Horrified shipwreck survivors watched as hundreds drowned
Refugees describe desperate efforts to rescue family members after overcrowded boat overturned in the Mediterranean
ATHENS, Greece, May 2 (UNHCR) - All Yasin Osman Ibrahim and his three-year-old son Abdulrahman could do was watch in horror as more than 500 migrants and refugees drowned two weeks ago, in one of the Mediterranean's worst shipwrecks in modern history.
Clutching Abdulrahman to his chest, Yasin stood on the deck of a wooden boat as the sea swallowed hundreds aboard a sinking, overcrowded larger boat to which people smugglers were trying to transfer them.
The screams were deafening. Almost no one could swim. Yasin, a 24-year-old Somali who had been living in a refugee camp in Yemen, searched desperately for his five relatives among the flailing people in the water.
"We thought we would die, too," he said. "We thought, 'We are next'."
Yasin lost four relatives that day: two female cousins, one male cousin, and a cousin's three-month-old daughter. Another cousin, 28-year-old Molid Osman Adam, managed to swim to Yasin's boat, where men pulled him aboard.
Only 41 people survived: 23 Somalis, 11 Ethiopians, six Egyptians and one Sudanese. Yasin's son, Abdulrahman, was the only surviving child, and his cousin, Sowes Mohammed Dereye Mire, was one of three surviving women.
For three days they drifted aimlessly with little food or water, praying for rescue. Finally, on April 16, a Philippine cargo ship rescued them off the Libyan coast and took them to the Greek port of Kalamata. They are now staying in an Athens hotel, where they receive legal aid and psychological support from UNHCR and its local partner, the Greek NGO Praksis.
Several of the survivors have recounted to UNHCR their fight for survival at sea.
Until last year, Yasin never gave much thought to life in Europe. He had already fled home once.
He was studying information technology at university in Mogadishu when armed men killed his uncle in 2009. Afraid he would be killed, too, Yasin fled in a smugglers' boat across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. For the next few years he lived in a refugee camp in Kharaz.
Yemen itself descended into civil war, hampering aid groups' efforts to supply the camp with food and services. Two months ago, he said goodbye to his wife, Fatima, and three-year-old daughter, Maryam, and sailed with Abdulrahman and 38 other people back across the Gulf of Aden in a smugglers' boat. They crossed Sudan and Libya by car. Then they waited for three weeks in a house run by smugglers near Tobruk in eastern Libya until they were able to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
"I came here to save my boy and his future, and the future of my wife and daughter," Yasin said. "I don't want my boy to ask me in 20 years, 'Father, why did you allow me to grow up as a refugee? Why didn't you ever try to take me out of here?' I want him to be like other children, to grow up in peace. I'm trying my best to save his life."
Before dawn, Yasin and Abdulrahman crammed into a wooden boat with 200 other people. The smugglers charged each $1,800 in exchange for safe passage to Italy.
For a full day all they saw before them was a fuzzy blue line where the sky met the sea. As night fell, they stopped beside the bigger boat. It creaked under the weight of about 300 migrants and refugees. Smugglers tied the two vessels together and made everyone transfer to the bigger boat.
The passengers panicked and protested, but the smugglers insisted. One by one, they clung to the ropes, women and children first, each trying not to look down at the water.
Suddenly, the bigger vessel began to tilt.
"The captain in that boat, he shouted, 'Balance! Balance! The boat's going down! Balance! Balance!'" said. Muhidin Hussein Muhumed, a shipwreck survivor from Hargeisa, Somalia, who was traveling with his six brothers.
Within three seconds, he said, the boat had turned over, plunging its passengers into the sea. Muhidin was still in the smaller boat, waiting to transfer.
The captain screamed that the boat was going down and the people would be killed, Muhidin said. "And my brothers are saying, 'Help me!' But I can't do nothing for my brothers."
"Why did I survive?" he added. "Why do I have my life? What is this life?"
The captain started the engine and sped away while the 41 people aboard the smaller boat tried to save people in the water. Hours later, the captain called for help, but when another vessel arrived, he went aboard and left the 41 survivors to fend for themselves.
For the next three days at sea, Muhidin thought of his wife and five children back home, all under age 10, as well as his dozens of nieces and nephews who were now fatherless after the deaths of his brothers.
He said they had left Somalia together, because their children had never known a life without conflict. The hoped to build a new life in Europe, then bring their families to join them.
Muhidin said he and other survivors stood on the deck, taking turns waving their shirts above their heads to get the attention of other passing ships, but none stopped.
Another survivor, 25-year-old Muaz Mahmud from Ethiopia, recalled that the captain had thrown a satellite phone aboard before he abandoned them. On the screen was written a phone number of the Italian coast guard, he said.
They called the number, and the coast guard explained how to find the boat's GPS coordinates. Hours later, they were rescued.
Although relieved to be alive, the survivors were still reeling from the massive loss of life.
"My wife and my baby, they died," says Muaz, who is now alone in Greece. "I couldn't do nothing. I couldn't save them because it was the middle of the ocean."
Muaz said the family, members of Ethiopia's Oromo ethnic group, were seeking safety in Europe after Muaz himself was jailed and threatened by government officials.
"If I go back to my country, they will kill me," he said.
By Tania Karas, Athens