This is the true story of my friend O. from the Gambia, who was able to reach the fortress of Europe after a year-and-a-half-long journey.
I have known O. as a good and honest friend since 2011, when I went to Gambia for 7 months for an internship. I was working for a USAID-funded NGO called Hands on Care, which offered clinical services for HIV, TB and Malaria, STI counseling and palliative care. This internship was part of my Bachelor degree in International Social Work and Development which I completed in Germany in 2013.
We became close friends simply because he always wanted to go to Europe to play football. I remember vividly those evenings with him and other friends where we would talk about this ‘safe haven of Europe’ and how much everyone wanted to go there. He was one of the few who realized how difficult a life in ‘rich Europe’ can be. We cooked together a lot; I taught him how to make spaghetti, and he taught me to make Gambian food, while we continued our debates about ‘this Europe’.
The story I want to tell broke my heart. It is the personal story of a friend who was smuggled from West Africa to Libya and was lucky enough to survive the deadly sea trip from Libya to Italy.
It all began in Gambia in 2013. Gambia ranks on the 20 least-developed countries on the Human Development Index (HDI). O. used to live in the second largest city, Brikama, which is 35km southwest of the Gambian capital city Banjul.
O. is a dedicated cook and football player who graduated from high school but was unable to find a job in an economy afflicted by inflation that was caused by the oil crises. The Gambian government under the dictatorship of President Yayah Yammeh, who has ruled since a bloodless military coup in 1994, enforces full media censorship that includes spies all over the country. In a speech delivered to the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2013, President Yammeh said that gays were a threat to human existence’.
In addition, O. suffered from political oppression, as his family belongs to the opposition political party of President Yayah Yammeh.
Further, President Yammeh withdrew his country from the Commonwealth as he believes it is a new form of imperialism.
But back to O. In June 2013 he finally made his way to Senegal. After a short stay of two days he continued travelling with other people to Mali. Luckily, the on-going civil war in Mali did not affect him, nor did it cause him trouble. From Mali, O. and his companions continued to Burkina Faso, a country also affected by high political instability. He stayed for one month in Burkina Faso, working from time to time in the streets to earn little to survive, so-called ‘road jobs’. He proceeded to Niger, a highly instable country, staying for another two weeks. He finally made his way to the hell of Libya in August 2013.
O. spent 18 months in Libya. He began speaking Arabic, suffered various instances of intimidation by Arabs because of his skin colour and was robbed several times. Not to speak of his experience being kidnapped and subjection to police violence. He managed to flee but was kidnapped again. He was detained several times. Being beaten was on his daily agenda. He tried to live from small jobs that were offered in the streets. But the most difficult struggle, he told me, was finding food. ‘If you don’t work, you have no money. No money, no food’.
Occasionally O. would go to ‘Zuwara’, the place to organize your journey to fortress Europe. He met with a man he didn’t know. It made O. uncomfortable to put himself in the hands of a stranger. He paid 600 Libyan dinar, around 390€, for his ticket. On 17 November 2014 he was told to come to the seaside at 5am to enter the boat. He told me that it was not close to seaworthy. There are around 130 people on that boat; they were Senegalese, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Gambian, all carrying with them the hope for a safe journey to Europe. No food was on board, and only a limited amount of water. It was gone within three hours. It was not nearly enough to quench the thirst of 130 people on board. He mentioned how people were either praying, quarrelling, keeping quiet or talking to each other on board.
O. told me how rough the sea was during his trip, I cannot imagine what he went through. Not even a tiny bit. He further told me that after some time “the engine broke and all passengers started to shout ‘help, help’! We all went on one side of the boat as the boat was leaking water as well. A few people fell into the water, we manage to rescue some but not all.”
Around 11pm on 17 November O. was rescued by Italian coast guards. “I was scared all the time, that small boat was supposed to be for 30 people, maybe 40 and we were 130. It was way too overloaded.” Six people lost their lives on their way to Europe. Six too many.
O. was given shelter in either a guest house or hotel, he could not identify it properly. The next day, he and other people were brought to Palermo by bus, where he was given a plane ticket to Rome. There he submitted his details and left his fingerprints for the first time. Afterward he was transferred to Lemura, a small village.
O. began to tell me how he feels now, thinking of his journey and that very day where he was rescued by the Italian coast guards. “I don’t know how to describe it… You find yourself in this situation. Thank God we made it.” He still cannot believe what he went through and has flashbacks in his dreams.
‘Your whole life changes. Its hell. For three hours you think you [will] die because of the rough sea, and then everything changes for you. You don’t understand. Libya, no, is no good.’
When I asked him about his current well-being, he hemmed and hawed about recovery from his trauma. The refugee camp in the small village of Lemura provides daily Italian languages classes to all refugees. I can see how deeply grateful he is for being rescued and to be able to escape Libya.
‘I respect Italy and I respect the language, therefore I want to learn the language. They saved my life. ’
Currently his asylum application is under consideration, as he did not have anything with him except the shorts and shirt he was wearing. When he left the Gambia, he had a bag and a passport. However, he lost everything in Libya when he was subjected several times to police violence and robbed.
In the end he said, “Life is all about experiences, [the trip to Italy was] nothing I deserved but that was the situation I was in”. Without a doubt, this is an experience no one should have to face when giving up his livelihood and the centre of his life to seek asylum in Europe.