The story of a capsizing
This is an extract from my project on African migrants living in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, waiting for their turn to set out to sea, risking their lives getting to Fort Europa (2008)
“We could hear the sirens night and day & day and night. After the third day, everything suddenly went quiet. Eleven of my friends jumped off the boat, they couldn’t handle the waiting, and they decided to swim for the shore. One by one we saw them disappear in the waves. They got eaten by the sea”. This tells Babacar Diops.
The up to 800 kilometers (500 miles) across the ocean takes place in small fishing boats packed with up to 90 migrants in each. The Spanish NGO “Organization for Human Rights in Andalusia” estimates that up to a thousand people died last year in their attempt to cross the sea.
Babacar Diops’s pale palms turn towards the sky. His eyes stands out like cracked china. Through the last year and a half, Babacar has seen fifteen of his friends die of hunger, deceases or drowning. First time was after four days in a small fishing boat riding a rough sea towards the Canary Islands. When the Spanish coastguard stopped the boat, Babacar couldn’t speak anymore.
“I was in the hospital for three days before I regained conscience. I was almost dead”. Four of the other 64 passengers never woke again.
For one week he was lying in a hospital bed, looking out of the window. Looking at Europe living it’s life, smelling the foreign country and listening to the sounds of another world. Then he was sent back home.
The police took him to the plane, the plane took him to Mauritania and Mauritania took him to jail. In his backpack he had €500, donated by the Spanish Red Cross. After 10 days in custody, he was given back to the streets. Both the backpack and the money had disappeared in the police storage.
One year after his first attempt, Babacar found himself mashed together with 73 other hopeful migrants in the bottom of a small wooden boat again trying for Europe. This time didn’t go as well as the first. They quickly lost their bearings and were left drifting the open sea for eight days in the hands of the North Atlantic currents before they by chance finally saw the coastline of Spain. But the coastguard were again blocking their way to the beaches of Las Palmas.
“The police threw us bundles of food and water, but they didn’t want to touch us. They only wanted to make sure we didn’t get any further”.
It took three days before desperation took over. Eleven of Babacar’s friends jumped overboard. They all drowned. After that the survivors where brought ashore. Two days later, they were back on a boat. This time they were going in the opposite direction. In Mauritania the police were waiting. The sentence was doubled, 20 days in the local internment camp nicknamed “Guantanamo”.
Today, only six months after he last looked death in the eyes, he’s again scouting the sea. Looking for the next boat that might take him to Europe.
About 30.000 Syrian refugees are believed to have made their way across the Turkish border into the city of Kilis. Most of them have arrived within the last four months. Basic necessities such as shoes and coats are in demand as winter approaches and already now the temperature reaches zero.
After a 19 hours bus ride I finally reach Kilis. It’s 12am and the sun is shining. It’s warm in that special way where you can tell that winter’s coming. With 90.000 inhabitants this is considered a small town. Through history Kilis has belonged to the Ottoman district of Aleppo. The newly established Republic of Turkey led by famed first president Atatürk took over the city after World War I. The Syrian border is only five kilometers from the city center and an hours drive after that lies Aleppo where some of the fiercest battles between government forces and the rebels are taking place as I write this.
My contact Hamza, that works for IHH (the Turkish NGO that VIOMIS cooperates with) picks me up at the station. We drive to the small headquarter on the outskirts of town and while I’m served kebab and sweet Turkish tea the daily activities start to increase.
Outside in the small courtyard, white plastic bags carrying the IHH logo are being filled with potatoes and unions. Large boxes of plastic wrapped foam mattresses as well as blankets and donated clothing are being loaded on to a small truck. One of the many daily loads of emergency relief is on its way to the many Syrian refugees that live scattered across town.
I’m introduced to Omar and Mahmoud that are both Syrian refugees themselves and now works for IHH, helping others in the same situation. These two are in charge of today’s distribution, so I leave my bags behind, grab my camera and jump in the car with them.
Every day the relief is distributed in a new area of the town. To find the many Syrian families they have to work closely with the areas Mokhtar. A Mokhtar is the head of an area within the city. There’s about 30 Mokhtars in Kilis, and it’s their responsibility too keep track of people and resolve disputes within their designated area.
On our way through the city we share stories about ourselves to break the ice. Omar finds it hard to believe that I am neither Christian nor Muslim and while his smiling eyes starts to glow he tells me of the many glories of Islam.
“Insha’Allah (god willing) Anders, maybe when you see the work we do here you will also become Muslim, Insha’Allah” he says.
Soon we come across the first Syrian refugees and with much heartache I see that they lack even the most basic remedies. Clothing, shoes and food are highly in demand. It’s cold here in Kilis, down to three Celsius, and children as adults are in sandals. It’s hard to be here, eye to eye with people in such distress. Suddenly reality becomes real and far removed from television images and newspaper articles. They are right here, these people that had to leave everything behind and are now facing a harsh winter and an uncertain future.