Testimony by Oumar*
Standing in front of the toilets, Oumar is crying. Around him are several young men; they’re talking between themselves, unable to close their eyes. They are still traumatised by the drama of a few hours earlier, when they were rescued from their rubber dinghy.
On the afternoon of November 14th, as the Aquarius approached their dinghy, almost 70 people – triggered by panic, petrol inhalation and burns caused by leaking fuel – threw themselves into the water.
Such a scene is a nightmare for the rescuers of SOS MEDITERRANEE, who saved 114 of the 119 people on board. At the end of the rescue operation, sadly, five lifeless bodies were found at the bottom of the inflatable boat. The bodies were recovered, one by one, placed in body bags and put on the front deck of the Aquarius.
After the panic had passed and the rescue operation was over, companions of the five victims quickly became aware of the absence of their friends.
“I am sad because I’m thinking of my friend who died on the boat. He was called Oumar, like me. Because we had the same name, others would say ‘Ouma Ouma’, it’s what we say to people back home who have the same name. I know one of the others who died too, we met in Algeria, we spoke, we ate together,” Oumar says, in between sobs. “Because I don’t see them here on the boat, I known that they’re dead. We talk about them, because we’re unable to sleep.”
The others surrounding Oumar talk about what’s happened. They dissect the events, over and over again: “Oumar was an imam. Before getting on the boat, he told us not to panic! He was the one who was calm, almost as if he saw his death coming. And then, after finally arriving on your boat, I didn’t see him. I told myself that he is in the sea, or in Italy, because there was a moment when I was no longer sure if he embarked the dinghy that left Libya.”
Oumar explains: “Please understand, we were in a hurry to get to sea. We got into the dinghy in a rush, I was sitting inside, I didn’t see the waves. But people were scared. Some were burnt by petrol, many drank the sea water. The petrol cans broke when we climbed on them to give the signal, because they were of poor quality. I also got burnt by the petrol, which is why I instantly jumped into the sea.”
At a distance, from the back deck of the Aquarius, you can see passengers of the “zodiac”? shaking the cans, as if to warn the emergency rescue workers.
“When we arrived on this boat, we were able to immediately shower in order to remove the petrol that was burning our skin. It was a second chance. At that moment, I believed everyone was alive, I didn’t realise straightaway that Oumar wasn’t there.” He asks if he can see pictures of his friend’s body. Later, those who saw the body, say that the young man’s face was burned – gnawed by a mix of seawater and fuel.
The next morning, Oumar rediscovers his smile, despite a sleepless night during which 23 survivors of a sinking rubber dinghy are transferred aboard the Aquarius. The 23 people were rescued the day before by the oil tanker, Maersk Erin. “Ninety-nine people died in this shipwreck. There’s a 15-year-old boy from Guinea among the 23 survivors, it’s my turn to try and cheer him up. He’s more dejected than me, I have to help him,” says the young man.
Little by little, the hours pass, and he reflects. “What I learnt from this journey is that what matters is not courage, or money, but luck. It’s as if, by stepping onto your both, we were born a second time. You’ve given us a second chance,” he explained. But if he had to do it again, he definitely wouldn’t. “When we talk about Libya, we’re a little sad. I was in Libya for two weeks, we only ate twice a day, rice or spaghetti, on average there were 7 people for one dish. My friend Oumar understood Arabic and explained what the guards said. But they slapped us, they beat us if we spoke among ourselves.”
Despite the horrors of the day before, Oumar says he was more afraid in the desert – which he calls “the sea of sand” – than in the sea, which he had already seen “on holiday in Abidjan”. Imagining himself in a swimsuit, playing football on the beach of Abidjan with his friends, rather than on this boat, shivering and crying for his drowned friends, gives him some comfort.
But heavy rain interrupts our conversation. A violent storm, arriving from the Italian coast, hits the Aquarius. Survival blankets must be distributed and shelter found. This journey seems interminable to us…how must it feel to them?
A few minutes later, I find Oumar, wrapped in his golden cape. He is eager to arrive in Europe in order to let his family know. “We’d like to be able to tell our parents we’re safe. They suffer badly because of not knowing where we are. On Monday, I will call by father. I miss friends and family. But when they know I’m in Europe they’ll be very happy and now, being with you all on this boat, it’s like a new family, so it helps”. He is adamant that in Italy he will go to school and do his best to obtain a qualification. “But first of all, I need to adapt to life in Italy, then I’ll go to school to learn, to educate myself and, once I have a diploma, I’ll return to my country,” he hopes.
Oumar would like to become a civil engineer. “At home it wasn’t easy. Most engineers are trained in Europe and it’s not easy to get visas to go to France. Others have the chance to go by plane, it’s quicker. But not us.” Therefore, Oumar risked his life to study in Europe. I think back to several years ago, to the university campus where I did my Erasmus year, as a foreigner. The gap between our both our lives is embarrassing.
Now that he has told me his story, which he talks little about, Oumar feels better.
“We’re friends forever, right? You’ll come to my home in the Ivory Coast, I invite you to Tabaski, a big party in our hometown.” The generosity of these barefoot men is troubling. But there’s no time to be emotional: the rain is coming down hard and Oumar rejoins his comrades, and they huddle into their gray blankets. He only has to wait a few hours before, finally, arriving in Europe….and calling his father.
Interview and Text : Mathilde Auvillain
Translation : Angela Giuffrida
Photos : Laurin Schmidt