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Crossing the deadly sea

Marvis Birungi
Every year hundreds of thousands of migrants try to cross to Europe by sea - and many die in the process. Nuwab from Darfur recalls his arduous journey to England.
21.12.2015  |  London, United Kingdom
Darfur, Jun 23, 2013. (photo: The Niles | Mohamed Hilali)
Darfur, Jun 23, 2013. (photo: The Niles | Mohamed Hilali)

“I lived in terror for more than ten years before I began my quest for freedom. I knew it was dangerous. I used to watch news about drowning migrants on Al-Jazeera, but nothing could prevent me from leaving. There were many dangers at home too.

Have you heard of the Janjaweed? They killed my mother and captured my father and brothers. They will dig you from beneath the ocean if they suspect that you are against the Sudanese government. The Janjaweed are all over Darfur and have so many arms, supplied by the Sudanese military.

I snuck away from Darfur on an August night in 2013. I went to the Sudan-Libya border by road. The crossing into Libya is tough and took several weeks. There are many rebels and outlaws. Everyone is a suspect, especially young men from Sudan.

I would have stayed in Libya or Egypt. They are both Arabic speaking countries and close to home, but they have war too and their economies were not good enough to enable me to work for the life I want.

Together with other Sudanese, I trekked in the Libyan desert for weeks. We saw dozens of bodies in the desert. I think they were the corpses of fellow migrants trying to flee. After five months of working on a farm in Libya to pay for the trip, my toughest journey began in 2014.

I had seen several ships and boats in Libya but had no idea what it would be like to be on board. The boats are run mostly by Libyan captains who charge up to £1,000 for each immigrant crossing to Sicily. We started out, 80 men on that small boat, we were mainly from Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia who left the Libyan coast. Then we joined the rest somewhere in the middle of the sea.

Soon the vessel was packed with more than 200 people, mostly men but a few women with children. There was an Eritrean woman with a son of maybe four or five years. He looked scared but seemed brave. No one asked questions because we knew we were running from the same things. No one was in a better or worse situation: on the boat we were all equal.

Everyone carried their own food, nothing is provided on the boats. I packed dry bread and tinned beans for my journey. Interaction on the boat was minimal. People spoke different languages and we were mostly sick. I still don’t know if we had sea sickness or feared losing our lives at sea.

We did not think we would make it. Our boat was clearly over crowded, and the Libyan captains didn’t seem as professional as the ones we knew from movies. All the images of drowned immigrants on Al-Jazeera kept on flashing through my mind. But no one questioned the captains or discussed safety. There were rumours of immigrants who had been thrown into the water so we kept our opinions to ourselves.

I stayed below the deck most of the time. I wanted to avoid seeing what was going on. I wanted to drown peacefully without panicking. I would never encourage anyone to take the risk we did.

After a week at sea, we landed in Italy. Most of us were sick, tired and exhausted but seeing Europe felt like heaven. You could trace hope on peoples’ faces. The UNHCR gave us some food and shelter, we felt loved.

I finally felt that there were people who cared about humanity after losing so much hope in Darfur. But Italy was not my destination, I wanted to go to the UK. In Calais I tried hiding beneath trucks to enter the UK but I was caught twice by border police who let me go after questioning.

My final water crossing was very risky. I hid in a truck going to Dover in the UK. I spent days without food to be able to squeeze in the truck. The truck was carrying liquids so it boarded the train without being x-rayed. I have never been so awake in my life like I was in that truck.”

Nuwab was granted asylum in early 2015. He wants to work as a journalist.

This article is part of:
On The Move: Experience is a solid walking stick
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