Sitting on a bench, Sium Mulugeta waits for money from a friend to buy new clothes and a telephone. He was on the boat that went down on Oct. 3 with his best friend, Tewelde Bereket. The pair had been at university together in Eritrea, Mulugeta studying chemical engineering, Tewelde applied geography. They had left their home country and been in Ethiopia and Uganda together. And they had the same dream: of reaching Europe and building better lives for themselves and their families.
However, after their boat from Libya ran into trouble, Mulugeta survived and his friend did not.
“He didn’t know how to swim. That was the problem,” Mulugeta says. “When the fire happened, I immediately jumped into the water... I swam for four to five hours. I was near, almost to the coast, when help came.”
Now Mulugeta, like many of the Eritrean survivors and victims’ relatives, is determined to return his friend’s body to his homeland. At the moment, it is among the coffins buried in a cemetery on the mainland of Sicily. Mulugeta knows, because it was up to him to identify the corpse.
Like the majority of the migrants who have arrived in Lampedusa this year — a total of 13,078 so far, according to the Italian Ministry of the Interior — the polite, quietly-spoken 26-year-old comes from a country that, due to internal conflict and repression, is deemed “refugee-producing.” According to figures from the UN High Comissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more people have arrived on Italian shores from Syria and Eritrea this year than any other country. Somalia, another nation in turmoil, is the third-biggest country of provenance. Between them, these nations account for more than 18,000 people. There is clearly no shortage of people for whom the huge risks of the sea crossing outweigh those of staying at home.
“We knew it was very dangerous. Everybody knows,” Mulugeta says. “There are 10-year-old children who know that. But we don’t have any option.”
Almost exactly the same words come from Nisar Salam Aish, a 41-year-old husband and father from Damascus whose family has fled to Jordan and who hopes that, once he has established himself in Europe, he will be able to bring them to join him.
“It was very difficult,” he says of the journey from Zuwarah in Libya — for which he says he paid smugglers US$2,000. “There were about 300 men and women, many children. I can’t believe I am in Italy, alive. But there is not any choice for us.”
Under the still-hot October sun, the Syrian breaks down in tears as he recounts his brother’s fatal shooting earlier this year in the civil war. His wife and two children, aged five and 11, first fled to Daraa, near the border with Jordan. Yet because of the ongoing violence, they left the country altogether. He, meanwhile, decided he could no longer stay in Damascus, so left for Egypt for two months, then Libya for three months — all to get to Lampedusa, where he does not want to be at all.