Testimony of 20-year-old refugee reveals dangers of the journey across the Mediterranean Sea
They have endured horrific violence and terrors which make the challenges of a desperate flight across the Mediterranean Sea look easy by comparison.
Thousands of migrants fleeing persecution attempt the perilous journey each year, with many forced to trade their life savings in exchange for a place on inflatable boats used by people smugglers to reach Europe.
Now one of them, a 20-year-old woman named Fedussa, has revealed the life-threatening dangers facing refugees and migrants who risk the journey.
Fedussa, who was born in Somalia, said she was forced to flee Ethiopia after her father and brothers were killed amid escalating violence in the country.
She felt she had no option but to pay a gang of people smugglers $4,800 (£3,000) to sneak her across the Mediterranean Sea and into Europe.
The young woman endured violence, starvation and death threats from gun-wielding bandits during a 4,000 mile-long journey across five countries.
She gave a detailed account of her astonishing journey to workers at Medecins Sans Frontieres, whose search and rescue ships found her in June.
Originally I am from Belet Weyne in Somalia, but for the past three years I have been living in Ethiopia,” she said.
“My father is dead. We don’t know where al-Shabaab took him or where they killed him. We don’t know where he is buried.
“My oldest brother is also dead. We don’t know where the fatal shot came from.
“My elder brother drowned crossing the sea last year. My mother was held for six months by al-Shabaab – we thought she was dead … She was imprisoned and beaten regularly with sticks and threatened with knives.”
Fedussa’s family history is shocking but it is nothing out of the ordinary in Somalia, where Islamic extremist groups like al-Shabaab reign supreme.
“My mother told us that as long as we had a roof over our heads but once I realised my mother couldn’t provide for us, I decided to try my own luck.”
This year the Mediterranean Sea has been the backdrop to one of the most volatile humanitarian crises in Europe’s history.
A record number of around 340,000 migrants– nearly three times more than 2014- crossed the EU border this year, according to border agency Frontex.
Offering in equal measure the chance of a better life or the risk of a watery death, the crossing made by 107,500 migrants in July alone is a last resort for the desperate refugees who sell their life’s possessions to buy a spot on one of the inflatables.
Most refugees escape their resident countries with help from smuggling rings who demand thousands of US dollars for passage across the EU boarder.
“The smugglers demanded $4,800 from each person for the journey. Once I told her what my journey would cost, she sold the house and paid the $4,800 for the trip to Tripoli,” Fedussa said.
She began her journey on foot and recalls having to walk for 18 hours after evading border guards in Sudan. Lacking legal documentation to authorise their journey, refugees regularly find themselves in hostile and often violent exchanges with criminal gangs and border guards.
“At the Sudanese border, we were stopped by police. We explained that we were from Somalia and we were escaping war and poverty, and we pleaded with them to let us go, but they refused. Some of our group made a run for it, and the police fired on them as well as on the minibus we were travelling in. Some of the migrants were hurt, shot in the leg.”
As a woman travelling alone surrounded by men, the threats facing Fedussa were not limited to firearms. The smuggling rings are male dominated and as Fedussa painfully recalls: “On the journey to Tripoli, many things happened, including rape.”
“When it was night the smugglers separated the men and women. Two smugglers said to the women, ‘Come with us and we will give you food and blankets’. We knew this was a lie; they wanted the women to go with them so that they could rape them.”
“We told them we were not cold or hungry”, says Fedussa. However the men returned with a more direct means of persuasion.
“Soon the smugglers returned, this time with two men carrying guns… they took away my friend Qani.”
“When the driver found her, she was traumatised. For 24 hours she was unresponsive. We thought she was dead. Later Qani told me that she remembers resisting and fighting, but after the sixth, she lost consciousness.”
The next stop in Fedussa’s journey was Tripoli, Libya, where she was held in a concrete compound in the middle of the desert for three months. “There were 412 men in one room, and 116 women in another.”
Amidst threats that they would be “buried like dogs”, sharing living quarters with “lice and other parasites” and deaths within their group, Fedussa said at this point she had lost all hope.
“One Somali woman who was six months pregnant died of starvation and her unborn baby died too,” she said.
“Nine other Somalis died from hunger. When the smugglers bury people in the Sahara, they don’t even bother digging a grave. They use their hands or plates to dig shallow depression and then they cover the body with sand. When the wind blows, the sand is blown away and the body is exposed.”
In Tripoli Fedussa made her second payment of $2,100 to cross the sea. Even then she was yet to escape the grasp of the smugglers: “Just because you’ve paid the smugglers, it doesn’t mean that you can leave immediately. They register your name, your name goes into a draw, and you only go if your name comes up.”
The smugglers move out under the cover of night. However, as they get ready to leave the compound a group of bandits surround them and open fire. The assailants rounded up the refugees and forced them into three garbage trucks.
“It was difficult to breathe because the doors were closed and it smelled so bad.”
The smugglers cargo was ransomed at $10,000 a sum which was demanded back from the refugees as soon as they got back to the compound. Some people paid and others in utter despair told the smuggler “we can’t afford to pay so do what you want with us.”
When you first board, you have already accepted you are dead. Most people board the boat thinking they will not survive
“When he asked me, I told him my mother doesn’t have that kind of money. He called her and demanded she pay $1,000 or else he would kill me.”
Eventually they made it to the coast. Physically and mentally exhausted she recalled her sense of futility as she and 120 other refugees board a small inflatable with an outboard. They were given 20 five-litre bottles of water and some biscuits.
“When you first board, you have already accepted you are dead. Most people board the boat thinking they will not survive; very few people believe they will make it alive.”
“When you compare life in Libya and the sea journey, you take your chance on the sea journey. If you die at sea, then so be it.”
Unlike her brother and many of her compatriots Fedussa made it to Europe. She was rescued by a Medicins Sans Frontieres vessel on June 7, 2015. “Your boat reached us and we were rescued. At first I didn’t believe it – I felt as if I was hallucinating. I got on board and fell fast asleep. Only when I woke up did I realise that I was finally safe.”
Though Fedussa’s journey is at its end, tens of thousands more refugees are beginning theirs each week. Last week alone Greece received nearly 21,000. Countries such as Greece and Italy have repeatedly expressed concerns over not being able to support the influx of asylum seekers, which stands at 156,000 in Greece and 103,000 in Italy so far this year.
Along with Spain and Malta more than 243,000 people have crossed so far this year, compared to 219,000 for all of 2014. Even more worryingly, rumours on the islands tell of fears that there is an estimated two million more waiting to cross over from Turkey (Greece has reported more than 135,000 arrivals from Turkey in 2015.)