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“Either You Reach Europe or You Die": One Woman's Journey Inside a Refugee Boat

Last week, 150 refugees were found dead on the shores of the Greek coast. As hundreds leave the coasts of Egypt daily, Valentina Primo delves into the story of a Syrian refugee to uncover what happens inside those boats, drifting in the Mediterranean, before they reach the European shore.

She wanted to go back. Lying under the boat deck, covered in vomit, hidden under a filthy fishing net, she could not think of anything else. The stench of the little child’s dead body lying underneath was unbearable, and the bodies of other women piling up above her made it impossible to move. Her bones were aching, her skin shivering under the wet clothes. But the smugglers had been very clear: "Once you take the boat, there is no going back. Either you reach Europe, or you die." 

The man who had sold her the trip had explained that they had different options, from the more expensive US $5,000 per person yacht, to the smaller US $500 passenger boat, where she would be uncomfortable, he had said. But now, as she squeezed her wet body against the wood, she realised it had been a lie. As they were all forced to hide, their bodies piled up one on top of the other, traffickers insulted them, harassed them, and tossed them aside like merchandise.

She hadn’t had any other choice. Life in Egypt had gotten more difficult ever since the authorities had closed down the coffee shop she had invested most of her savings in, located in 6 of October City’s Hossary Square, where most Syrian refugees live. She had managed to gather plenty of funds for the journey, but her little boy, the son of her Palestinian ex-husband, did not have a passport that could allow him to leave the country by plane. “I was seeing how my savings were running out and there was no future here. My son does not have Syrian citizenship, which means there is no health care or public education for him in Egypt," she says. "The nearest future I could see was being deported.” For Nesrine and her son, there was nowhere to go but that boat.  

As she speaks, it is nearly impossible to imagine the 32-year-old woman walking 10 meters into the sea in the pitch darkness of the night, as smugglers awaited on the boat. It was almost 2 AM as she and 40 other Syrian refugees approached the first boat that would lead them to a second one, as gunshots from police coastguards were heard in the distance. “Yalla, you sons of bitches,” said the trafficker as she attempted to climb up.

“There were three of them: one dressed as a policeman; another one holding the phone to contact other people on the big boat; and the third one, dedicated to hitting and stealing from everyone,” she recalls. Suddenly, passengers began to scream and hustle around the boat. The smugglers had pulled out knives as they recklessly threatened passengers with death and took away their savings, their cell phones, and their clothes. “They also took the chance to harass us and touch our bodies while they searched for money,” adds Nesrine.

Two hours on, and Nesrine has boarded the second boat. A new crew has asked all women to hide underneath the deck in tiny rooms while men, lying outside, make up a series of layers underneath a fishing net. As she lies down, pressed between the cold wood and the sweating shoulder of another woman, Nesrine thinks of her life in Damascus, before she was forced to leave in 2013. She had fled bombings, she had relocated several times, but the threat by militias to join their forces or die had left her no choice but to leave. She closes her eyes. She thinks of her event management company, of her brother-in-law - who disappeared without a trace in the midst of war - and of her little son Ezra, now half-asleep by her side. She feels seasick and throws up. It has been 10 hours and the sun begins to rise.

The purr of an engine wakes her up. It’s the third boat they have to board. It is bigger than the previous ones and she can see, on the deck, refugees from Palestine, Iraq, and several African countries, although she cannot tell which ones. There are about 150 people in a boat that would usually host 50, and the only bathroom on deck is not enough for everyone. Two more days go by, sailing to the unknown as a state of dizziness and despair takes hold of them. 

Suddenly, the engine stops working. Amid confused shouting, the crew contacts other traffickers on the shore to help fix the broken engine, but the response is clear-cut: “Once you set on the boat, there is no going back,” says Nesrine. “Going back or calling for coastal aid would mean the organisation would be found by police, so nobody was willing to help. They just let us die in the sea.”  

Death on the deck

Nesrine begins to shout, her voice screeching in desperation. “There was a woman whose child had diabetes and urgently needed his medicines, so I asked one of the smugglers to get something containing sugar, like honey,” Nesrine says. The child, the son of a Palestinian father, had been rejected at three public hospitals in Egypt due to his lack of documents, so his mother had set off to Europe in the hopes of finding treatment for his disease. But as ruthless smugglers had stolen his medicines on the first boat, he could not endure the trip and passed away.

Nesrine hugs the child's mother. Her heart shrinks. Like her own child, he was also the son of a Palestinian-Syrian couple with no legal passport to guarantee him a way out of Egypt, so he was attempting to be smuggled out like he had been smuggled out of Syria before that. Like her own son, the child was also three years old.   

“What do you do with a dead body on a boat where people have no air to breathe? Where do you bury it? How can you give his mother a proper funeral?” Too many questions resonate on Nesrine’s mind, but the shrieks of men and women in panic around her block her thoughts. They are begging the crew to not throw the body into the water and contact rescue services instead. “It was not human to throw his little body into the water, but people were afraid that keeping it might get their children infected from the deceased corpse,” Nesrine recounts. 

Another day goes by, the boat drifting with no direction due to the broken engine, unable to reach anywhere, the food and water running out. The child’s body, swollen and kept in a box below the deck, begins to spread a sickening smell throughout the vessel. Stranded in the water, lost somewhere in the south Mediterranean Sea, the passengers begin to discuss a way out. They pull out the savings they had left hidden inside their bodies and offer the smugglers to pay all they have for them to call for help or rescue.     

The mutiny: when fighting for survival is fighting each other

Collecting all their savings in a box, refugees manage to gather US $150,000 to offer the crew, begging traffickers to call the guard on duty for rescue. “But instead, they replied that they could hit the boat and let it sink in the water, swimming back to the coast and leaving us to drown (as they are mostly fishermen who can do so). The Palestinian group of refugees, who is blacklisted in Egypt, was afraid of getting caught by the rescue team and sent back to Gaza, so they joined the traffickers and threatened to sink the boat, as we cannot swim,” Nesrine recalls.

Divided between Syrians who want to get back and Palestinian migrants who cannot return to Egypt, the boat falls into a chaotic row. The two groups argue: The child’s body still decomposing, the last cigarette, the last bite of dates. Tension begins to escalate. “We reached a point where Syrian passengers were kissing the trafficker’s feet to beg him to call for help," Nesrine recalls. "There was only one cigarette left, and about 60 men began to fight over it. The traffickers, who had been smoking marijuana all this time, ran out of it and became more and more aggressive.” 

They reach an agreement. Nobody is going to sink the vessel. They have families, there are many children, and they will not realistically be able to swim. But resources are still running out. “We didn’t have any more food or water. We started to take water off the sea and mix it with a very small amount of sugar in small plastic cup and pass it around. There were 150 people drinking tiny sips from the same cup,” she says.

It has already been five days. Although it might also have been six. Lost somewhere in the Mediterranean, confused amid heat, seasickness, and sleepless nights, Nesrine has completely lost sense of what date or time it is. The boat keeps lurching in the rough waves as another pitch black night arrives. “We were waiting for death, or for a miracle to happen,” says Nesrine.

On the seventh day at 8 PM, a flashing light wakes her up. Confused, unable to see under the blinding light, Nesrine hears soldiers shouting in Egyptian Arabic. She can tell it is the Egyptian army. They get into the boat and begin to ask questions, but the refugees are still scared of the smugglers and do not hand them in. “However, the soldiers noticed that they were the only Egyptian men among a large group of refugees travelling out to sea, so the traffickers were beaten and arrested,” Nesrine says.

Nesrine hugs her son, trying to shelter him from the shivering cold. The trip has ended. They have failed in their attempt, but they are more alive than ever. “I risked my life, but I would do it again,” she says, her eyes looking firmly ahead. Like Nesrine, 300,000 refugees risked their lives and embarked on a journey across the Mediterranean this year in search of a better future, according to the UNHCR. At least 2,500 lost their lives in the attempt. “This is not about my future," Nesrine says. "This is about my son Ezra, about his children, and the grandchildren I hope to one day see.”

Translation by Mohammed Seif El Dine.


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