I Almost Died Traveling from Somalia to Lampedusa

"The cannibalism didn't start until our second boat journey, from Libya to Lampedusa. We had already been traveling for ten days; people were dying and there was no food. I actually saw one guy cutting a piece of flesh from another man's body. "

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Oct 18 2013, 2:00pm

Migrants arrive at the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2007. Photo via Flickr user Noborder Network

Hassan Ali is a 23-year-old Somali who survived gun battles and poverty in his youth in his native country before deciding in 2009 to embark on Tahrib, the perilous journey from Africa to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Thousands of Somalis make this trip every year, and this month it made headlines after a boat caught fire and capsized on October 3, killing over 300 would-be immigrants. Eight days later, a different vessel capsized in an accident that claimed at least 34 lives. Here, Hassan speaks about his troubled life before the trip and the horrors he experienced en route to Europe.

The cannibalism didn't start until our second boat journey, from Libya to Lampedusa. We had already been traveling for ten days; people were dying and there was no food. I actually saw one guy cutting a piece of flesh from another man's body.

I'm still one of the lucky ones.

I grew up in Beled Hawo, near the Kenyan border. I love my city but life there wasn't very happy for me. I lived in a flat with my parents, a younger sister, and two older brothers. When I was ten years old the inter-clan fighting began. One afternoon while I was in the mosque, a fierce gunfight erupted outside. There were bullets flying everywhere. I was all alone in there and I didn't know what to do, I was just looking around trying to find a way out and all the while bullets were echoing off every side of the mosque. I eventually found a way out and ran towards my home, but just before I got in the door two guys with AK-47s started firing at me. I ducked, ran inside, and fell into my parents' arms. After five hours the fighting finally stopped. But I knew then that my future wasn't in Beled Hawo.

I always wanted to be an astronaut. At night I would watch the stars and the moon with amazement and dream that one day I could be among them. That sort of dream can never come true for a Somali.

I first heard about Tahrib on the radio when I was 19. There were people in Europe talking about their new lives and how they'd traveled there from Somalia by boat. It sounded like a good idea. After a while I told my parents I planned to leave. They were shocked. "Are you mad?" my mother said. "You're a young boy, what has gotten into you?" I told them how I thought Tahrib was my only way forward, that I could only find a better life in Europe. They thought I was joking. When I called them from the first boat months later, they were terrified.

Mukhalas are people who connect you with illegal businesses. They're considered among the worst people in Somalia. The guy who started me off on Tahrib was no different. He was a disgusting guy, really nasty, and known in the town as a thief and a bandit. Through him I found a few other people who wanted to make the journey. They were all scared of him, telling me horrific stories. I shut them out of my mind. I should have walked away there and then but I paid him $800 for Tahrib, donated by friends and family who didn't know what I was using the money for.

Our first trip was from Beled Hawo to Bosaso, a port city on the northern shore of Somalia. It wasn't the worst journey, but we had hardly any food and the people who drove us there were being very cruel, shouting at us and hitting people occasionally. I was only a kid—I missed my hometown already and everyone seemed so sad even though they were heading off for this exciting new life.

When we arrived in Bosaso, a burning hot place, the people taking us insisted the journey would be comfortable and our boat would be fine and spacious. But after a couple of days when it showed up, we were horrified: it was a broken, dilapidated old wreck, far too small to carry dozens of people. For two whole days we were packed inside that tiny vessel, sleeping on top of each other. Some people almost suffocated to death below deck but the captain and his crew, who had guns, kept telling us to shut up or they'd kick us overboard.

At one point I called my brother and told him I was on Tahrib. He was so shocked he couldn't speak. For the rest of the journey my family kept calling my cellphone, making sure I was still alive. Right then all those terrible stories I'd heard back home came flooding back. I could barely breathe.

When we landed in Libya things only got worse. I made it across the border with four men and five women, all of us jaded from days without good food and the terrifying trip we'd just experienced. We were told to get to this small desert town but on the way 15 to 20 armed men captured us. We thought they were border guards. It wasn't until the torture began that we realized they were outlaws.

The men were tied together in the blistering heat for seven days straight. The guys who had captured us gave us hardly any food and told us the women were being beaten and raped nearby. When we all escaped, after having our relatives wire us $300 each, we found out those claims were true. All I wanted was to be back in Beled Hawo with my parents. I didn't care if I ever made it to Europe. Even if, miraculously, we survived the journey, how would the Europeans treat us? Would I get a visa? Would I be thrown in jail? I was terrified.

It took another ten days to find a boat from Libya to Lampedusa. Then the real horror began. There was only bread and biscuits on board and the heat was unbearable. People were dropping dead and the captain did nothing. People started eating each other: it was like something from a scary movie right in front of my eyes. That leg of the journey took three days. It felt like years.

Everyone knows that politicians in Europe and Africa are doing nowhere near enough to address the dangers of Tahrib. Otherwise all those people would not have died near Lampedusa this month. No one is addressing the real issues—the violence, the poverty—that led me away from Somalia.

People tell me Lampedusa is beautiful. I have no idea. I can barely remember any of the landscape I saw: everything was so terrifying. But, Alhamdulillah [praise to God], I made it there alive and, amazingly, got an Italian visa after three months of being held at a camp. Some people I traveled with waited years and others never got one. I love Italy, though. I lived there for three years and made a small living working in various jobs. I may never be an astronaut but Italy let me rebuild a life that was destroyed. I'm back in Somalia now—not in Beled Hawo but another city. I hope I get to visit Italy again some day. But I hope no one ever has to embark on Tahrib again.

More immigrant stories:

Last Stop, Tel Aviv

Deportee Purgatory

Silent Asylum

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