For 16-year-old Said, one of only four child survivors of the worst migrant boat disaster in history, Sunday's tragedy was just the latest ordeal in a living nightmare that had lasted months.
The teenager left his home in Somalia last summer, saying farewell to five sisters, three brothers, and his parents, who hoped to get their son out of the chaos and poverty of his home country to the safety of relatives in Norway. Entrusted to a group of Sudanese smugglers, his journey began with an ardous trek across thousands of miles of desert, traversing Ethopia and Sudan to reach the Libyan border.
Once there, he was imprisoned by the smugglers, who held him captive for nine months until his parents could pay for the first leg of the journey. Many other children were held with him, said Said in a testimony given to UK NGO Save the Children. They were kept in harsh conditions and mistreated, many suffering malnutrition. Some of his fellow child prisoners starved to death in front of him.
Once his parents paid the full sum owed, Said traveled to Tripoli, where he was told he could get on a boat. It took him six days to reach the city, during which he was in constant hiding, terrified of being put in jail.
At about 11pm on April 18, Said was directed to a rubber dinghy. Along with many other migrants, he was transported from the shore to a large fishing boat anchored close to the Libyan coast. He overheard smugglers saying they were hoping to fit 1,200 migrants on board, he said, and alleged passengers were beaten as they were forced to get on the overcrowded vessel. In the end they had to stop at 800, unable to pack anymore people in, said Said.
The passengers, of many different nationalities, including people from Sierra Leone, Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh, were spread out over three levels, said the teenager. There was no food or water and the people placed below deck were locked in.
Almost 24 hours after the boat set off after nightfall, the smugglers released a call for help, according to Said. When the migrants saw the lights of a rescue vessel approaching the sinking ship they ran to one side of the boat, causing it to tip and then capsize. Said fainted.
More than 800 people were on board Said's ship when it set off to cross the Mediterranean, and one passenger said there were 950 passengers. Only 28 survived the journey. Around 100 children are thought to have died.
On Tuesday, the Tunisian captain of the boat was charged with reckless homicide, and is now being held by Italian prosecutors along with a Syrian crew member. The men were named as Mohammed Ali Malek, 27, and Mahmud Bikhit, 25.
This disaster is the latest in a long and constant string of tragedies as migrants risk their lives to escape desperate poverty and violent conflict to reach refuge in Europe. With smugglers seeking to maximize profits by crowding as many people possible onto old and unseaworthy vessels, fatal sinkings are commonplace.
An Italian search-and-rescue operation Mare Nostrum, credited with saving 100,000 lives, was halted late last year amid funding concerns and claims that it was encouraging more migrants to attempt the crossing. It was partially replaced with the EU's Triton initiative, an operation with one-third of the funding that operates in a much more limited area.
Since Mare Nostrum ended, the death toll in the Mediterranean has soared. The latest mass tragedy has prompted accusations that the European Union is closing its eyes to genocide, and must take action to save migrants lives and uphold international conventions on asylum and refuge. Ministers have called an emergency EU summit which will be held in Brussels on Thursday.
Save the Children estimates that if current trends continue, 2,500 children could die in the Mediterranean this year.
"Children arriving off the boats are exhausted and traumatized from the ordeal they have been through, not just at sea but also during their long and dangerous land journeys, " spokeswoman Gemma Parkin told VICE News in statement. "But they also tell us they are grateful to be alive and in a safe place — they know they are the lucky ones."
Said is now in a reception center for children in Catania, Sicily, along with the three other minors who survived the tragedy. Of the four, all were boys — they included another 17-year old from Somalia and two 17-year-olds from Bangladesh.
The Somali teenager has called his parents to tell them he survived the disaster, who had no idea he was still alive.
While Said still dreams of eventually completing his journey and starting a new life with his aunts in Norway, he said he is unwilling to risk putting his life in the hands of smugglers again. He has seen too many and doesn't have the money, he said. For now, he just wants to rest.
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