Refugees being rescued in the Mediterranean Sea. Many migrants out of sheer desperation attempt crossing the Mediterranean in overfilled, rickety boats. / © UNHCR

Short Story: Voyage across the sea of death

Originally titled ‘Evanesce’, Berlin-based legal scholar and creative author Nelly Sarpong writes on a fictional precarious journey across the Mediterranean in a rickety boat overfilled with African migrants, revealing the perils faced by thousands of migrants every year in their quest for better life in Europe.

“What’s your name?” The man lying next to me asked. “Solo” I answered, sniffing and wiping the tears, which had dried by now, from my face. I don’t know why I wiped my face, he couldn’t even see me. We were lying so close to each other that, it was impossible to turn your head, moreover it was pitch dark with the exception of the stars which were twinkling brighter than I had ever seen.

To be honest I hoped he wouldn’t ask me another question. I was not ready for courtesies, under normal circumstance I would ask him the same question so as to build a rapport, but this was anything but normal. The possibility that I would meet this man after we get to our final destination was very low, so why waste time but he didn’t seem to think the same.

“Are you scared?” I barely heard him this time, but I assumed that’s what he had asked because as he lay by me, I could feel him shaking slightly, I felt him move his right hand to still his left but it didn’t work. “I am”, I admitted. I was literally scared to death. I was so scared I didn’t feel like talking. I just wanted to be silent, but the sound of the splashing water, the waves from afar and the screams of the seagulls were becoming deafening and this straightforward-answers-conversation was beginning to be a good distraction.

“I didn’t think we would be so many people” and this time it was more him thinking out loud than asking a question but I responded anyway, “Neither did I”. Black Mamba had told me there would be only 250 people but I arrived to meet 554 people. When I realized how overcrowded it was, I wanted to turn back, but I had come so far, invested so much, lost so much, borrowed so much, that it would be insane to go back. There was no turning back now.

“Where are you from?” The man lying next to the man I had been talking with asked. “Senegal, I am Diallo by the way” the man I had been talking with earlier answered “I am Hakim from Syria”, the other man said. They were both quiet I could tell they were waiting for my response, “Nigeria” I answered. I wondered the number of countries being represented here, I wondered what everyone’s story was. One thing I knew for sure was that we were all bonded by the prospect of a better life.

My little brother, Martin’s face, kept on haunting me. “I promise I will come back for you” I assured him. “Solo is this even worth it? What if you don’t make it? We can manage what we have, I know it’s not much but things will get better”. I looked at him as he tried to convince me. He had been trying to change my mind since I told him of my plan. I knew there was some truth to what he said but his argument was not convincing. “When, huh, when will things get better?” Martin remained silent as I asked. “Exactly my point, there is no assurance that things will improve,” I said

We had been hawking since we left our village to the big city, we were barely making ends meet. We went days without eating sometimes, it was not getting any better. My friend Obi, had told me of how his cousin in Europe was making twelve euros an hour from cleaning public toilets. Twelve euros!!! That was more than I made in a month and a half. I remember Obi’s cousin very well and I know for sure I am stronger and can work way more hours than him. Things won’t get better, I had to make them better.

“Hey, did someone just pee, my trousers are getting wet?” Diallo asked. A woman at the far end screamed “It is leaking there’s a puncture” Sooner or later the dinghy would have had a puncture, I highly doubt it was made to carry this amount of people. “Don’t worry, the same thing happened the last time but we arrived safely” Black Mamba answered. He was a known smuggler. The story circulating was that, he had gone to Italy and been deported several times. This was his job, to convey people from Tripoli to Italy. Who was I not to believe him, his answer seemed to calm people down, but for some strange reason, I felt there was fear hidden behind his macho voice. I could sense this was not something he had encountered in his previous travels.

People had started getting seasick. I was thirsty, the irony of being surrounded by water but being dehydrated was not lost on me. The water was starting to fill the dinghy. We had been warned not to bring extra bags or clothes but some people had not got the memo and had brought it along. “If you have any luggage please throw it out” Black Mamba shouted. I could hear the splashing of water as people dumped their luggage into the ocean. The vacuum created by the space where the luggage was, was quickly filled by more water.

I needed a distraction Diallo had not spoken in a while. “Diallo Diallo”, I called, he wasn’t responding. “Diallo, Diallo, Diallo” Hakim also called with a shaky voice, there was still no response. I tried to push him with my elbow but he didn’t budge. “I think he’s dead,” Hakim said. I couldn’t scream I was numb. The joyful and excited voice, I had gotten accustomed to a few minutes ago was gone, just like that. “Don’t, don’t, you can’t swim” someone screamed, then I heard a splash of water. Someone had just jumped into the sea, other people seemed to join in, committing suicide in the Mediterranean Sea.

Now a group of people were crying, others screaming, others were praying, others were just silent, I fell in the latter group. I saw the evanescence of life right before my eyes as I sat up to see corpses lying in the sea, I saw people struggling to stay alive as the water filled their lungs, these were mothers, fathers, uncles, aunties, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands and children, people I had seen filled with excitement of a brighter future and hope of success during the beginning of the trip, now they were no more, their families might think they got abroad and forgot about them, there will be no burials for them, memories of them will just fade, their identity lost as they will be collectively referred to as illegal migrants.

This was going to be my fate in a few minutes, a corpse, and food for the sharks. I could picture the news headlines reading “Another migrant ship overturns in the Mediterranean Sea just off the coast of Libya”. I could imagine what people would say “How stupid can these people be, do they not see the dangers of this trip” Others would also say “Good riddance, they would just be a burden on we the taxpayers if they had arrived” and others would say “What a waste of human resources”.

I just hope someone remembers we were just human beings in search of better lives.

* The story is fictional and the names do not refer to anyone.

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