In an Open Boat

Immigration From the Eyes of a Survivor of the Hellish Mediterranean Crossing

News | Christian Cummins | June 2008

Eric Nyandu Kabango is from Congo. The violence that has engulfed his country forced him to flee his home. So he moved to Gabon, where he was attacked, then to Benin, where he didn’t feel at home, and then, like many Sub-Saharan Africans, to the northern coast of Libya. There, living in a cramped room with five other migrants, he faced daily hostility from a suspicious local population.  For Eric Nyandu Kabango, like many others in his situation, Europe became ‘the land of milk and honey’ – the Promised Land. And that’s why he got together the money to pay for a 300-km trip across the Mediterranean in an open fishing boat.

Kabongo’s trip was part of a mass-movement of desperation. In the past five years, many thousands of African immigrants have come ashore on the EU islands of Malta or Lampedusa or have even made it to the coast of mainland Italy. But each year hundreds drown on the treacherous journey, or die of thirst or exposure on the ill-equipped vessels. Because the trips are organized in secret on the black-market, no-one knows just how many people have perished on their quest for a better life, but the international Centre on Migration Policy Development estimate that at least 10,000 have died trying to reach Europe’s southern shores in the last ten years. When Eric embarked on his voyage, he didn’t realize exactly which dangers lay ahead. The human traffickers in Libya who arranged the crossing painted a very positive picture. When he arrived on the beach at dawn he was shocked at how small the Europe-bound vessel was – only 5 or 6 metres long. But that wasn’t the only surprise. Twenty-five others were waiting to cram themselves into the tiny open hull. This wasn’t what he had been led to expect when he had handed the traffickers the last of his savings.

Yet despite the cramped conditions, the entire boat was buzzing with optimism – at least at the beginning.  After all, the crossing to a new continent and a new life would only take six hours, they were told.

"I won’t even have to eat!" Eric remembers thinking. They had been led to believe it would be so easy, that no-one was unduly alarmed when they realized that they were responsible for their own navigation. The Arab traffickers chose one black migrant at random and appointed him ‘captain’.  He was taught how to turn the boat to the right and how to keep the compass facing north. Once they had finished this crash course in navigation, they shouted "Inshallah" – which signaled the end of their interest in Eric and his companions.

When the coast had long since disappeared on the African side and there was still no sight of Europe, the vibrant optimism turned to worry. By the second morning, when the six short hours had turned into 24 and there was nothing but water on all sides, the chatter had almost entirely subsided. People began to ask themselves a lot of questions.

Maybe the captain was pointing the boat in the wrong direction? Maybe they were lost? They didn’t have to say it, says Eric – the thoughts were written on their faces. Everyone was contemplative. There were long periods of silence. By night-fall the concern had turned to desperation. Eric’s worst nightmare had materialized. The fuel had run out

The boat   was adrift in the Straits of Sicily – at the mercy of the elements. They had run out of food and then water; they had spent two days with nothing and were heading into the third.

"You realize there is no hope. There is no way out of the situation," remembers Eric.

"We began to share stories from the Bible, but as time passed even that lost its power."

The crowded boat was swept by a wave of quiet sobbing.  At first it was the women who broke down, but soon everyone was crying. And then people began to confess their sins. "We knew we were at the end," says Eric.

Then, suddenly, the sobs were replaced by singing.  One of the women began to hum a hymn song from Nigeria and soon most of the crew was joining in. Eric sings the refrain for me now, closing his eyes as he remembers the melody. It is hauntingly soft, slow and mournful. The hairs on the back of my neck stand as I picture the scene.

Faced with what seemed like almost certain doom, the dispirited migrants sang a song of gratitude. " Oh Lord I’m very, very grateful for all you’ve done for me,"

Eric says he was afraid and exhausted, but a part of him refused to give up hope. He kept summoning the strength to stand up in the boat and see if you can find something on the horizon. His faith was repaid. In the distance a ship came into view. The drifting open-top boat had been sighted by an airborne coast guard who had alerted the Maltese navy. Patrol vessel P-61 was on its way. The smiles on the boat returned.

Eric recounts that when one person spotted the distant vessel, all the exhausted passengers tried to struggle to their feet to see their salvation for themselves. Everyone clambered portside, and the small boat rocked violently and almost capsized.  Eric took it on himself to calm people down, organising a system where people took turns to stand up and have a look. But it was a good humoured queue.  Everyone was smiling and laughing.

"It felt like being born again!" he remembers.

So, in the end, it was a happy ending for Eric and his companions. They were plucked from their rickety boat, given food, water and blankets and taken by the navy back to Malta. They wouldn’t be among the nameless, bloated bodies that often wash up on the coast of Malta or southern Italy, or perhaps worse, those who never wash up at all.

But it was hardly a fairytale ending. It was the beginning of a long period of incarceration.  People who are taken from boats by the Maltese coastguard and navy spend 18 months in locked facilities called "closed detention centers." According to a recent Washington Post article, around 1.000 immigrants are currently twiddling their thumbs in the overcrowded facilities, where conditions have been condemned by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. In one of the centres, the migrants are reportedly only allowed out of their rooms for two hours of sunshine a week.  If the migrants are granted humanitarian status to stay on, they are moved to an "open detention center", where they can at least move around the island. But even then, Europe is very far from a land of milk and honey. Malta is small - its population is a mere 40,000 - and the impact on society of one immigrant arriving in Malta has been compared by the justice minister to "200 arriving in a large country like Germany."

The local population feels swamped by the sheer numbers, and there is a lot of resentment, which has sometimes spilled over into racist violence.

Last year, for example, one Africa migrant claims that a Maltese driver deliberately crushed him against the wall. There have been arson attacks against church groups and journalists who have publicly supported the migrants, and right-wing extremist groups have seen their electoral support steadily increase.

Most migrants move on as soon as they can, trying to scrape together enough money to get to Italy where they face more alienation and discrimination.

In the end, Eric has established himself well in Europe, finding work and fulfillment as a musician and artist. But he has chosen to talk about the horrors of his arrival in Europe because he wants his fellow Africans to know more about the dangers of the trip and the harshness of the welcome. "This journey is not a good thing," he says "It’s dangerous."

His message is in keeping with last autumn’s million Euro video campaign on African television, attempting to dissuade would-be migrants from leaving their homes. One of the videos – funded by Spain and the International Organization of Migration, and supported by Senegal’s superstar singer Youssou N’Dour – juxtaposed a mother grieving over her missing son and breadwinner with an image of a dead body lying on a beach.

Eric agrees with the sentiment. But as long as the endemic poverty and instability in Africa continues, young men and women will take the risks he took. You can’t dissuade the desperate.   "If you don’t have the basic things you need to live, like enough food for example, you will move," he says. Indeed, human rights groups estimate that more than a million sub-Saharan Africans displaced by war and poverty have gathered in Libya, preparing to make a journey similar to Eric’s.

The Maltese authorities, who ultimately saved Eric’s life, have been appealing for support from other European countries. Help has not been particularly forthcoming. At present three Maltese patrol boats, two German helicopters and a launch patrol a sea area the size of Britain. Eric can count himself lucky indeed.


ERIC NYANDU KABONGO spoke about his experiences during a European tour with the theatre production "Exodus" – a theater piece featuring real people telling real stories about cultural identity, and the loss of homeland. It played in Vienna in May.

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