James* is 22 years old. He was rescued by SOS MEDITERRANEE on 11 September, 23 miles in front of the Libyan coast. Alongside 140 children, women and men from more than 10 African countries he attempted to make the deadly way across the Mediterranean, aboard a simple rubber boat – with absolutely zero chance to survive this dangerous journey. That day the AQUARIUS rescued a total of 252 people from two rubber boats.
James was born in Nigeria, somewhere in a village in the countryside. When he was five years old his mother died. James was raised by his father. His family was poor, there was no money to go to school. “I never learned to write or to read. I can read a bit, but it is not very good, also my writing is really not good” James tells me one morning on the AQUARIUS.
“Five years ago my father also died, I was only 17 at that time. I was on my own, I had to earn money to survive. But there was no chance to work in my region. So I went to Ivory Coast. I learned how to drive a car and was working as a taxi driver in the capital, Abidjan.”
He drove taxis until the police arrested him. Nothing criminal. His driving licence was expired. James doesn’t remember how long he stayed in prison. But it was not too long he tells me.
One day some people approached him and told him he could get work. In Libya. “There are farms and they need workers to cut the grass” James said. So he decided to travel to the country somewhere in the North of the African continent.
In January of this year he arrived in Libya, everything was put in place and he began working on a huge farm with thousands of cows. But quickly it turned into the worst nightmare James ever had.
“Nobody is friendly to anybody in Libya. I was beaten with hands, sticks. Everybody has a weapon in Libya, even the children. There is shooting. It was horrible.”
It was a coincidence that he found out about some boats that were leaving Libya. “I asked them to take me. I didn’t even know where the beach was and what kind of boats they would have. And I cannot swim. But all I wanted was to leave this terrible country” he says.
One morning in September, he is part of one of the two groups that stay on the beach somewhere North East of Tripoli for several days. “We stayed four days hiding in the sand. One night they came with weapons and forced us onto these rubber boats. It was so scary but there was no way back – and I did not want to go back.”
At 10 o’clock at night, the rubber boats leave the beach for the open sea. There are a couple of 20-litre canisters of gasoline on the boat. It is completely overcrowded. It has a small engine and is drifting at slow speed towards the North. The Aquarius spotted the boat in distress around 7 o’clock on Sunday morning. All on the rubber boat were rescued in a 6-hour rescue operation.
“I was so relieved when you guys came with your boats, when we saw your big ship. Thank you so much” James said. “I will never, never go back to this country Libya, I don’t even want to hear this name Libya anymore. Never in my life, never.” James says and looks to the sea.
“I want to got to school and I want to learn how to read and write. Sure, I want to work, whatever I can do to earn some money. But my dream is to go to school, even now that I am 22. Is that possible?” he asks me. “You will find your way” I say“but it won’t be easy for you. I wish you good luck James”.
“I don’t know where to go” James tells me. “I have nobody there in Europe. I have no family there. Do you think I can stay there anyway? It is my biggest wish. I have nothing else anymore.”
Finally, on Wednesday 14 September, James along with 391 children, women and men arrives safely in the port of Brindisi in Italy.
Text: René Schulthoff
Photo: Marco Panzetti / SOS MEDITERRANEE