#22
In my own words

“I can no longer bear the sight of the sea”

Author Marie Rajablat has been traveling on the AQUARIUS for two weeks. For two weeks, she witnessed the devastating shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. Following the rescue operations on 14 and 15 November, many survivors are aboard the AQUARIUS. One day, after her watch on the after deck is over, Marie writes down what she has seen, heard and experienced.

After the rescue operations and the transfer of the shipwrecked, the AQUARIUS takes course on Italy. The ship is full. I run back and forth between the front and the hind deck to make sure everything is alright. Filling the water bottle for one person and getting a blanket for the next, updating everyone on the state of the rescue operation: all this is just a pretext to get to spend time with the people. The presence of 400 completely exhausted people, still in shock and pain requires a high degree of alert, so that everything runs smoothly and seafarers, rescue teams and paramedics can do their jobs and bring all safely to land.

Moussa* sits together with his friends portside, on one of the stowage boxes. Under these circumstances, two days and two nights are enough to form special bonds and friendship: “Come here, Mama, you said you were an author. I want you to write down the story of my friend Sila. Something terrible happened to Sila – may his soul rest in peace. During the crossing, he was the one who encouraged me and kept saying that I should not lose hope. “Why should Allah have stood by us this far,” he said, “to now leave us, even though he knows why we have left. He knows we left to give our families a better life. When we die, many lives will be in danger … Have faith, my friend. Allah is great. We have to persevere, we’ll make it.” Then Moussa describes how the other people that were sitting around him in the boat, felt. Everyone was hungry and cold. Most of them were nauseous due to the rough sea. In the course of the long crossing some started feeling faint and slipped to the bottom of the boat. This is what happened to Moussa’s friend. “While we were sitting in the boat, we both had stomach pains. He had swallowed water mixed with fuel. I held him the entire time. I tried not to fall asleep, not to leave him alone, and to prevent him from slipping down to the bottom of the boat.” Moussa stays silent for a long time, pressing the back of his head against the wall of the boat. I can see exactly how he tries to keep his composure, but eventually the tears do come. Henri*, a companion, turns his head to the side. He, too, is crying. Moussa continues, “He puked all over me. Shat. I held his hand because we were afraid. And now he is no longer here while I live. Last night, I startled in my sleep. I thought we were still sitting in the boat. On deck something moved. When I looked around, I had a funny feeling. With my eyes closed, I saw my friend before me, but when I opened my eyes I saw him too.

Then Henri tells me his story: “True, Mama, we all thought we were going to die. I was worried about my little brother. He had swallowed a lot of fuel and seawater. He did not react anymore. When the helicopter picked him up last night, I thought I’d lost him. I thought he was dead… How would I tell my parents… Thank God, he’s better now.” Henri is silent and looks into the distance.

Brahim* listens to the older men. He, too, stares into the distance as if he was still on the boat. He stays in that position for several hours. I do not approach him, but keep an eye out for him. Later, at nightfall, I ask him about his well-being. He answers, “I was in the boat with the dead. I know you have some of the bodies on board. I want to know if my friends are amongst them. I want to know if they are on board here, or whether they are still drifting in the water.” With the help of the others he drafts a list. Nine teenagers. He describes their clothes and noticeable features. Upon verification we find that none of them are on board. They all drowned.

Then there is Zeineb*. She was on the same boat as Brahim and was the only woman that survived. Zeineb was forcibly married a couple of years ago, and at some point decided to escape from her abusive husband. She sets off together with her friend Fatiah. Fatiah wants to be with her husband, who made it to Italy last summer. Zeineb gets straight to the point: “Immediately after our departure a few men said that we could not leave with this boat because the engine was making strange noises and water had already entered the boat. They were beaten and thrown into the boat. We could not go back. We drove out into the night, it was around midnight or one o’clock in the morning. It was very windy. The water in the boat rose higher and higher. Everyone in the boat was very afraid. Some were screaming, others prayed to God. Some men said we should not move to avoid capsizing. It was like that for a while, maybe two or three hours, I do not know. Then the waves became stronger and the boat capsized. Most of us could not swim. Because of the strong wind the boat drifted away from us. People clung to one another. Everybody screamed. The boat drifted further and further. I do not know how I got to the boat, I don’t know how to swim. Some men managed to turn the boat around and climb back in. I clung to the ropes from the outside and the men tried to get rid of us. Then the rescue ship came and they threw life vests. The men tried to prevent us from reaching the vests. I clung to the back of a boy with a life jacket. Then we were brought on board.” Several times I ask Zeineb whether she was afraid, which she repeatedly denies in a monotonous voice. But like the other rescued, she can clearly see the faces of those, whether her eyes are open or shut. She hears their cries and their last words. She says, “I can not bear the sight of the sea anymore.” In fact, she has not left the shelter in the belly of the ship ever since she arrived on board.

You might think that Mambie* is coping best with the recent events. “I wanted to leave, because I did not get the necessary material for shoes, belts and bags in my country. I’m a shoemaker by profession …”, he says as he recounts all the countries he crossed in search of leather. Mambie looks me in the eye and excitedly tells me: “Good shoes are important, Mama, to have a firm stand and go wherever you want …” Then, in the middle of the sentence, he breaks off and gazes into the distance: “It was hard in prison… I came from Agadez to Tripoli … People in Libya do not like blacks … They put us into prison … I was locked up for seven months … Then I was able to flee … I was afraid of the sea, but I had no choice …”, Mambie tells the story of his profession and his search for leather to everyone that enquires, in exactly the same order, with the same content, the same places. At some point, his story suddenly breaks off. As if nothing had happened between the prison and his arrival on the AQUARIUS.

Moussa is 19. He comes from Ivory Coast. Henri is 18 and from Cameroon. Brahim is 12. He comes from Senegal. Zeineb is 19. She is from Mali. Mambie is 18. He’s from Gambia. This morning, together with all the others, they touched Italian soil for the first time.

***

* All names have been changed. Everyone has chosen their own pseudonym.

Text: Marie Rajablat
Translation: Lea Main-Klingst
Photo: Laurin Schmid / SOS MEDITERRANEE