The boat drifted on the endless sea, lugging the twelve remaining passengers. Seven men. Four women. And a child, seemingly asleep in its mother’s arms. The sea had carried them for four days now. Sometimes she was dreamy and pensive, and she lulled them with her heaves and sighs, like a mother rocking her child on her bosom. Sometimes she threw them into the humid Mediterranean air. Other times she would slap their faces with water, stinging their eyes with salt. Their heads oscillated between looking up to the heavens and bowing down to the floor of the boat. They drifted in and out of sleep or consciousness, their hands still gripping the edge of the boat, firm like the clutch of a corpse. Then came a surge of movement around the boat, a stirring of excitement. The tired men and women looked towards the setting sun to catch a glimpse, their craning necks slower than their rising spirits.
“Look Guleed,” the woman said to the boy sitting next to her. She looked like she was in her mid-thirties. She was raw, like the sea. She seemed oddly familiar to him. “The shore. See it?”
The boy was looking around. His eyes darted left and right.
“Guleed,” she repeated. She tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to look at her. “Look there, at the shore.”
He did not feel like talking to anyone. He hardly said anything to anyone since they boarded the boat in Tripoli, hardly ate anything too, even the little wads of dry bread they had carried. He snapped at anyone who spoke to him. But this woman did not let up.
“I see lights,” he said.
“You are still seeing them,” she said. She tried to remember seeing him asleep in the last week but she could not. “What do they look like?”
“Bright orange.” His voice was barely louder than a whisper. His tongue was too weak to marshal words into speech. His stomach had become a hot piece of rock inside his body. “They keep shifting and jumping,” he said.
The woman’s forehead creased into a pucker.
The boat glided on. It groaned under the weight of the occupants, their hopes and dreams and deficiencies and fears and memories and all the worlds they had known and all the worlds they had created, collected and carried. From high above, the boat looked like a tiny continent, a little rock lost on a sea of azure tears. The child fell off the arms of the mother and on to the floor. Its tiny arms straddled the feet of the men. It was hairless, face down, like a discarded doll. Its mother didn’t look down or make any movements. The woman sitting next to the young man reached across the boat. She lifted the child up and cradled it in her arms. She covered its ashen skin with the hem of her hijab.
“Sleep, child,” she said to it.
“I wish I could sleep,” Guleed said to himself. “I wish I could sleep.” He repeated these words over and over. He shifted constantly. He rocked his body back and forth. He was afraid he had slipped into a dream, and he would utter these words to confirm to himself that he had not. When he paused to breathe, he would be certain he had drifted off again. Then, he would utter the words and rock his body. He would know he was alive.
“We have only a mile to go my love.” The woman reached over and placed her arm on his shoulder to keep him still. “We’ve made it.”
The man they called the Connector stood up. (He had carried them from Tripoli to take them across the Mediterranean and up to the coast of Italy.) With one hand, he grabbed the child by the feet and tried to yank it from the arms of the woman. When she resisted, he placed his hand on the pistol strapped to his waist. She let go. He walked to the other end of the boat, the child swinging head-down by his side, the way you would swing a water bottle during a casual walk. He tossed it overboard. The sea opened wide. There was no splash. Just a little plop. Then it closed. Tiny ripples faded into a flatness, like the waveforms of a dying patient’s cardiac monitor.
“Yaa Muhajiruun,” the Connector said. “Behold the Promised Land!” He spread his arms wide and looked to the shore. “This is it my friends. I have delivered you unto Canaan.” He looked back and faced the passengers. A gold tooth flashed in his mouth. “This is where our business ends. I pray God splits the sea for those of you who can’t swim.”
There were prayers. There were protests. There were offers of money to the Connector. But the Connector drew his weapon. People looked at the sea. They looked back at the gun. They would have to choose one.
One morning in January 2016, the woman called the Mukhallas, the local agent who connected migrants from Kenya and Somalia to smugglers who ferried them to Europe. They sat outside her makeshift tent in Block 4 of the Dadaab refugee camp in Garissa town of North-Eastern Kenya. She offered him tea. Just then, two boys strolled into the compound, one of whom was her son. They had just come from their regular Saturday morning football match. Their kits were covered in mud and their faces and hands looked pale.
“Guleed!” she shouted. “How many times have I told you to stay away from that dirty pond? Huh?”
“Mum, I swear we didn’t even swim. We just washed the sweat off, that’s all.”
She knew he was lying. Every time it rained a drop in Dadaab no one could stop the boys from swimming in those ponds and small dams the herders used for watering their animals. She worried constantly during these times, dreading the possibility that he would drown one day and someone would bring his corpse to her doorstep. He was her only child and the only thing she had in life.
“How old is he, walal?” the Mukhallas asked, signalling towards her son. His teeth were mossed dark-green with khat and tobacco. He was a wiry man with deep-set eyes. His arms were a web of veins.
“Fifteen,” she said.
“So young,” he said.
“You know, he is special, my boy.”
“Bright in school?”
“He has a talent for football,” she said. “Football is everything to him. This little tent is up to the neck with the trophies he’s won. You know, even at night when he sleep-talks, he talks of football.”
“Wallahi it’d be a shame for such youth and talent to waste away in this wretched camp.” The Mukhallas slurped his tea. “Just like I have. Just like many have.”
“My boy is idealistic, you know? He dreams of playing for Liverpool or some foreign team like that. Doesn’t see these walls and these fences like we adults do. He will never resign himself to this place and that will be his undoing.”
“But who can say what will happen to this camp anyway,” the Mukhallas said. “Certainty is becoming a rare commodity, walal. The Kenyan authorities and UNHCR have conspired to send the refugees back and have the camp closed. People are rushing to take the bribes they are offering and are filling the buses to Somalia.”
“I don’t have any family in Somalia,” she said. “My husband died here. Some useless clan feud. We weren’t even married three months.”
“The Somali,” the Mukhallas said, “is the rat snake that confuses its own tail for another snake’s and cannibalises itself.”
“You have told the truth,” she said.
They sat in silence for a while, and the only sound you could hear was the slurping of the tea.
“You know,” the woman said. “I could continue living in this arid shanty town. I could continue spending my days trapped within this confined area, without access to currency, descent toilets or employment. I could brave being homeless and reduced to a number, a statistic. I can line up every other week in the heat to just to get a cup of maize and a scoop of salt. I could tolerate not being able to work, or leave the camp. I could tolerate being suspected of all manner of uncommitted crimes because I’m Somali. I could continue being a prisoner, an alien. I can go on living through all this.” She looked at the Mukhallas. Her eyes were intense like a woman who had made an unshakeable resolve. “But not my child.”
“Walal,” the Mukhallas said, “just for a few thousand dollars, you and your son can go to Italy or Sweden or Germany and you can give your son a good life. We will ensure you arrive safely in Europe.”
“Don’t insult my intelligence aboow.” She looked at him intently and laughed. “I know how risky the journey is. I have always thought it is foolish and suicidal. I know it’s not something anyone should try, least of all a woman and a child. But I’m willing to take the risk, if it’ll mean having a shot at something better than this, you know? I would go through hell for my son.”
She had some little money she had saved from her small tailoring business which she ran in her tent. She reached out to and borrowed money from various friends and relatives in the guise of starting a business. A month later, she had obtained all the money.
The journey began.
Now, the sea beckoned for the passengers. It was blue and calm. Ruthless and firm. Time seemed to be sucked into its suffocating omnipresence, like stardust into a black hole. The passengers looked at each other. They looked above at the skies. They waited for a sign, an answer, anything. They looked around—at other people, at the Homeric sea, the air, anything—knowing these were the last images they would ever see. Then, one after the other they jumped in.
Soon Guleed and the woman and the Connector were the only ones aboard. The Connector waited. The woman looked at the arms of the tired men throwing up tiny splashes of water as they tried to fight gravity, fate and fatigue. She looked at the men and women whose bellies were now full of salt and whose lungs were now sputtering against cold water. She could feel the sharp saltiness of the water on her tongue and down her throat. She could feel the water on her skin. She shivered. Did the water have to be so cold?
She stood up and embraced the boy. He looked confused.
“I have failed you,” she said. “Please forgive me.”
“I have forgotten how land feels like.” he said. “How does land feel like?”
The woman looked towards the shore.
“Like home,” she whispered. Her memory of land felt like walking on a bed of nails. “You will see soon. I know you will make it.”
She let go of him. She kissed him on both cheeks and cupped his face in her hands. She smiled a weary smile, her eyes creasing in the corners. She turned around and faced The Connector. She pointed at the gun in his hand. She closed her eyes and she could still see the men back in the Sahara. She could feel their rough hands chafing her skin. She could picture the beads of sweat dripping from their faces and dripping on to her back. She could hear their grunts carrying through the wind. She could recall the musty smell of a rifle’s leather strap, half-buried in the sand. Now, she looked at the sea one last time. This had been her first trip to a sea in her entire life. The setting sun mottled everything with shades of red, like a Raphael painting. She looked at the muzzle of the gun. She stood still, her eyes seemingly steady, trying, unsuccessfully, like every mortal, to be truly brave in the face of death, petrified into calm submission by loneliness and terror. Click. Flash—
When the journey began, the boy and his mother travelled in a fourteen-teen-seater Nissan Caravan, together with fifteen other people, mostly Somalis and Ethiopians. They travelled from Nairobi and incised the belly of the Great Rift Valley until they crossed into South Sudan. From Juba they boarded another van that drove them to Khartoum. Then they made their way up the Sahara aboard a speeding two-seater Nissan Navarra fastened with sticks for the men to hold on to so as not to fall off, the women hunched close together on the floor of the truck.
The Sahara was an endless piece of orange paper and the wind had made long lines and lonely hills out of the sand. The truck made its ways through the land and sand morphed into a map of borders. Guleed felt continuously thirsty and hungry. He felt tired. His whole body ached from the bumpy ride. But he knew he had to be strong for his mother. He would fight anything along the way to make sure she arrived safely at their destination. And when they arrived in Europe, he could finally be the professional footballer he always wanted to be. At home, he had won all the local tournaments and accolades, but his refugee status had denied him the opportunity to play at the national level. He thought, as his feet dangled from the side of the truck and he held on to the stick for dear life, as a dead corpse lay half-buried in the sand, that he would join a football academy and he would work hard and soon he would play in the top leagues in Europe. Perhaps one day he would play at Anfield for his team, Liverpool F.C. And when he was rich and famous, he would come back home and build academies for aspiring young footballers in the refugee camps.
After six days of flying on four wheels through the desert, they crossed into the south of Libya. In Al-Qatron, they waited for several nights in a desert village. Their food supplies had run out and they survived on water and plain bread. They couldn’t know if the men would show up or if they had duped and deserted them. They waited. Life is one long attempt at postponing death, it seemed to them—it was death served in tiny slices. The men showed up. They felt relieved. They were crammed into a large truck with small holes for ventilation. In the heat and darkness, they crossed through Sabha and drove north into Tripoli, their clothes soaked in sweat. Here, they waited in a nondescript compound with a whitewashed house. Their legs were wobbly. Their eyes began to retreat into their sockets.
When the next car came, the smugglers started reading names from a list. Guleed and his mother and two other women did not hear their names. They were told their agent had only paid the smugglers up to Tripoli. They would not proceed to the final leg of the journey across the sea. They had paid the Mukhallas for the entire journey, they protested. He had not, they were told. They were told to make phone calls to their families and arrange for a wire transfer or else they would be tortured.
When no money came through after three days, Guleed was taken to a remote corner of the compound where some men and boys were chained to iron posts. They were all stark-naked. Guleed was stripped naked and chained to a post. His skin sputtered against the hot metal. The thirst intensified. Sweat seeped into the sand. The air smelled of a mixture of urine and blood. Five burly men flogged them on their backs. They had them drink salty water. They smoked cigarettes and used the prisoner’s bodies to put the butts out, but the laughter of the men was louder than the prisoners’ cries. The men then took the three women inside the house. Guleed heard her wail—felt his mother’s wail—as she was raped. He felt it to the depth of his being, to somewhere he did not know existed within him. It was a hoarse cry, empty of will, like a drowning man’s cry in the remotest sea. Guleed wished it would stop. It went on. He could not cover his ears. He watched the winds flirt with the glistening sand, lifting the hem of the earth. It was a smooth, elegant movement, like a carefree couple swaying to a Beethoven piece on a breezy night. Nature’s dance to the tune of man’s tragedy. When she emerged, she was white with dust. Blood had burned into her skin. Hooyo was a ghost and her gaze sliced his gut.
“They are going to be sold to local madams to work in brothels,” the man next to him said. “Until they can make enough money to pay for the boat ride,” the man said.
Guleed’s eyes followed the women. He felt he had let his mother down. He had failed to protect her. He surged his body forward with all his will. The iron chains cut through his wrists. Guleed watched the women falter as they walked off, and when they came back two months later, skinny figurines drifting in the wind, he could not tell who his mother was or how long she was gone. He could not sit still from then on, rocking his body back and forth. “I have failed you hooyo,” he said over and over. All he could see now were bright orange lights and they danced and jumped around and dangled in front of his eyes.
Now it was Guleed’s turn to jump. He plopped in. His body was weak. But he swam, and the waves carried him on. He felt light. The journey had sucked everything out of him—his energy, his weight, his memories, his hopes. He did not look behind at the remaining drowning men. He looked towards the shore and saw a fishing boat coming but the obese men aboard it could not see him.
The sun was attentive—history was not. The bright orange lights dangled in front of his eyes again. The island of Lampedusa was white and its cliffs were brown and dull. In Guleed’s eyes, it was a large stone crocodile with a long tail lying on the water. People walked on the beach but all he could see was an army of spiders scurrying on the sand. Soon the sea spit him out onto the shore. He was lying under the belly of the stone crocodile and the spiders were eating his brain. The body of the woman washed up on the sand next to him. He did not know it was his mother.
COVER IMAGE: Source: Time Magazine Website. “We’ve all seen the images of thousands of refugees and migrants on overcrowded ships, fleeing oppression, war and poverty in North Africa and the Middle East for a chance in Europe. Italian photographer Massimo Sestini shot one of these images last year – it captured people’s imagination and went on to win a World Press Photo award and was selected in TIME’s Top 10 Photos of 2014.”
UNHCR has launched the LuQuLuQu campaign; a collaborative effort by the UN Refugee Agency and prominent African personalities and companies to promote the principles and values of sharing responsibility for one another, and sharing resources, in support of the displaced people in Africa.
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