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Monday, 7 May 2018

The smell was overpowering. With no fresh air coming in from the shut windows, the place stank of perspiring bodies, farts that had nowhere to dissipate and the vomit of sick kids who threw up in their mothers’ laps. To get a lungful of fresh air, we feigned going to the outside toilet just so we could breathe.

After living like this for a week, one of our handlers came to give us the good news.

He had found a ship to take us across to Europe. We would be leaving shortly after midnight.

Even though our hearts were gladdened at the prospect of leaving this hell hole, we complained bitterly about our treatment. Our handler was a fat grubby Turk. He couldn’t care less. Like the rest, he was just in it for the money.

He looked at us with contempt and said, “I am not your enemy. The water is your enemy”.

His words held a meaning we all dreaded. The desert crossing was nothing in comparison to crossing the sea. It was more precarious. There were no safety nets, no terra firma. And many had died trying.

Shortly before midnight, we were led out in a single file, like a prison gang being led out to do manual labour.

It was a short walk as the harbour was just around the corner. The night guards had been bribed and we just walked through. With the business of fishing done for the day, there were nets, piles of fish guts and some mechanics working on some boats. And then we saw it.

I don’t know much about boats but this rust bucket that had been procured for us didn’t look like it could float, let alone make a sea crossing. Let alone carry people.

There were other groups too. Groups of forlorn-looking ragged creatures with nothing more than hope keeping them standing.

When the count was made, we numbered five hundred souls. Five hundred souls that were to be crammed into this small boat.

We were told to get on board.

I was lucky. I was sandwiched on the deck with the women and the children. Others were told to draw breath before they were locked in the stinking hold where caught fish normally is held.

We set sail.

The first hour was uneventful. The water was a little choppy but we ploughed through at a steady pace. The whole boat was in darkness except for the tiny light in the wheel house for the captain to see. There were navy boats out there, explained the captain, looking for us to turn us around. We didn’t want that, did we?

The sea itself was dark. The dark rolling waves looked like a big mighty black carpet rising and falling as we made our way through it on our way to Europe – our paradise.

It was cold and there was a strong wind. Unaccustomed to this weather, we shivered in our light African attires.

It was winter and they told us there would be sleet and snow later. They laughed when we told them we didn’t know what sleet and snow meant. When the joke fell flat, they told us what it was. White frozen particles would fall from the sky like rain. The pupils of our eyes widened in a mixture of amazement and terror as they explained. We’re from Africa. We do not see these things.

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