“When the Boat Started Sinking, We All Gave Up on Life” – Mediterranean Tale of a Gambian Migrant
It was just after 5:45am on 20th October 2013, and Yaya Yaffa’s dawn prayers were taking much longer than usual. He remained seated on the prayer mat for even longer. Usually, he’d pray for peace across the world, and then for all the departed souls to rest in peace and for God to bless him and his family with long life, good health and prosperity. That was his dawn ritual for a long time. But on that day, he also asked God to protect him and watch over him as he readied to step out into darkness.
At the end of the prayers, Yaffa picked his rucksack containing clothes, some money and food, and took off to begin his desperate 5,000-kilometre journey through the Sahel and Libya to reach the shores of Europe.
“I decided to go because I was convinced by my friends who were already in Europe that it was easy to make ends meet there. So I thought it was worth trying to get to Europe by any means.”
When Yaffa was leaving The Gambia, he had just enough money to get to Senegal where he worked for a few days as a labourer to earn some more money and proceed with his journey.
“The money I got in Senegal was able to take me to Mali,” he said. “I spent 28 days there working at a construction site. Once I got enough money, I hit the road to Burkina Faso where I spent a month hustling the hard way to earn money for the rest of the journey.”
His next stop was Agadez in Niger, a major hub for African migrants heading to Europe via Libya, and a hotspot for people smugglers. The economy of the city and its people relies heavily on the money brought in through people smuggling. Yaffa spent about three months in Agadez doing ‘bits and pieces’ until he got enough money to proceed to Libya, his last African destination before Europe.
Immediately Yaffa arrived in Libya, he remembered and felt what many other earlier migrants told him: “Libya will either make or break you.”
“Ohhh it was very difficult. I can never even encourage my enemy to go to Libya. Every moment I spent in Libya was hell.”
During the six months he spent between different Libyan towns and cities including the volatile capital Tripoli, he was arrested and enslaved by the police, kidnapped and abused by people smugglers and criminal networks for ransom and was compelled to work under harsh weather conditions for cash. But despite all these, aborting the journey and returning to The Gambia never crossed Yaffa’s mind. In the face of danger and fear, he found comfort and courage in the stories of other migrants who faced similar hardships before him but ended up in Europe.
“Whenever I faced difficulties or I was down, I’d think about my friends who took the same path and suffered the same consequences to achieve their goals. That was always uplifting. I decided from day one that I didn’t leave my home and family and go all the way to Libya to return to Gambia. I was determined to get to Europe by all means.”
At last he made the amount of money he needed to cross the Mediterranean, from his on and off work as a labourer at construction sites in Libya. On 9th June 2014, Yaffa and 114 others, overwhelming majority of them Gambians, were escorted by human traffickers to a boat in Tripoli, all set for Europe. On the way to the boat at a river side, Yaffa was excited and pleased that after almost nine tough, dangerous and painful months on the road, he was finally heading to his ultimate destination: Europe. But once he saw the rubber dinghy boat that was waiting to take him to the ‘Promised Land’, fear kicked in. But it was too late and dangerous to walk away.
“We were all afraid because of the nature of the boat. It was too small to carry all of us at the same time and it looked very old and unsafe. I’ve never been that afraid in my life. But we had to enter the boat. Those militants would kill anybody who tried to change his mind because they’d think you were going to expose them.”
Boat in Distress
At midnight, the 115 migrants, crowded shoulder to shoulder on the rickety boat, left Tripoli into the Mediterranean Sea. After sailing for 10 long hours, the machine broke and the boat adrift in stormy seas, causing fear and pandemonium among the migrants. By midday, the problem worsened.
“The boat captain and all of us tried very hard to make it work but the more we tried to fix the problem, the more we failed. And then we lost hope. It was very sad. It was a very dangerous moment. People were crying. Everyone was crying and praying to God. Everyone was praying to God.”
The boat adrift at the same area for the next ten hours, while the distressed migrants waited in the water hoping a rescue boat would show up. Then suddenly, the boat started leaking and water started to enter inside.
“At that moment we all gave up on life and anticipated death. The boat started sinking. People started hugging each other. Everybody was shaking hands with each other and asking for each other’s forgiveness. People were crying and praying for each other in what we thought was our last minute on earth. Water was coming in and everybody was crying and praying,” Yaffa recalls.
In the middle of that chaos and confusion, a patrol helicopter spotted the boat, resulting to the dramatic arrival of a rescue boat.
“We just saw a big light from a rescue boat. It switched a big light on us.”
It was a huge sigh of relief for Yaffa and his colleagues as they hugged each other and jubilated that they had chance of survival. They had no idea whose boat was approaching them but that didn’t matter to Yaffa. He just wanted to be rescued from the sea, to anywhere. It turned out to be an Italian naval ship. The weather was bad and time was ticking for the rescuers to help.
During the rescue operation, fifteen migrants, most of them Gambians, drowned.
“The rescuers asked how many of us were on the boat and we said 115. But when they did the head count after rescuing us we realised there were only hundred of us. The remaining 15 had drowned.”
The migrants were taken to a refugee camp in Sicilia, a sunny island region in southern Italy where they were given medical attention. For Yaffa, it was a journey to be proud of.
“I was proud of myself. I left my country and faced all the difficulties just to enter into Europe. Fortunately, I reached Europe safely.”
But it wouldn’t take long before Yaffa realised that his mental picture of Europe might have been fallacious. He saw poverty and hardship, and he couldn’t get a job, contrary to what his friends told him back home in The Gambia. For the first six months in Europe, he lived in an Italian asylum camp, on handouts. His movement was restricted and his fate was left in the hands of Italian immigration authorities.
When his application for asylum was rejected, Yaffa was asked to leave the camp. He headed to Milan and then to Germany where it took him four years to regularize his immigration status. Today he works for an organization called Fixpunkt as language and cultural mediator, advising illegal or undocumented African immigrants on welfare issues. He’s also free to travel outside Germany. But taking a trip down memory lane to his journey from The Gambia to Europe through the harsh deserts and the Mediterranean, he remains remorseful, and the painful memories linger.
“I’ll never advise anybody to make this trip. I’d ask anybody to do anything except taking this illegal journey to Europe. It’s not worth it. You can’t just put your life at risk. For me, every bit of it was painful and dangerous. Back then if I had known what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Until recently, Gambians were consistently among the top five nationalities that crossed or attempted to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy for some years. Many of them lost their lives on the way.