Our only option was to flee Libya by sea: a refugee's story
Syrian doctor Hasan Wahid survived a shipwreck in the Mediterranean on 11 October 2013 - the second of two shipwrecks near Lampedusa where over 500 people drowned. He told us his family's story of the impossible choices – and terrible dangers – they faced trying to reach a safe haven from the war in Syria.
I received a direct threat saying that if I don’t leave Libya I’ll regret staying. I was accused of supporting the [Assad] regime and beaten up. I'd received death threats. I had to leave.
I tried to go to Egypt, but they closed their borders to Syrians. I applied for a visa to Tunisia, but it was turned down. I applied for a visa to Malta, but that was also rejected. So at that stage, my only option was the sea.
We were told [by the smugglers, who wanted $4,500 to take Hasan's family] it would be a passenger ship. When we saw it was a fishing trawler, it was too late to turn back. My family sat far from me. I had to sit at the back with the elderly and the physically impaired because I have a childhood handicap in my left foot. My wife and four daughters - Randa, aged 10, Sherihan, eight, Nurhan, six, and Kristina, two - sat at the front, on the same level of the boat. The 450-500 people on board were mostly Syrians.
After a couple of hours, a speed boat with armed Libyan men appeared. They fired in the air. Our captain didn’t stop. We assumed they were pirates because most of us had our life savings with us. At about 2am they fired at our boat. Three people were injured and the boat was damaged. Then they left.
The water inside the boat started rising, so we used water pumps. The pumps worked until about noon, but then they broke down. The captain switched the engines off and the high waves were rocking the boat on all sides. We stayed like that until the boat capsized, taking us all down. Just before, we saw a helicopter hovering above us. An hour later, the Italian and Maltese coastguards arrived.
I don’t know how I managed to surface. When I did, I saw that we’d been flung far away from the ship and the waves were pushing us further away. I wasn’t lifted out of the water for about two hours. The coastguards were rescuing the children first. I was eventually rescued by the Maltese authorities, after sunset. I didn’t know if my wife and children had been rescued or not.
A man sitting next to me on the Maltese boat – whom I knew from Libya before the sea crossing – told me he had seen one of my daughters on a rescue boat. She is eight and has no front teeth and darker skin than her sisters.
He said: ‘She called me and asked if I had seen her father. I told her not to worry and that Dad will come to her.’ He was trying to calm her down, despite the fact that he was still in the water and she was on a boat.
In Malta, I gave the Red Cross all the information about my daughters and my wife – names, ages. My wife [who was rescued by the Italian authorities] was also looking for them frantically in Italy.
We are hanging on to the hope that we will find our children. All we want is to find our daughters, either dead or alive.
Hasan’s daughters disappeared in the second of two shipwrecks near Italy’s Lampedusa island in October last year. Over 500 people drowned, causing a public outcry. The Italian Navy has rescued over 100,000 people in the Mediterranean since. But the death toll keeps rising: over 2,500 people have drowned so far this year.
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