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A powerful page-turner: engrossing, funny and insightful. A vital read for these times!

- Rachel Roddy, The Guardian columnist


Chapter 19 - the Sinking of a Migrant Boat

On April 14, a migrant boat sank in the Mediterranean. The Italian navy saved 142 lives eighty nautical miles south of Lampedusa. An estimated 400 people died. A second boat capsized on April 18, just outside of Libyan waters. In the worst ship disaster of its kind, 800 people drowned and 27 survived. The two tragedies called Europe back to a sense of responsibility it didn’t want. But blaming Italy for lack of border controls and helping migrants in distress wouldn’t make the problem go away.

A social worker from the emergency reception center in the city called me five days after the first boat had sunk to tell us that one of the survivors, a twenty-one-year-old woman from the Gambia, would be referred to the refugee home in Dogana later that same day. Ida had been traveling the “back way,” the Western Sahara route that takes migrants from the tiny country on Africa’s western coast via Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger to Libya. She had been with her husband, brother and sister-in-law. All of them had drowned when the boat went down. The social worker added that Ida was absolutely lovely, and she hoped I would take good care of her.

I put down the phone wondering what taking good care looked like in a case like this. 1,200 people—more than double the population of the village I lived in—had lost their lives in the Mediterranean just days ago. I expected Ida to be in a state of shock and utter desolation, and felt just as relieved that I could actually do something for a survivor of the tragedy, as I was clueless about how to best approach the situation.

I decided to consult Aziz, the young man who had come by our home a few months earlier to ask for Sergio’s winter jackets. Aziz and several of his friends, who all lived at the refugee home in our village, were the only Gambians I knew. Aziz was trying hard to fight the ennui and lingering depression refugees fall prey to by building an improvised business. He had started off by traveling to Tuscany’s refugee homes to sell Italian SIM cards to people who had just arrived, and I had had the brilliant and extremely shortsighted idea of suggesting Aziz start importing African wax prints. I promised to find customers among my friends who loved the fabrics’ colorful geometric patterns just as much as I did. Aziz could make some money, and at the same time, we would be supporting the workers of the African textile industry. But the day I unwrapped the parcel with material Aziz’s aunt had bought in the market in Banjul, I also discovered that the exuberant prints had been produced in Europe and could be ordered directly from the Netherlands without the African detour. The Dutch had been more successful in surviving the decline of the European textile industry than the businesses in the Swiss mountain valley where I holidayed. The Dutch wax prints were in as high demand as ever in West Africa, and their fiercest competitors for a slice of the market were not the local industries but the cheaper Chinese imports.

I called Aziz to tell him about Ida and the latest boat disasters.


“We have seen the news about the boats,” he said. “She is very lucky to be alive. Let me know what we can do.”


“Thanks, Aziz. I’ll be in touch as soon as I know more.”


I drove to the house and asked Izogie to help me prepare a bed for our new guest. The Italian family hadn’t moved out yet, but two tiny rooms in the basement had been freed up by the local doctor who had used them as a temporary studio and waiting room twice a week. Fola had already turned one into a bedroom, and we moved a mattress into the other. I told the girls about Ida. They had also heard about the two boats that had gone down, but they didn’t say much. Empathy wasn’t their strong suit. I didn’t know whether the absence of it was because of a difficult upbringing or the atrocities they encountered in the eye-for-an-eye world of Libya’s ghettos, and I had gotten tired of trying to find out.


Two operators of the women’s shelter drove Ida to Dogana, and the first thing I noticed when she got out of the car was her smile. A warm and wide smile set in a beautiful deep-black face. It made me falter for a moment—I had been prepared for tears, breakdowns and supportive hugs but definitely not for a radiant smile. I collected myself, took Ida’s small bag and accompanied her along the steep alley leading up to the house.


“Are there any Gambians staying here?” was the first thing she asked when we walked into the house, followed right after by “I need to get to Germany.”


I showed Ida around the house and explained why she couldn’t travel on to Germany. I also told her about the young men from the Gambia who were staying at the refugee home in my village. The Italian family was packing up and getting ready for their move. Ida kept smiling and greeted everybody. Fola offered her a plate of jollof rice. She ate a few bites but wasn’t really hungry. I asked her whether she’d like to lie down.


“No, mum. I can’t sleep. But please let me meet your friends from Gambia.”


I called Aziz and drove back home with Ida. She sat on a bench under an olive tree while I made coffee and tea. Aziz arrived shortly after with two of his friends and joined her at the table in the grove. The four of them started to talk in Wolof, and from time to time, their conversation was interrupted by the ringing of Ida’s phone.


Aziz explained, “It’s people calling her to find out about their relatives.”


“Relatives who were on the boat?”


“Exactly. They hope she might know what happened to them.”


“How did they get the number? This isn’t her phone.” Ida was using the cell phone the reception center in the city kept for people who needed to get in touch with their families. I had bought some credit for her, but the social worker told me that she needed the phone back as soon as there were new arrivals.


“This kind of news travels fast. She called somebody from this phone, and that person must have passed on the news that a survivor can be reached at this number.”


I looked at Ida, who was still on the phone. She was smiling and kept answering the questions of all the people who had managed to get her number and explained every time anew what had happened on the boat before her family had drowned, just like the parents, siblings, children or friends the callers were desperately looking for.


“Has Ida told you about Germany?” Aziz asked.


“Yes, she has,” I said.


“She has a cousin there.”

“I know. She called her from my phone.”

“She is desperate to go and stay with her.”

“She can’t. At least not according to the Dublin Regulation. The European Union allows family reunifications for couples and parents and their minor children. A cousin isn’t a close enough relationship. And even if it was, she doesn’t have any documents that can prove that they’re relatives.”

“This cousin is the only person she has.”

“I’m trying to find a refugee home for her with women from Gambia. Hopefully, we’ll manage to find one somewhere close by so we can keep giving her a hand.”

“You know I have seen a lot.” Aziz shook his head, and I thought of the long scar he had shown Sergio and me during one of his visits. He had been shot by a teenage sniper in Tripoli. The young Libyan was sitting at a window with a rifle and aimed at every black person that came through his street. Aziz had been lucky to survive. He had heard from a doctor at the improvised hospital friends had carried him to that others hadn’t. “I’ve seen a lot of trouble, but you know this... this is not easy.”

Ida stayed for dinner at our place. I prepared fried vegetables and steamed rice—something I hoped Ida would like—but she ate little and burped a lot. The kids watched Sergio and me, waiting for a reaction from us to all her belching.


“Sorry, the water,” Ida said after another burp. “I’ve swallowed so much water. It’s still coming up. The people who took us to Sicily told me it will take a while.”

I drove Ida back to the house in Dogana after dinner. Her room looked nice. Izogie had found an extra pillow and a little table and lamp, which she had installed next to Ida’s bed.

I said goodnight and went back home.




Ida called me shortly after I had gone to bed.

“Mum, I hear voices.”

“Is it the Nigerian girls? Are they fighting?”

“No, no fighting. Just voices.”


“I’m sorry, the girls can be rather loud at times.”


“I know, mum. I had a Nigerian friend in Libya. They are always loud, but this is worse.”


“Okay, let me check what’s going on.”


I called Vera, who had already been asleep. Were there any problems in the house? Were the girls fighting again? Vera hadn’t heard anything. She got up to check and called me back to say that everything was quiet in the house.


The next day, I drove back to Dogana first thing in the morning. Ida was in the bathroom. Fola had told me she had walked into her room in the middle of the night and asked whether she could stay with her.


“Where did she sleep?” There was only one bed in Fola’s room.


“On the floor. You know the carpet I have taken down from the attic? She slept on it.

But she kept waking me up.”


Ida opened the bathroom door and smiled at us.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Not so bad, but I couldn’t sleep, mum. I heard voices the whole night.”

“Vera told me the girls were in bed early last night. Perhaps you heard the voices of the villagers passing by in the alleyway?”

“No, mum, the voices were in my room. I asked this girl whether I could stay with her. But I couldn’t sleep much, even then.”

Ida got ready and I did a couple of things in the house before we drove to my village for her to meet with Aziz and his friends again.


“Mum, have you thought about what I told you yesterday?” she asked when we got into the car.


“I have... I think you really need to talk this through with Aziz again.”

Ida had been clear from the first minute. She wouldn’t stay. She couldn’t stay. She wanted to reach the one person in Europe who had known her before the tragedy and who would understand her without the need for words. I understood but worried that she wouldn’t make it past the border controls and wanted her to give it some time. I could help her in Tuscany, but she couldn’t come back if she was stopped while illegally crossing the Swiss or German borders.

“The prefecture will let me know today whether there are any shelters in this part of Tuscany with women from Gambia. And they are also requesting the help of a psychologist for you.”



“A doctor you can talk to. A bit like a good friend or family member who supports you in a difficult situation.” I had not had much success so far with my proposals of psychological support with the Nigerian girls, but Ida’s case literally screamed for it.


“Mum, I don’t want to see a doctor. I just need to be close to my people. Let me call my cousin again today. I want to—”


Our conversation was interrupted by the ringing of Ida’s phone. Her number was still making the rounds.


“Malik? No, I’m sorry, I don’t think there was a Malik on the boat that pulled me out of the water... There were very few people on it... Yes, I would have met him when we were taken to Sicily.”


Malik. I liked the sound of the name. I tried to imagine the face that had belonged to it and wondered whether Malik’s lifeless body was trapped in the hulk of the boat on the bottom of the sea or still drifting through the deep blue Mediterranean waters.


In the meantime, Ida kept answering questions and explained once more what had happened on the boat. A ship had been sighted on the horizon. They had no more water on the boat. People were frightened they wouldn’t make it to the coast. Some got up to wave in the hope of grabbing the attention of the passing ship. The man steering their boat shouted to sit down, that the boat would capsize otherwise. But the turmoil was too great, and many had already gotten up and run to one side waving and shouting. The boat keeled over only seconds later. Ida had been lucky. She and her family had been sent into the hull at the start of the journey. Like most of the other people, Ida had been sick during the whole trip, but because she was five months pregnant, she was allowed on deck in the end and jumped as soon as the boat keeled over. She lost the baby in the water.


Ida put down the phone.

“It was his mother.” Ida shook her head. “She didn’t want me to hang up...”

Ida might have been the last person from the boat Malik’s mother would ever be able to talk to. The last person who might have heard her son shout for his life.

“The voices, Ida...”




“The voices you heard last night... Were they real voices or just voices you hear in your head?” I wasn’t quite sure how to phrase it. Even if these voices were just in her head, they were real ones, or at least had been a few days earlier.


“It was very loud, mum. People shouted. Everybody shouted for help, or for their family. You see the scratches I have on my cheeks? A man grabbed me to hold on to something and kept pushing me under the water.”

I had seen photos of dead bodies in the sea. But I had never stopped to imagine the horror these people must have lived through before they died.

“The man pushing you down—what did you do?”


“I tried to push him away, but he wouldn’t let go. I don’t know what happened. I think he must have been pulled away by something. I was suddenly on top of the water again and just put up my arms to paddle and kicked with my feet. I can’t swim and kept swallowing water, but I told myself, ‘Keep doing it, keep doing it...’ I was feeling tired, though. Very tired. And I suddenly realized that it was very quiet. There were no more voices, mum... It was dark and very quiet... I was too tired to continue. I thought about my little sister in Gambia. She is only ten. She would never know how I died.”


“But you didn’t die.”

“Somebody shouted my name. I had already stopped paddling. I had no more force and didn’t want to listen, but she kept shouting.”

“Who was it?”

“Namira. We had met in Tripoli. She is Eritrean. We had spent a lot of time chatting before getting on the boat. The Italians had already pulled her out. She kept shouting my name from their boat. I don’t know how she could see me, but I started paddling again, until they got to me and pulled me up into the boat. The Italians kept searching. They moved through the bodies, but I was the last one they found alive.”

I kept my eyes on the road, relieved that I had to drive. All my supportive hugs and comforting smiles seemed out of place. My own boat rides on the Mediterranean had always included snorkeling stops, plenty of drinking water and refreshing swims. All I could possibly say felt hollow and ridiculous.






“I will always thank the Italian people. Allah and the Italian people saved me. But I can’t stay in Italy. I don’t need a doctor, mum. I need to be with my cousin. I know this is not going to be easy, I know I need to be strong, but please help me be with her.”



I dropped Ida off at the refugee home in my village. Aziz and his friends were already waiting for her. I asked Aziz to explain again in Wolof that it was difficult to get to Germany. Somebody had to try to reach through the shock and all the pain lurking behind her smile to make sure things wouldn’t turn out even worse. Ida’s cousin knew of people who had made it over the border easily a few months earlier. Most Syrians and Eritreans knew that they had to hurry up before their fingerprints were taken in Italy. But border controls had intensified with the growing number of refugees arriving on southern Europe’s shores, and the European Union insisted that Italy had to follow the Dublin Regulation—register all the arrivals and not let anybody pass through the country’s border.


I went back home to check my email. I had a message from the vice-prefect in my inbox. There were no women from the Gambia in shelters in our area, but he was making sure she’d get the support of a psychologist. I turned on the radio and did some more emailing while listening to the news, which ended with an interview with an aircraft expert. The Germanwings plane crash had happened in the French Alps less than a month before. The expert talked about the support system, helpline numbers and trauma counseling that had been organized for family members and close friends of the 149 people who had been murdered by a suicidal pilot. Lawyers were putting together lawsuits to fight for financial reparations and Lufthansa, the parent airline, had already paid out fifty thousand euros per victim as an immediate support for the mourning family members.


I thought of Ida, one of the few survivors of a boat disaster in which hundreds had died, who was maintaining on her own an improvised helpline for the families that had lost their loved ones. She wouldn’t get a lawyer or any financial help, but she still had a cousin who was sitting two borders farther north, a mere ten-hour train ride from Florence. I turned off the radio and went online to buy a one-way ticket to Karlsruhe in southern Germany.

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