Fayez Mohamed, a 22-year-old from Kafr al-Sheikh governorate, was so tired of swimming at one point that he decided to give in to death. But then he changed his mind.
“I remembered the verse from the Quran that says only nonbelievers despair of the spirit of God, so I decided to continue,” he said. “Of course, after we swam for a meter, the draft would pull us back again because of the heavy weight of the sinking boat. I barely managed to swim for 100 meters. When I reached the fishing boat I felt as if I had died and was reborn.”
Fayez is one of the few survivors of the 450 people who were on board the boat that sank close to the shores of Rashid, on the north coast of Egypt, last Wednesday. The boat was on route to Italy.
Fayez, who was going to Italy to help his family after his father found himself heavily in debt and his older brother was unable to find work, said he would never think of repeating the crossing after what he went through.
He recalls that the trip began in Alexandria, where he kept moving from one location to another upon the orders of smugglers who contacted him by phone. Finally, he reached a deserted poultry farm, where around 170 people were gathered. That was the starting point. From there the passengers began wading into the water until they were half submerged. Then, according to Fayez, “they divided us into three boats until we reached the big boat, which was about 25 meters long. We found 300 passengers already aboard. The smuggler on the boat told the smugglers who were transporting us: This will not work. The number is too big for the boat. But they did not reply to him. They dropped us off and left.”
According to survivors, the smugglers did not leave any space on the boat unfilled. They packed it with passengers, so much so that they crammed about 150 people, mostly from other African countries, into a wooden box below deck that is usually used as a cold area to preserve fish.
Fayez describes the final moments before the boat capsized: “As soon as we were aboard, the boat began to sway. We realized it would sink. Everybody began calling the police and the military. It was about 4 or 5 am. The police officer kept asking questions over the phone: Why did you go there? And in the end no rescue mission came for us.”
“As the boat swayed, the container on top fell and hit the side. Within two minutes it sank. We kept swimming until 11 in the morning. Then we saw a fishing boat in the distance. We took off our shirts and waved at the boat until it came to save us,” he recounted.
Badr Mohamed, 28, recalled that, as the boat tipped, several passengers attempted to open the cold box to let those trapped inside out. However, he claimed that the smugglers threatened them with sharp razors, telling them they would cut off the fingers of anybody who tried.
According to Mohamed, the smugglers told them that the boat would become unbalanced if those below deck were let out. They said they would take the boat back to shore. But the boat sank.
A survivor from Rashid, who preferred to use the name Mohamed Ali, told Mada Masr that the smugglers chose to put some passengers in the cold box because they did not realize the danger. He said that an Egyptian woman on the boat refused to go there, but others did not complain.
Ali added that when the boat started to sink and passengers called the police, the smugglers tried to negotiate with them. “They told us: Do not report us and we will call the coastguard to come and collect us all.” The passengers did not yield and contacted the police and the military.
Ahmed Darwish, a 22-year-old from Gharbiya governorate, was one of the last survivors to leave Rashid General Hospital. He said he had to swim for up to 6 hours before reaching one of the fishing boats.
“After falling into the water, I turned around and found a Syrian woman hanging onto a buoy, in a state of complete surrender, not moving at all. I swam back and held the buoy to pull her along, using my other arm to swim. I found a dead newborn. I tied him with a rope to my waist and got him out. When we reached the boat, I kept reciting verses from the Quran and the Syrian woman was so relieved, she kept repeating after me, even though she was Christian,” he recounted.
Badr recalls his first moments on the coast after the boat sank: “When we reached the shore, I saw the four men who worked on the boat standing in front of me. I ran to grab the weapons from the soldiers standing there and shouted: Take them away from here, or else I will kill them. They are the ones who killed my children, they knew from the beginning that the boat could not carry that many people and yet they allowed us all aboard.”
“I buried my kids with my own hands” he said, bursting into tears. A few moments earlier he had seen the corpse of his daughter Habiba for the first time, recovered alongside others who drowned.
Badr was unconscious for three days at Rashid General Hospital. He lost his wife and three children on the boat, the youngest was still a baby.
“I had planned to go to Germany because my wife’s uncles work there. They would have helped me find work and settle,” he said. Badr, who worked as an ironsmith, used to live in the United Arab Emirates. He returned to Egypt for a one-month vacation, during which he decided to embark on the trip, saying, “Europe would have been better for me than the Emirates.”
Ali, who is 17 years old and from Green Island, stated that there are up to 40 young people from his area attempting to make the journey, and that he was accompanied by six friends of the same age, although some of them did not survive.
One of his companions, who was also on the boat and refused to disclose his name, clarified that the improved livelihoods of those who made the crossing to Italy has encouraged other young people to attempt the same route. He stated that he is still a student but he cannot foresee a future for himself in Egypt. He said many of his classmates travel by sea to Italy, as they do not return people to Egypt, even if they migrate there illegally. They are sent to schools and taken care of. Some people even pretend they are 17 when they reach Italy’s shores after getting rid of their passports.
Mohamed Abdel Dayem, whose 17-year-old son Sameh was on board the vessel, said he did not know his son was travelling by sea. “Sameh had planned to travel, and when he reached the shores of Italy the smugglers would have contacted me, threatening to detain my son if I didn’t pay the requested sum of money.”
Ali told Mada Masr: “I work as a tuk tuk driver. There is no life here. All the young people are leaving. I reached an agreement with the smugglers and they gave me a discount because I am from the same area. They are also from Green Island and are known by everybody — the owner of the boat, the broker and the man who takes the money. I was going for LE17,000, of which I had paid LE10,000, collected from my brothers and friends. I was going to pay the rest when I reached Italy and started work. The smugglers did not demand any guarantees from me because I am from their area.”
As for Badr, he was supposed to pay the smugglers LE65,000 because he had his wife and kids with him.
To ensure the largest possible number of passengers, the smugglers often offer different “concessions” when it comes to repayment.
Fayez, who earned a technical degree, said: “When I was in the army I met a man who told me that he could help me travel, all I had to do was pay him LE35,000. When I told him I didn’t have this sum, he told me he knew somebody in Italy who would help me travel and find me work in exchange for a percentage of my wage. If I got paid 100 Euro, he would take 50 for four years, then he would help me obtain residency papers by claiming I was married to an Italian.”
According to families and survivors, the smuggling operations are run by networks that have contacts inside and outside Egypt. The main roles in the smuggling process include a broker, who liases with the passengers, a mediator who collects money from the families when their relatives reach Europe, mediators in Europe, and workers on the boats, all of whom are Egyptian.
Nema, who is 54 years old, travelled from Sharqiya governorate with her husband after hearing about the disaster on television. She came to look for the bodies of her son, his wife and children who were all aboard the boat. She broke down in front of Rashid General Hospital, holding pictures of her three grandchildren and their mother.
“They told me: It is you who killed them, because you signed checks for the smugglers allowing them to travel, and would have paid them later. What could I have done? My son wanted to travel and there is no work here. There is no life to start with. He was supposed to pay LE35,000. He only paid LE5,000 and would have covered the rest when he got there and started working. The smugglers wanted a guarantee, so I signed blank checks,” she said.
When asked whether those checks might put her in any danger now, she exclaimed: “They won’t dare to come near me! As soon as they recovered the bodies, we contacted the broker in our area and she told us their boats were all in good condition and arrived safely. Then they took their things and fled town.”
Passengers aboard smuggling boats are of various nationalities, so pay for the voyage with a range of currencies.
After learning of the disaster, thirty-year-old Eritrean citizen Saleh travelled from Sweden, where he lives, to Rashid. “I found a message on Whatsapp from my brother and sister saying they were drowning,” he said, affirming that he did not know that they were attempting to cross the Mediterranean by boat.
Saleh found his brother, Gaber, among the survivors in one of the police stations. He continues to search hospitals for the body of his sister Amina. He is angry about the conditions at Rashid General Hospital’s morgue, which cannot handle more than five bodies at a time. Despite this, ambulances continue to bring more corpses, causing confusion.
Among the passengers who have not been found is a young Sudanese man called Mohamed Othman, whose sister traveled from 6 of October City in Cairo to look for him. She refused to disclose her name, however she did confirm that her brother was meant to travel in exchange for US$1,500.
While the Egyptian survivors have left the hospitals, those from other nationalities remain detained in police stations.
Amid the sad, gloomy mood in the city of Rashid, families were divided into two camps. Those praying for the dead, and those helping and following the rescue operations at the Rashid strait, where fishing boats searched for floating bodies. Any bodies they recovered were carried to the coastguard checkpoint where ambulances waited.
A young man from Rashid interrupted a conversation with survivors to recall his own experience of traveling by sea, which brought him to England, where he worked for four years before being deported two months ago. He told Mada Masr, “I am ready to go again, by the same route, because there I felt I was a human being, even though I am of a different nationality. Here I don’t even feel like I am a human being. This is what drives young people to leave.”