In my own words

“I only understand now, that we had no chance in this wooden boat”

We have 722 children, women and men on board the AQUARIUS – all were rescued in a 7- hour long rescue operation. Everyone has found space somewhere on our decks. I am running around with a bunch of big black waste bags. Everyone on board has to help to keep the ship clean. On the front deck somebody says to me “Hey wait, I will help you.”

He introduces himself as Harun* from Eritrea. He found his place on the front deck with several other men from Eritrea. It was mainly was mainly women children and men from Eritrea that we rescued from aboard the wooden boat –  683 in total.

“The people here on the front deck have to help a bit to keep it clean” I say to Harun. “No problem” he answered. “I will tell them. They will all help. Give me the waste bags. I will distribute them here in different areas and tell the people to put their waste into it.”

Harun is around 40 years old. “I live in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. I am travelling alone. My wife and my 2 children stay there” he says. “I hope that I will find a safe place to live and work in Europe, maybe Italy, and I hope that my family can join me soon.”

“I was in Eritrea” I tell Harun. He gets big eyes. “Where and when?” he asks me. “Long time ago” I say and laugh. “It was more than 20 years ago. 1995. I was in Asmara your capital with doctors and we worked in two hospitals there. 1995.”

“Ahhhh. I was studying at that time” Harun says. “I almost finished my studies of management and economy in 1995.” “And then?” I ask him. “Then I worked in a management position. In a bank. It was a state run bank. Can you believe that I was working there for 16 years without any salary. They only paid some money for the bus I had to take every day. 16 years. No money.” I cannot believe it.

“I could not live this life anymore in Eritrea. So I decided to leave the country with my wife and children. It was very dangerous to cross the border. If they find you they will kill you. There is a lot of shooting at the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia” Harun says. “But we managed it and we were able to come to Addis. I had some small jobs there but also no money to feed our children or pay for education.”

“But is it safe for you in Ethiopia?” I want to know. “Yes, it is no problem. But I decided to find some other work. First I went to Sudan. But also there I did not see a future. So I decided to go to Libya. It is hell in Libya. I paid some thousands of dollars to get a truck to Libya. And then I had to pay again only for a place in this wooden boat” Harun says.

“2.200 Dollars I paid only to get on that wooden boat. Do you know how many people we have been on this boat” he asks. He really does not know. “You were 720 people on board this wooden boat” I tell him. “What? 720 people?”, he says and I can see the fear in his big eyes again.

Harun had to sit inside the boat. There were two floors under the deck. “It was all so narrow. Maybe 60 centimetres high. We were all sitting in a line. I could not move. And you would have had no space there” he says to me being two metres tall.

“I only understand now” Harun says after a moment of silence. “I only really understand now, that we had no chance in this wooden boat. What did you say? We have to travel two more days to reach Italy with this big boat here? Oh my god. I would have died if you would not have rescued me and us. Thank you.” He says as he is putting his hands together in a prayer-like manner.

The stories I hear this evening are almost all the same as most of the rescued people on board are from Eritrea. They are all so kind and helpful. It is calm, the atmosphere is nice and relaxed. No loud discussions. A peaceful group of almost 700 Eritreans. The younger ones tell me, that they had to leave Eritrea otherwise they would have been forced to join the army. To be in the army in Eritrea means to be there for a lifetime.


*Name changed

Text: René Schulthoff
Photo Credit: Fabian Mondl / SOS MEDITERRANEE