The Names Behind the Statistics

By Itayi Viriri

Twenty Eight! That is how many people survived what may be the worst tragedy in living memory involving migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa last weekend. The 28 migrants had been traveling on a wooden fishing boat carrying over 800 people when it capsized near Libya.

IOM spoke to two of the 28. This is their story.

It is now 4 days since Mamadou (31) arrived in Sicily as one of the 28. Speaking to IOM in one of the centres in Sicily housing migrants who have made the arduous journey mostly from North Africa, he says it feels like such a long time since he left his native Senegal. Indeed it is, as Mamadou's journey from Dakar, Senegal to Europe began on 1 November 2014 when he left the West African nation. By road,sometimes on foot and on any means of transportation that he could find, he travelled through several countries including Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, finally reaching Libya in March 2015.

If he had thought the 7 days he spent tracking across the Sahara desert in the last part of his journey into Libya was tough, it still was not enough preparation for the hardships that he faced when he finally reached Libya. He simply describes the 45 days spent in a 'connection' house where the smugglers house the migrants who have paid anything between $500 and $1000 for the passage to Europe as hell.

"Our life here (as black Africans) is very cheap,"  he tells IOM. "After the journey I faced to get here, crossing the desert, sometimes without enough water, I thought I was prepared for anything that would come my way, but not what happened to me and others in Tripoli."

As way of explanation of why he had taken this journey, Mamadou tells IOM that he left school at 14, has a 22 year old sister at university in Dakar and his intention was to ensure that 'she did not end up like me'. Since our parents died some years ago, he had become her guardian and therefore felt it was his duty to earn the required funds that would keep her in college and earn her degree.

"She can be someone and she can be something."

Why Libya, why Europe?

Although he readily admits he was not easily taken in by 'show off' friends who had gone before him and were now posting photos on social media especially Facebook showing relative trappings of success in Europe, he says that despite his skepticism this partly spurred him on to make the perilous journey himself.

"I may have left school early but I am not stupid. You could see that these stories of how good things were for them were too good to be true, especially when some of them said they had no problems in Libya and they stayed only a few days before getting on the boat."

"My reality and many others with me, was totally nothing like that."

"The violence against us in Libya, from the people we were paying money to take us to Europe, the others, the armed people, was so much that at some point I decided to go give up and return to Senegal. But then I remembered those terrible days in the desert, how much it had taken to leave my sister behind, I had to stay."

He paints a vividly unpleasant picture of life in these 'connection' houses. He points to a beige, light brownish towel on his bunk bed, describing the colour of the water that he and other several dozen mostly Sub Saharan Africans had to drink in these houses.

How did he find a smuggler to get him on a boat?

"Very easy if you are looking for one. And sometimes they find you."

He says he paid $600 for his passage.

The main reason why it took so long to finally get on a boat was that it was difficult to raise the money to pay the smugglers.

Mamadou paints a painful picture of occasional raids by armed men who would steal whatever they (most Sub Saharan Africans) had saved and they always had to start all over again.

One of the most poignant moments comes when he reveals that before he left Senegal a mother had entrusted her 20 something daughter to his care and she had endured the same travails as they travelled together all the way to Libya.

She was not one of the 28.

"I feel guilty," he barely whispers. "Although there was really nothing I could do to save her, I still feel very guilty. She was just a few years older than my sister."

As for his sister, Mamadou says at the first opportunity he got after landing in Sicily, he somehow managed to call and tell her that he was fine, he was in Europe. There was no need to tell her anything more than that.

"Some other day, maybe. For now, I am here and I am alive."

Asked if he would make the same journey again, Mamadou's answer is a resounding no. Did he believe that those left behind on the beach in Libya and elsewhere, if they heard of the heartbreaking news of those who tragically did not make it across the Mediterranean, would this deter them? His answer is another equally resounding no, this time echoed equally forcefully by a group of 4 or more young men milling around within earshot.

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On 16 June 2014, Sankoh left Freetown, Sierra Leone for Libya. Like many before him he would find his way through Gambia, Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso before finally arriving in Libya in August 2014.

Not long after his arrival in Libya, Sankoh was unfortunately abducted by a Libyan gang called the 'Asuma Boys' who flogged and tried to force him to get call anyone who could pay for his release.

After a month, when it became clear to his abductors that he did not know anyone who would pay any amount of money for his release, they lost interest in him and he managed to escape.

Eventually he says he was lucky to find work in a shop in Tripoli and started raising money for his passage.

After paying 650 for his passage, Sankoh was one of over 800 migrants who at 6am on Friday 17 April 2015, were ferried in a small boat in groups of up to 20 to bigger vessel that would take them across the Mediterranean.

"It took about 15 mins for the small boat to get to the big ship which was a small distance away."

 Did he know anyone on the boat?

"Yes, I got to know these Gambians, about 35 or so."

Were any of them, one of the 28? " I didn't see anyone of them when we were rescued first by the big ship (according to Italian prosecutors the vessel carrying the migrants collided with the very same commercial cargo ship) and then later by the Italians."

"They really tried to rescue as many as possible, but it was just not possible."

Sankoh continually winces in pain as he speaks to IOM. "I injured my groin, right ribs and right ankle when I was slammed into a wooden structure," he says as he shows IOM the extent of his injuries. "I need them to give me pain medicine and more bandage for my leg."

Now 24 years old, Sankoh says he was by his own admission, a decent football player back in Freetown, good enough, he says to play for his country at under 17 and under 21 level.

Was that his plan to come and play professional football in Italy?

"Yes, but I don't think that will happen now because I feel a lot of pain now and I am not sure that my leg will be fine."

As IOM leave the camp, one of the camp managers promises to get him looked at as soon as possible by the medical team, which is located across from the road from Sankoh's building.

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Itayi Viriri is an IOM Media and Communications Officer