, each refugee was escorted out of the ship by a policeman. They were placed in a bus, told to sign a mysterious paper in Italian, and were finally taken to prison. No translation, no explanation. He shows me his release papers. Prison, indeed. Not a refugee camp. He believes the prison was for drug cases and for foreigners waiting for their deportation. Much later he and his fellow boat passengers were told that if they were not deported within two months, they had the right to take a lawyer and start an asylum process.

“We were in the prison for two months,” he says. “They treated us very badly. But a few of the guards felt sorry for me because I was so young. They gave me chocolate and asked me why I was there. But I did not know…”

After two months they were all released into the streets. “Everybody had to find their own way,” he says. They received neither money, nor accommodation, nor support or advice. Where did you go, I ask. “Begging by a supermarket. Some people gave me food, some a little bit of money. But some would not even look at me. I slept outside the supermarket, without cover. I had no money for a tent. After two or three months I had the money for a train ticket. It was very bad.” He is still visibly shaken by the humiliation and pain of this experience.

“Life in Germany may not be perfect like you want it, but it is better than what I have gone through before”
He travelled to Germany. Aged over 18 by then, he was accommodated in a large refugee camp. And almost immediately received a letter that he was going to be deported back to Italy as a so-called Dublin case. The fear that the police would pick him up and force him back to life in the streets almost threw him off the rails. “I could not sleep at night. Also eating was difficult, my mind was constantly turning around the deportation. I could not concentrate on anything, school or even football training. I was very stressed and desperate.”

The deportation could finally be averted, thanks to support from different sides, including a good lawyer. Aliou speaks fluent German by now. In autumn he has started a professional training course. He is appreciated there, not only for his very good educational level and quick grasp of issues, but especially for his calm manners and gentle sense of humour. “Life in Germany may not be perfect like you want it, but it is better than what I have gone through before,” he says. He has come a long way already. And yet it is obvious that his mind and his feelings are in a permanent turmoil of homesickness, sadness about the events that forced him to flee, traumatic memories, as well as fear and insecurity about his unresolved asylum status.

In spite of his great resilience, in Aliou’s ears the roaring of the waves is still sounding loudly.