They tell us we are going to walk until we drop. They mean it. The hot desert is unforgiving on the feeble and the weak. Like a predator, it waits until its prey is weak and tired. Then it pounces. The one to be consumed struggles to walk, each step becoming as laborious as the last. Finally, fatigue sets in. The blazing sun beats down relentlessly, smiling, sapping whatever energy the unfortunate one has left. In the absence of sustenance, the body begins to shut down. It needs rest. It needs food. It needs water. The mind hallucinates and the eyes begin to see blurry images.
They only intend to rest for a while but the desert takes it as a cue to end the game. They close their eyes and never open them again. Dehydrated, if the heat of the day doesn’t finish them off, hypothermia will, when the temperatures plunge overnight.
And they die, becoming part of the desert. There is no burial. In time the flesh will rot away and turn into dust, the wind scattering it far and wide. The only testimony that they were once human beings will be the sun-bleached skeletons we see embedded in the sand as we walk by.
There are fifteen of us. Twelve men and three women. Our two guides, two vicious looking Libyans, bring our number to seventeen.
Our guides have done this walk before. In fact, they do it all the time. They are desert people and know every nook and corner of this inhospitable terrain. They make it their business to take people across, just like a ferryman would take people across a river. They don’t do it out of the kindness of their hearts. They charge money. A lot of money and it has to be in American dollars. A lot of American dollars.
They do not ask where we’re coming from or what we’re fleeing from. They are unconcerned about the famines, the wars or whatever calamity we left behind. It is not their business. Their business is to take us across the desert, past the many country borders and put us on a boat to Europe. From what I hear, it can be any boat – a trawler, a goods ship, a life boat – in fact, anything that can float and carry people. And that means as many people as they can possibly cram in.
The thought of being packed like battery-hens in the hold of a freighter, with no real individual space, is frightening. We’re all frightened. But when we think of what we’ve left behind, the danger of crossing the sea is worth the risk for the dream we want – a life in Europe.
In Europe, we are told, the White man will feed us, clothe us and house us. All we have to do is cross over. And that means crossing a desert and a sea.
We don’t carry much. I carry a small backpack with bottles of water, a stale loaf of bread, a T-shirt and some papers. Others just carry themselves. We cannot afford the luxury of bigger bags or suitcases. Nobody out here will carry your bags for you. And of what use is a suitcase full of old tattered clothes when new ones can be bought in Europe?
The desert is a strange place to be. It changes us all. The Muslim boys who were threatening to cut my throat when we first started out are now my friends. We have become united in a quest that has quashed all our cultural and religious differences. We want to go to Europe. To do so, we need to help one another. Team effort. We support each other as we walk. We cheer each other up. We bond. As we bond, becoming one, the desert and the relentless sun no longer have a hold over us. We can fight back. We have strength in numbers. We will win.
One of our guides had taken a shine to the pretty Ghanaian girl in our group. Even though she ignored all his advances, he still continued to tease her, flirt with her, pinch her bum or tweak her bra. He was harassing her.
We couldn’t get involved or warn him off. He had made it clear it was none of our business.
One night when everyone else was asleep I saw him, in the darkness, on top of her, thrusting in and out. Given the state of their relationship, I knew he was raping her. She hadn’t consented.
When confronted, he made it clear he was going to continue fucking her and that was that. He and the other guide reminded us of how much we needed them. If they ran off and left us, the desert would claim us. We had seen enough sun-bleached skeletons along the way to believe they meant it.
All we could do was console her and tell her to think of her dream – a passage to Europe. Passage to the White Man’s country where scum like him would be jailed for life for raping her.
She herself knew it was a worthwhile sacrifice. It was just a common fuck. So every night, she would lie on her back and let him fuck her. He in turn was going to take her across the desert, across the sea, to Europe. It was worth a fuck.
After what seemed like forever, we finally arrived at our destination. The small coastal town outside Tripoli looked like a paradise, an oasis, in comparison to where we were coming from. It was just a shanty town but after the weeks we had spent wandering through the sandy, barren desert, like the lost children of Israel, this was a welcoming sight. We were famished and tired; the desert had sapped our strength. Before we were fed and huddled into a safe house, we gazed lovingly over the Mediterranean Sea which we would have to cross to get to Europe.
The clear water looked peaceful and calm as far as the eye could see. Just over the horizon, we could make out the distant coastline of the continent of Europe – our destination.
Our guides took leave of us. They had fulfilled their part of the bargain. They had brought us across the desert. Miraculously, we had all made it. None of us had succumbed to the treacherous desert.
We were not sad to see our guides go. In fact, we were happy. Even though they had brought us across the desert, they were evil, lecherous men. They had only done it for the money. They had abused us and raped our woman. They had laughed when they told us how they had left people to die on the trail, on previous journeys. We meant nothing to them. We were like cattle being driven across the plains in search of suitable grazing fields. We were food for fodder. We were shit you’d scrape off the sole of your shoes. Nothing.
We now had new guides or handlers. They were the ones who would take us across the sea to Europe, in whatever vessel they could find.
We dreaded the voyage. We had heard stories. We’ve heard boats broke down and capsized. We heard the boats sometimes sank because there were too many people on board. Even the big fish sometimes attacked the boats so they could feed on the humans on board.
And there was the sea itself. As we watched the sun go down, the sea appeared peaceful and tranquil. But Neptune is an unpredictable God and in the blink of an eye, he could whip up a storm.
Waves bigger than houses were known to thrash boats about with the howling winds egging them on. With rain falling in great torrents, boats were sunk and their unfortunate human cargo spilled into the sea. Very few could swim and even those who could do got tired out easily after a while. If they were lucky, a passing ship would pick them up or the White Man would send his navy to look for them.
But many of them still died. They had survived the walk across the desert only to perish in the waters of the sea. It was sad. With their final destination not too far away they drowned. They would never see the Louvre in Paris or walk down Oxford Street or visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Our new handlers were no better than the last. They were brutal and callous. At least they fed us mealie once a day and let us use the bathroom.
There were about fifty of us in the holding house. It looked like a small warehouse. There was no furniture and we had to sit and sleep on the bare floor. The wooden shutters were drawn so we couldn’t look out and the curious outside world couldn’t look in. There were women and children, young boys and girls, old people and people with ailments. The children were crying, the old men swearing and the women gossiping.
The smell was overpowering. With no fresh air coming in from the shut windows, the place stank of perspiring bodies, farts that had nowhere to dissipate and the vomit of sick kids who threw up in their mothers’ laps. To get a lungful of fresh air, we feigned going to the outside toilet just so we could breathe.
After living like this for a week, one of our handlers came to give us the good news.
He had found a ship to take us across to Europe. We would be leaving shortly after midnight.
Even though our hearts were gladdened at the prospect of leaving this hell hole, we complained bitterly about our treatment. Our handler was a fat grubby Turk. He couldn’t care less. Like the rest, he was just in it for the money.
He looked at us with contempt and said, “I am not your enemy. The water is your enemy”.
His words held a meaning we all dreaded. The desert crossing was nothing in comparison to crossing the sea. It was more precarious. There were no safety nets, no terra firma. And many had died trying.
Shortly before midnight, we were led out in a single file, like a prison gang being led out to do manual labour.
It was a short walk as the harbour was just around the corner. The night guards had been bribed and we just walked through. With the business of fishing done for the day, there were nets, piles of fish guts and some mechanics working on some boats. And then we saw it.
I don’t know much about boats but this rust bucket that had been procured for us didn’t look like it could float, let alone make a sea crossing. Let alone carry people.
There were other groups too. Groups of forlorn-looking ragged creatures with nothing more than hope keeping them standing.
When the count was made, we numbered five hundred souls. Five hundred souls that were to be crammed into this small boat.
We were told to get on board.
I was lucky. I was sandwiched on the deck with the women and the children. Others were told to draw breath before they were locked in the stinking hold where caught fish normally is held.
We set sail.
The first hour was uneventful. The water was a little choppy but we ploughed through at a steady pace. The whole boat was in darkness except for the tiny light in the wheel house for the captain to see. There were navy boats out there, explained the captain, looking for us to turn us around. We didn’t want that, did we?
The sea itself was dark. The dark rolling waves looked like a big mighty black carpet rising and falling as we made our way through it on our way to Europe – our paradise.
It was cold and there was a strong wind. Unaccustomed to this weather, we shivered in our light African attires.
It was winter and they told us there would be sleet and snow later. They laughed when we told them we didn’t know what sleet and snow meant. When the joke fell flat, they told us what it was. White frozen particles would fall from the sky like rain. The pupils of our eyes widened in a mixture of amazement and terror as they explained. We’re from Africa. We do not see these things.
We were halfway across when the sea began to get rough. The thing called snow had started to fall, the waves had become higher and higher and we were tossed about. There were terrified screams as the waves crashed on to the deck. The children, shivering from the cold, cried in their mothers’ arms, and the men shouted. Others took to praying, both Muslims and Christians, for a miracle. For the seas to calm down and let us through.
But the sea had other ideas.
Neptune’s horses were growing restless and as they pranced around, the surf and the falling snow exploded against the hull of the boat and on the deck.
We could see smoke rising from the engine as it struggled to cope with the captain’s incessant demands for more torque. He didn’t get it. After a while of putting up a good fight the engine spluttered, coughed a few times and died.
The Turkish captain was all over the place, swearing in his native dialect. He didn’t like hold-ups like this. It was bad for business. He had a cargo of contraband waiting for him in Italy, to transport back, and time was money. You could only smuggle at night.
Together with his henchmen he went to inspect the engine.
As the boat was thrown around in the waves, they decided that no amount of swearing or tinkering would coax it back to life. They had done their best.
As we watched, terrified and cold, all three of them got into a smaller boat and cast off. This one had an outboard engine and as they made off, the captain promised to return with help. It would be the last time we would ever see him. They had already taken our money. They could afford to cut their losses.
Left to fend for ourselves we didn’t know what to do. We were farmers, goat herders, students, labourers, housewives and old people. None of us were from seafaring nations. The biggest boat any of us had ever handled was a canoe on a gentle lake.
Some of the men took control. Whatever happened, we had to stay afloat. The trap door to the hold was opened and some of the men inside were tasked with bailing out water, with whatever they could find. It was no use. Each new wave crashing upon us brought more water and the leaking from the boat’s rickety structure didn’t help.
We were sinking and adrift, snow was falling and we were cold. The crying and screaming increased and so did the loud frantic praying. Mostly it was the women and children, but the men joined in too…
Even though we walk through the valley of the….
Many of us had watched the film Titanic, many years ago, in the cinema. We had wiped away the odd errant tear streaming down our faces when the big ship broke into two and sank, killing all those people. We never knew, one day, it could happen to us.
The fear of dying, of drowning, kept us all men going. A command structure had emerged and orders were being given. Amidst the wailing, crying and screaming some men were bailing out water from the vessel. They would scoop it up, here and there, and deposit overboard. The younger ones, with good eyesight, were posted around the perimeter of the boats as lookouts. They were to look out for any passing vessel and get its attention. Those with mechanical knowledge were tinkering furiously with the broken engine. Its parts and working were foreign to them, but they refused to give up.
Our leader, a Somalian, walked up and down the boat trying to re-assure everybody. He had seen countless horrors in the conflicts of his native homeland and wasn’t going to let this get him down. He had us all chanting a song he had hastily composed in his head;
the water is not our enemy
we shall overcome
we shall not die
we shall see Europe
the water is not our enemy…
It was chanted all over the boat and it became the mantra that gave us hope. It might have also been a sort of prayer, sung in one voice, imploring the Lord God to show us mercy and rescue us from our plight.
The night was long and hazardous but we made it to daybreak, all of us. We were still taking on water. We were still aimlessly adrift and nobody had come to our aid. But all five hundred souls plus one had made it through the night. The ‘Plus-one’ had come about when one of the women had gone into labour and given birth to a healthy baby boy.
When the sun rose in the morning, its long golden rays seemed to calm the waves, like a mother would calm a distressed child. The snow and the sleet had also departed before daybreak and we were grateful for the sun to warm us up.
Despite our predicament we could still marvel at the beauty of the sea all around us. We had boarded at night and all we could see then was darkness. Now we could see the beauty of it. None of us had ever seen a sight like this before. It was awesome! Water, all around us, everywhere, further than the eye could see. All around us, the waves had settled down to a gentle rhythm of rising and falling mounds of blue and green. No longer did they threaten us, even Neptune’s horses had slowed to a barely noticeable trot.
Our leader was talking to us when we heard some of the women on the port scream. They were pointing excitedly at the sea. They had seen mammy water jumping out of the water.
A school of dolphins, not mermaids, had taken up station alongside the boat. Their presence was welcoming. We momentarily forgot our pressing problems to play with these creatures of the deep leaping out of the water, gracefully somersaulting in mid-air before diving straight back in again. They came close to the boat and the brave ones amongst us stroked them. It was as if they had come to say “we’re here to help you, you’re not alone.”
One of the lookouts shouted. Balanced on the roof of the wheelhouse, he could see a ship passing in the distance. Our leader instructed us to take off our shirts and wave them like flags and shout at the top of our voices. We must get their attention, he said. We all took off our shirts and waved them, shouting till our lungs nearly burst.
It’s either they saw us and didn’t come to our aid or they genuinely didn’t see us. Picking up stranded migrants in distress could sometimes be a bureaucratic nightmare for the rescuer. Something all captains tried to avoid at all costs.
It dampened our spirits but our leader wouldn’t let it kill our spirits.
“Another ship will come,” he assured us. “Plenty ply this route.”
We never knew he was a maritime expert.
By mid-afternoon, our situation became more precarious. We were nearly out of drinking water. The women and children were crying. Their tongues were dry and swollen and the sun burnt their skin. Our friends the dolphins had left us and even the seagulls kept their distance.
In the distance, big black ugly clouds were building up. We started to pray for deliverance. There wasn’t much more we could do. We were not going to last another night let alone survive the battering of another storm. The sea we had looked at lovingly only days before was fast looking to become our watery grave.
As the last rays of the day disappeared over the horizon and evening fell, so did our hopes. Even our self-proclaimed leader became unusually quiet. We were hungry. We were tired. We were thirsty. We were beaten. All we could do was hope for a miracle or die.
The water was truly our enemy now. We were at its mercy.
The waves tossed us this way and that way. We still had no engine power. We had no radio to call for help. Somebody even suggested we start a fire and hope somebody would see the rising smoke. Fire on a boat in the middle of the sea was not a good idea, however controlled it was. We thought of other things we could do. We couldn’t think of much. As night fell and the moon came out, our leader was about to make an announcement when one of the younger boys heard something.
He shouted for us all to be quiet. Then we all heard it. It was coming towards us making a loud thump-thump-thump sound. It came towards us in the fading light like a big bird of prey scouring the sea for a last meal before bed. As it came closer, a searchlight was switched on, its ray illuminating our pitiful condition at the mercy of the sea.
We all cheered when we saw the helicopter. The White Man had come to look for us; probably the Turkish captain had sent them even though we doubted it. We were not going to die in an unmarked watery grave. The White Man had found us. We were going to Europe.
I was weak, dehydrated and tired but in my mind I could see Oxford Street and the Champs-Elysees a lot clearer than before.