Haunted by a sinking ship

The two brothers escaped a war in Syria and unrest in Libya. But their closest brush with death came on the Mediterranean Sea.

Thamer and Thayer survived a deadly shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa.
© UNHCR/Alfredo D'Amato

As water began to fill the boat, Thamer and Thayer, two brothers from Syria, sat and prayed to be rescued. If help did not come soon, they knew they would be swallowed into the depths of the Mediterranean Sea.

The one-way voyage had cost them US$ 2,000 each. Over 200 others had paid the same and squeezed on board. Nobody guaranteed they would make it to Europe alive.

Now, off the coast of Italy's Lampedusa island, the journey turned into a nightmare – the second of two shipwrecks last October in which hundreds of people drowned within sight of the shore.

Back in Syria, before the violence and bloodshed, the brothers lived in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene." Life was simple, and the streets were safe and clean. Then war broke out, uprooting innocent civilians from their homes.

The one-way voyage had cost them US$ 2,000 each. Nobody guaranteed they would make it to Europe alive.

Thamer and Thayer were among the millions who fled. "There are a lot of people who decided not to kill or get killed, so they decided to leave," recalls Thamer, 27.

Their first port of call was Libya, where they hoped to start a new life. With one brother studying engineering and the other training to become a chef, things began to look up. But as rule of law in the country deteriorated, their world fell apart once more.

"Libya became the centre for militia," says Thamer. "Anyone could stop you, ask for your passport, and take you to prison because you were Syrian."

Out of options, the brothers made a desperate decision. They were risking everything – not least their lives – but miles from home with an increasingly bleak future, there was almost nothing left to lose.

Haunted by a Sinking Ship: Brothers Thamer and Thayer are haunted by the deadly shipwreck they survived off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy.

Night was drawing in as they arrived clandestinely at the shore. Along with hundreds of other desperate asylum-seekers, they boarded a boat and set out for the southern coast of Italy, praying for a safe passage. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they never expected bullets.

From somewhere nearby, militiamen opened fire on the boat, purportedly due to a disagreement between warring clans in Libya about payment. Thamer and Thayer clung to one another in the chaos. The water began to lap at their ankles.

"I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer, 25. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

"I saw my childhood," Thayer recalls. "I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

Over the next ten hours, water filled the boat until finally it capsized. Those close to the motor were killed instantly; others were thrown into the freezing waves. Although media reports estimate that the vessel contained a little over 200 people, Thamer and Thayer claim there were many more – at least 450, of whom more than half drowned.

The brothers saw many of their fellow passengers perish. "There was a pregnant woman with a son," Thayer murmurs. "They passed away. The corpse of her son was floating on the water." He closes his eyes at the memory.

Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many. Thamer and Thayer were two of the lucky ones.

Thamer (left) hopes to become an engineer. Thayer wants to be a chef. After surviving a deadly voyage across the Mediterranean Sea, the two brothers are seeking asylum in Sicily.  © UNHCR/Alfredo D'Amato

The October 3 and October 11 shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa sparked a broad debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch a search and rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum. To date, it has rescued more than 80,000 people – undoubtedly saving the lives of many.

Eight months on, Thamer and Thayer have applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily. "We want to make our own lives and move on," says Thayer. He and his brother are praying for one more chance.