April 26 2015: Stories from the Death Boats of the Mediterranean

The Sunday Herald, April 26 2015


THERE is an Arabic proverb that sums up why refugees flee the Middle East and Africa on the “boats of death”.

“It translates as: ‘What forces you to do the worst thing is motivated by something that is even worse’,” says Mohammad Helmi, a doctor from Darayya, in Syria.

Sitting in the offices of the Scottish Refugee Council in Glasgow, brothers Samir and Ibrahim Almafalani, from Nawa in Daraa, Syria, nod in agreement. These men are yet to be told if they have leave to remain in the UK.

But they say they cannot go back to their home country.

They are refugees who left their families behind and risked their lives to travel illegally across borders and seas.

They had no choice but to leave, Helmi says.

The 32-year-old has a photo of his home on his mobile phone.

The front walls of the building are missing and the remains of a kitchen are visible inside.

Helmi is a Sunni Muslim and he comes from one of the country’s most dangerous hotspots in the civil war.

His profile makes him ripe for attack from the Government and Islamic State (IS).

Helmi’s family, friends and neighbours were killed in a massacre following a clash between the army and protestors in August 2012.

“In Daraya the majority of people are in opposition of the regime so we were targeted by the Government,” he says.

“About 700 people were killed in the massacre on my town over about four days.

“Among them, my aunt and her husband.

“They would get inside the home, force people to serve them coffee then kill them.

“I know a family of 20 people – from grandfather to grandchildren – all of them were killed.”

After escaping frequent bombings, the family fled to Egypt.

While there, Helmi watched a video asking doctors trained as paediatricians to work at a make-shift hospital in northern Syria treating casualties of the war.

He had not yet completed his paediatric training after the unrest disrupted his studies but he had to help.

“There was no one to care for children there, I felt I had to go back and treat them,” he says.

“I knew how dangerous it was but it was humanitarian.”

On one occasion IS fighters came into the hospital and took a patient who was being prepared for theatre.

“He was wanted by them, I didn’t know why,” says Helmi.

Medics are under threat from IS because they often send patients to, what the group calls a “non-believer” country – Turkey – for treatment.

This is seen by IS as a betrayal of their religion.

“They said: ‘Next time, prepare yourselves doctors, it will be yourself’,” says Helmi.

He couldn’t stay.

Helmi says: “How can I go back now? It’s really sad, it’s my country.”

Samir Almafalani is sitting nearby listening. He had already left Syria before the civil war to work as a lorry driver in the United Arab Emirates and was living with his wife, their child – with another baby on the way.

The 30-year-old had to find a country of refuge because of the war in his home country.

His passport and visa for UAE were about to run out and there was no way of renewing it through Syrian authorities.

He knew he would have to go back to Syria but he did not want to be called up to fight for the regime.

So he travelled to Algeria in northern Africa.

In Castlemilk in Glasgow, we speak to Amila, whose name means ‘hope’ in Arabic. She has nightmares every day about her treatment in Libya.

The 20-year-old, who has asked us to conceal her identity for fear of repercussions, had to leave her home country of Sudan when she was 10 after her father was killed in war.

She went to the coastal city of Sirte in Libya with her mum and young brother. But the family had underestimated the racism in the country.

“It was so difficult,” she says. “I didn’t think it would be like this. They treated me, and all the other black people, like monkeys, like animals. There’s no humanity.”

Amila was arrested over a passport dispute and abused by Libyan authorities but she cannot bring herself to talk about the details of what happened.

Amila says her mother was killed in bombing carried out by NATO against the Gaddafi regime.

She thought about leaving for a long time but didn’t know how, until she met someone who offered to smuggle her across the Mediterranean Sea for a fee.


Amila had saved up cash for the journey through cutting hair in Sirte, a coastal city in Libya. She was just 19 at the time.

She met the smugglers in a market and they took her money – the equivalent to around £400 – to pay for the journey to the sea.

“I was put in a car,” she says.

“This car carried 20 people, it was very crowded. There was someone sitting on top of me.”

Amila was taken to a farm building where around 100 people had to wait to be taken to the sea.

“It can be a day, six months or one year – it just depends,” says Amila. .

“There is no food except bread and water.”

After 10 days, during which Amila made friends with a 22-year-old Eritrean woman, they were taken in groups to another car.

The journey took two hours and they arrived in another farm close to the beach.

Fearing that they could be targeted and shot, the group had to crawl rather than walk.

They continued crawling for an hour along fields filled with farm animals.

Amila says: “The Libyans were carrying weapons. They would take women and rape them.

“There was a pregnant woman and another who had just given birth.”

Once at the beach, the women had to carry wood to the men, who had to build the boat.

At night they had to line up. Amila says the smugglers would come and kick people and hit them in the back of their heads with guns.

She adds: “They swore at us, they were racist.

“They kicked the pregnant woman and someone spoke out against it.

“They threatened to kill him and her.”

Almafalani took a bus to the Libyan border. From there he paid hundreds of dinar to a people smuggler, who he had been given the number of from a friend, to cross the border.

“There’s no jobs, plus Libya is in the war as well,” he says to explain why he did not stay in Libya.

To cross the border, he had to hide in a lorry. Almafalani says there were 60 people on the lorry.

“Of course we crossed the Sahara in extreme hot weather,” he says.

“We all have to squeeze and hold our knees, there is no gap.”

They arrived at a farm and stayed for three days.

There were hundreds of people there, he says, who had been rounded up by different smugglers.

There were people from Syria, Somalia, India, Algeria and Tunisia.

“The following day we got the truck again to the Mediterranean sea,” he says.

Helmi had gone back to Egypt but could not work or study because Syrians were “targeted” by the authorities.

The family decided that Helmi and his brother Ehsan, 34, who had been injured by a bomb in Darayaa, would seek refuge overseas in the hope of finding a better life for them all.

They paid for someone to move them over the Libyan border.

“It was one of the worst experiences,” says Helmi. “It was desert and it was in Ramadan so I was fasting.

“The treatment was very bad, they were humiliating us.

“The drivers were children – 14-years-old – and they were armed.

“We are running away from a war, we have no choice, then we have to do what they tell us to do.”

Helmi recalls a smuggler stabbing one Syrian man in his thigh with sheep shearers.

They were taken to a house near the beach and spent 17 days there.


The captain was Tunisian on Almafalani’s boat.

He says around 500 people had to walk out to the sea until the water came up to their necks.

They boarded a wooden boat, less than 18 metres in length and “very old”.

It had two levels and Almafalani says Africans were put in the bottom level.

“Because we look more Middle Eastern, we got put in the first floor,” he says.

Almafalani says he was alongside families. He was in the “first class” area.

“I guess you can call it first class but I couldn’t even extend my legs,” he adds.

The shoddy craftsmanship and age of the boat was evident when the engine burnt out less than two hours into the journey.

The traffickers ended up sending another newer boat made from mental out to them.

“We thought we were going to move to that one,” says Almafalani.

“But they tied the boats to each other and the other boat pulled us along.”

When it was time for them to leave, the Helmi brothers mounted small rubber boats and were taken to a bigger boat where about 220 people were crammed onto two levels.

“It was very crowded,” Helmi says. “The sun was burning, the salt is on your skin.

“During the night, water is very cold and you don’t have much clothes.

“They were beating people.

“It was very dangerous because you don’t know when you will die, or if you’ll live.

“Some people got sick and vomited everywhere.”

“I was carried and threw on to the boat,” says Amila.

“We thought there was a captain but there wasn’t,” she adds.

“We were told there would be food, we would reach our destination in good health – but it was all lies.”

While travelling to Italy, water began filling Amila’s boat after 24 hours at sea.

A fisherman with the group had been given a phone number to call someone in Italy known as ‘Alibaba’.

On the third day the motor of the boat broke.

“For five days people just cried and prayed,” says Amila.

“I just couldn’t believe it was happening. But I preferred dying over coming back to Libya.”

Amila says the majority of people on the boat were from Eritrea, there were a few from Somalia and six or seven from Sudan.


Amila’s boat then began breaking up.

“We just floated on wood,” she says. “The fish were jumping among us.

“It was night and a rescue boat came from Italy but they couldn’t see us because we had no light.

“The waves took us out.”

When a rescue boat finally came to them at dawn, everyone wanted to be saved.

The remains of the boat tipped up and the majority of people on it drowned. Amila says all the children on board had been rescued first.

Among the dead was Amila’s friend from Eritrea.

“She was so cute,” says Amila. And she starts to cry.

When the rescue began for Almafalani, the boat he was in was still a day’s journey from the Italian shore. The rescue happened about 24 hours after boarding the boat, he believes.

He says there were women on board who had lost consciousness.

“The weather was so hot,” he says. They were being given a small drop of water every hour.

When they were left bobbing in the sea with no beach in sight, the people on Almafalani’s boat began screaming for help.

An Italian naval boat arrived, sending out life boats and life jackets.

Almafalani says: “Everybody was panicking; they wanted to get out of the boat. It was disorganised.”

Almafalani jumped into the sea moments before the boat capsized.

“Everyone who was on the boat when it flipped over died,” he says.

“There were women and children. I could see children floating dead in the water.”

Almafalani saved a young woman’s life.

“She was screaming so she kept swallowing the water when a wave came and she was going to drown,” he says.

“I swam over and would lift her up, away from the wave when it came.

“I managed to get her on a life boat.”

Almafalani was in the water for three hours.

Helmi says everyone on his boat survived the trip, which took about 80 hours.

They were rescued by an Italian ship.

“We spent about four nights in the sea after being rescued because the Italian ship was rescuing many other boats,” he says.

“1200 people they rescued – that’s the number I heard.”


Amila was forced to give her finger prints on board the Italian rescue ship and was taken to Sicily.

“We went to a place like a prison with newspapers covering the windows,” she says.

Amila, along with a male friend and the pregnant woman, went to a refugee camp, however there was unrest there and with no controls on their movements the refugees decided to move on.

“We were just trying to find someone who spoke Arabic to explain what was going on,” she says.

They travelled to Catania and squatted in a building. They decided to travel to France, where the woman gave birth and she stayed there.

Amila and her friend decided to take another risk and come to the UK.

She says: “Maybe you will be okay, maybe you will end up in Belgium, maybe you will die, it’s just luck.”

They stayed in Calais for 25 days. Amila spoke to smuggling groups operating there to help her and the others she was travelling with access a van to cross the Channel.

“I was lucky because the van was just carrying wood,” she says.

Amila believes the wood helped to disguise the smell of humans from patrol dogs.

When they entered the UK they banged on the doors to get out of the van.

“When the driver found us he said: ‘Who are you? How did you get in?'”

He called the police and Amila and her friend ran away.

Almafalani arrived in Augusta, Sicily. Shortly later another boat, carrying some of the bodies of those who had died in the boat he was travelling in, pulled into port and docked.

The survivors had their photographs taken and they went to a camp in Syracuse.

A small group decided to cross over into mainland Italy and head to France.

When they arrived in Calais they paid a smuggler to sneak them into the back of a van.

“There were five of us altogether,” says Almafalani.

They handed themselves into the police after getting out of the van in Dover.

After getting to dry land, Helmi and his brother were also taken to a camp in Italy but they moved quickly.

They travelled to Belgium and made contact with a smuggler to take them to the UK.

“I hid inside a lorry,” he says.

“The journey took us 60 hours. The agent told us: ‘Go inside, don’t move, don’t make any noise.”


Amila went to London by train.

She was dispersed to Glasgow after spending time in a Home Office detention centre. She is now waiting in the hope she is granted leave to remain.

She feels angry at the traffickers who are exploiting people at the beaches in Libya.

“Of course, I’m angry,” she adds. “I’m angry I had to leave Sudan. I’m angry about the way I was treated in Libya. That, I will never forget. I think about it every day.

“I’m very tired. I have no dreams anymore.”

Helmi and his brother were moved to different locations in the UK before coming Glasgow. They are also waiting to hear if they can be granted refugee status from the Home Office.

“I don’t wish anyone in the world to experience what we went through,” Helmi says.

“We were in the war zone, we went to another country we were targeted, we were exploited by smugglers at sea, we came here and people are talking bad things about us.

“The only people who understand us are people who have humanity.”

Helmi says he can’t handle any more unrest.

“We didn’t do anything wrong, It’s not our fault to be born where we were,” he says.

Almafalani’s brother Ibrahim, 25, joined him in the UK after travelling from Turkey illegally on a boat in much better conditions than those who left from Libya.

Almafalani says the vessel he took was known as the “boat of death”.

“This is the journey from death to death,” he adds. “The smugglers are criminals, they treated us with no mercy, they exploited us.”

He says the Syrian civil war has caused untold misery.

“If it wasn’t for the war I’d be able to renew my passport, I’d be able to stay in the Emirates.

“I wouldn’t have had to go through that journey.”

He believes Europe must do more to help refugees.

“To avoid all that death, the dark journey, is to allow people to come over legally.

“Give them refugee status where they are and bring them in.”

The asylum seekers are being supported by organisations including Uniting Nations in Scotland (UNIS), the Scottish Refugee Council and Maryhill Integration Network.

Ahlam Souidi, of UNIS, said: “Nobody would choose to take this journey that so often leads to death.

“I would call on the leaders of Europe to do something about it, to agree to take refugees or this will keep happening.

“They need to come together and resolve it. Children and women and men are dying in the sea.”

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