Tuesday, 16 July 2024 21:25

Meet the Tunisian fisherman saving the lives of migrants at sea

Monday, 01 December 2014

EU countries are cutting back on search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean, leaving the job up to fishermen like Kamel Ben Ramdan.

 Kamel Ben Ramdan, a fisherman from the coastal town of Zarzis in southern Tunisia, was 100 miles from shore when he noticed an unusual shape on the horizon. As he got closer he realized he was looking at an inflatable dinghy, listing under the weight of its cargo. One hundred people were huddled onboard.

The migrants had been drifting at sea for eight days. In that time eight people had died, their bodies thrown overboard. The boat was leaking gasoline into the sea around them, but many on board were so dehydrated that were dipping their heads in the water to stay cool. Several of the young men were delirious.

This was not Ramdan’s first rescue, and it would not be his last.

Some 3,000 migrants have drowned attempting to make the dangerous crossing from Africa to Europe since the beginning of the year. Most depart from Libya after fleeing violence in sub-Saharan Africa — Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan — as well as Syria, Iraq, Palestine and even Pakistan and Nepal. Since an uptick of violence in Libya, many are now fleeing that country, too.

European countries where the migrants hope to end up have played their part in aiding migrants stranded at sea, but their support is decreasing. An Italian program that cost its government over $125,000 in the last year ended last month, and the British government has decided not to support any future search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean in an attempt to discourage people from undertaking the dangerous voyage.

Although eight EU countries have pledged planes and boats as part of a new smaller program, the sheer numbers of migrants fleeing Africa has left local coast guards overwhelmed, leading to the deaths of hundreds every year and turning Ramdan into an unofficial rescuer.

“Normally it’s the Italians that do this, or the Tunisian coast guard” he says, “but if you were in my place and you saw a hundred people, what would you do?”

‘I didn’t sleep for three days’

While migrants don't depart from Tunisia, many of their boats are swept west and end up in its waters.

Ramdan estimates that he has helped rescue around two hundred migrants from struggling boats in the last five years. But the rescue in August was the one that stayed with him.

“I didn’t sleep for three days because I left a woman and a child who were dead. … I left them in the boat,” he says back on land in Zarzis, two months after the incident.

With no one else around and time running out for those on board, Ramdan had made the decision to carry out the dangerous rescue himself.

As he drew near the boat, which was no more than 30 feet long, three or four young men jumped into the water and began to swim toward him.

Ramdan took the eldest on board first, followed by the women, two of whom had babies with them. He was careful to distribute the weight of passengers equally so as not to capsize on the long journey back to shore.

Unable to fit all of them onto his small craft, he called a friend, another fisherman, who took about 30 onto his boat.

Ramdan shared what food and water he had on the boat with the exhausted migrants. One young man threatened another with a knife over a bottle of water.

At 4 p.m., as he set his course for home after a seven-hour rescue operation, one of the women began showing signs of extreme discomfort.

There in the stern of the boat, one of the other women by her side, she gave birth to a stillborn child.

“It was so small,” says Ramdan, holding his index finger to his arm to demonstrate. “We wrapped it in some cloth and kept it for her, we didn’t want to leave it there in the sea,” he said.

“We did what we could for her, but in a little boat like this…” he says, his voice trailing off. The young woman recovered in a hospital in Zarzis.

At least 650 migrants have been rescued from the sea off the Tunisian coast this year. With the help of the Tunisian coast guard, Ramdan was able to save one hundred people that day. But many are not so lucky.

He describes how on one trip out on “an angry sea” he came across corpses upon corpses — about 200 of them. “They always float to the surface eventually,” he says.

A boat that was brought ashore recently had 54 dead bodies on board, all of them apparently Syrian, of which only seven could be identified. A mother and baby as well as several children were among the dead. The bodies were buried in mass grave in el-Ketf, near the Libyan border.

As the violence in Libya intensifies, an even greater number of people are fleeing across the border into Tunisia or boarding boats to try to get to Europe. The chaos there creates a perfect operating environment for smugglers who can work in the open without fear of being caught by the authorities.

Recruiters, sometimes migrants themselves, operate all along the coast of Western Libya and even in Tunisia. This summer there was an all-inclusive deal on the trip — from Medenine, Tunisia, by land to Libya and on to Lampedusa for around $650. Normally a boat from Libya costs about $1,000.

The migration season lasts from March to October. Many will now wait out the winter in Zarzis and head back to Libya to catch a boat in the spring.

Some, traumatized by past experience, have ruled out another attempt to cross the Mediterranean.

40-year-old Fathi Hammad left Sudan in September 2009 hoping one day to reach Europe. On his way north he passed through Chad, Nigeria, Algeria, Niger and Libya.

“I worked as a trader in Nigeria and Niger, selling clothes, cars, a lot of things. I got married in Niger. In Libya I worked in construction,” he says.

Then violence broke out in Tripoli. “I was living in a house and they hit it with rockets. After that I decided it was time to leave.”

Ten days later he boarded a boat in rough seas. The driver, a migrant himself, had no navigation experience. They started going around and around in circles. “Death was near to us,” says Hammad, “but the Tunisian Navy rescued us, thank God, otherwise we would have died.”

Now Hammad says he’s looking to the UN to provide a solution, but he won’t try to get to Europe by sea again.

Despite the dangers, many are still willing to take the risk. Bosteya, 34, came to Tunisia by land from Somalia, via Ethiopia and Sudan, finally crossing to Medenine across the desert border with Libya. Of her six children, three are still in Somalia and three are in Kenya with their father.

“I hope to go to Europe, to any country, it’s all the same, anywhere God sends us,” she says. But she has been in UN housing for over a year waiting for a way to migrate legally. In that time she has spoken to her children in Kenya by phone only once. “They live in a village with no phone,” she explains. But Bosteya is getting desperate.

“If there’s no solution, I’ll go by sea.”

The Global Post

Google+ Google+