A voyage through hell: One asylum seeker's epic journey from Eritrea to a new life in Europe

Zekarias Kebraeb was 17 when he fled Eritrea to escape conscription. Now he has written an extraordinary book describing his epic journey to Europe. In this extract he describes the most perilous episode of all
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

After illegally crossing the border to Sudan, Zekarias Kebraeb stayed in Khartoum for six months. He then crossed the Sahara Desert to Libya, a two-week journey, without food, on which he nearly died of thirst. Finally reaching Tripoli, he and two friends he had made on the journey – Awed and Aki – found a people smuggler to help them to cross the Mediterranean during the night. In the passage below, he relives the desperate crossing, day by day...

8 October 2002

The rain gets lighter as we clamber down to the shore, though the wind whistles around our ears and tears at the sparse foliage that clings to the rocks. We can hear the sound of our panting and the roar of the sea. The pale moonlight is reflected on the waves; there's an elongated shape, a dark protrusion, on the shore – a rowing boat, lying upside down on the stones.

I've never seen a boat like this before. It looks like a coffin. But it can't be our boat – it's far too small. The others have seen the boat too and run up to it. "What's this?" they all ask at once. "What are we supposed to do with it? We might as well swim."

"Shut your mouths," growls one of the smugglers and waves a torch over the boat, revealing gaps in the black tar paint. "Just how dumb are you?"

"This boat will take you to the big boat out there on the water!" calls Jasin, the Libyan colonel who organised our passage, and points out to sea with his right arm. Perhaps 200 metres offshore, a fishing vessel is bobbing in the water, circled by nocturnal seagulls.

Feverishly, my gaze sweeps back and forth between the fishing boat and the rowing boat on the shore. I feel queasy – now it's getting serious. White foam washes over my feet, the wind ruffles my hair and Awed is standing next to me with hunched shoulders. She has wrapped a blue scarf around her head and crossed her arms firmly over her chest.

A long way from home: Zekarias Kebraeb has just a few photos of his life in Eritrea (Phil Moore)

She must be freezing. She isn't looking at me but out across the water.

"When will we get to Italy?" she asks suddenly.

"I don't know, tomorrow evening, maybe," I reply. I'm agitated and extremely impatient. A few of us go to lift up the boat and turn it over. It's heavy, saturated with water and stinks of seaweed and rot. And while the waves keep surging forward relentlessly, we push the boat into the water. It's cold! I stumble back abruptly.

"Women and children first," yells Jasin.

The boat rocks and sways as the first few people clasp each other's hands and get in. When it's full, two strong men take the oars and row out towards the big boat. Aki, Awed and I are on the last boatload to the fishing vessel. The loading process has taken more than two hours; it must be after midnight. I stagger and have to hold on to something. I grab the railings and land hard against the side of the boat. That's what happens when you lose the ground beneath your feet.

9 October 2002

Ragged, dark grey clouds rage across the night sky. Stars appear and then disappear again. Banks of fog drift over the water and seagulls fly up screeching when our captain fires up the engine, which splutters and dies down, causing him to rage. The captain is gaunt, with a piercing gaze. Wearing boots, he has a violent temper; and before we've even departed, he's already lashing out kicks to left and right. People duck out of the way and soon so much water has sloshed on board that we're completely soaked through.

The boat isn't big – perhaps seven metres long. Painted blue and white, its sides rise maybe half a metre above the water. There's a mast and a shelter for the helmsman. I sit on the planks right up against the stern with my friends. Our legs are pulled right in and we're pressed in, bodies against bodies, almost as tight as on the pick-up truck in the desert. We sit back-to-back so we can hold each other tight, wheeze together, freeze together. Because it's cold, icy cold.

The engine starts and the boat sets out on the open sea, into the night. The wind lashes water in my face. I look back to where the narrow, rocky shoreline is growing smaller and smaller. From now on, everything will be different: new and wonderful. I've overcome borders, hunger and thirst, the fear of death and the shame of being nothing – all that's behind me. If it weren't so strange, I would laugh. But there's a new border in this place where solid ground gives way to water, probably the most daunting of my whole journey. I can't walk or fly over the sea, and if I fall out of the boat, I'll have exactly 120 seconds before I drown… I've never been this close to the paradise at the other end of the world, but I've never been so far away either.

Refugees from north Africa reach the island of Lampedusa in Italy (Rex Features)

Worried about patrol boats, our captain has turned off the navigation lights. He steers with a compass, heading unwaveringly north. Sleeping is out of the question – it's too wet. The sky and sea are opaque and black, and we lose all sense of time. I don't know if we've been travelling for two hours or four hours.

The boat is tossed back and forth and I sink into a trance-like state. I recite numbers in my head like litanies: those thrown overboard, drowned, killed by thirst, battered to death or lost. Since 1988, 14,921 immigrants have lost their lives crossing the sea to Europe.

I cling on tightly with my whole body. My freedom is the only thing I have left to live for. I cross my arms over my chest. Or is it fear that shackles me and wraps me up like a parcel? I can't think any more – only hear, see, smell, feel. I listen to the storm and hear the captain. "Bail out!" he roars. He struggles to bring the boat about, steering across the waves. Mechanically, we start to tip and pour buckets of water over the railings, even though more water keeps sloshing in moments later to replace it.

My mother, I think to myself, would interpret a storm like this as a punishment from God. But why – what did we do wrong?

Aki, Awed and I hold hands again. I can't imagine us surviving this hell. What is drowning like? Slow or quick? How long does it take until your lungs fill with water? Does it hurt? I hold on tight.

There's nothing to see except water and mist – no horizon, we're trapped in a cloud of fog. A continuous grey desert stretching out endlessly – it's a miracle, but we're alive. Laid out like sardines, slumped over and against each other, with nothing to eat or drink.

Hunger gnaws uneasily in my stomach. It's an almost liberating feeling, but only for an instant: I'm alive. Even though my eyes are stinging from salt water, even though my skin is wrinkled and swollen, I'm alive. I try to stand up but don't manage it, crumpling like an empty sack. Aki and Awed pull each other up, sway and also collapse back down. We hear snatches of barked orders telling us to stay sat down, got it? "Anyone who dares to stand up will be thrown overboard!"

There's nothing to eat. My friends look for bread in their bags but don't find anything except damp crumbs. I run my tongue along my salty lips, open my mouth and try to catch raindrops on my outstretched tongue. Salty. I form the water into a thick mixture with my spittle. It's disgusting – I feel sick. Before I can make it to the railings, a pool of purplish-brown vomit spews on to the planks in front of me, mixing with green brine and seeping between us in trickles. I'm not the only one: almost everyone threw up during the night, either silently or retching noisily. The wind even flung some people's sour vomit back in their faces. We're in nature's hands and can no more escape our filth than we can escape the sea.

The fog has vanished. The sea is endless, there's nothing but water in the heavens and on the earth. No time, no space – everything flows and undulates. The white foam on the crest of the waves is the only thing our gaze can fix on, for one brief moment at a time. Our fellow refugees pull copies of the Bible and the Koran out of plastic bags and read them silently. Suddenly, a woman throws her Bible to me.

"Read it!" she calls. It doesn't sound like a request. With numb fingers, I flick through the pages, looking, while drops of water soften the thin pages. "Go on, go on!" she shouts. "What should I read, exactly?" I try to smile. "I'm not a priest, you know." I can barely feel my body and I'm supposed to read to console the others – as though that will help. I don't want to, but I begin anyway.

"Saint Paul's voyage to Rome." Fitting. "A storm at sea and a shipwreck in the Mediterranean near the island of Malta." My voice is a sigh against the storm. I shout until I go hoarse, vying with the seagulls who are shrieking as they circle the masts. The unnatural rattle of the engine sets the rhythm as I continue reading: "… After long abstinence Paul stood forth in the midst of them, and said, Sirs…" The wind flings the words back in my face.

10 October 2002

Where am I? Who am I? Am I already dead? My skin is swollen up, white as snow beneath the pigment, bloodless. My tongue is dry and heavy and I can't move. Children are crying. Aki and Awed are beside me. They say nothing and stare wide-eyed into the distance. The storm is over but there's still a light drizzle.

Suddenly, there are helicopters above us. They circle with a deafening roar and glaring lights. It's already dark and raining heavily, and we're crawling along. The boat is listing and unable to manoeuvre. But the Sicilian coast isn't far now. Without noticing, we've come to within a few kilometres of land. With dazzling searchlights, the helicopters sweep across the sea, turning it bright as day until they spot our boat and turn the lights on us, like fish trapped in a net. We can see blue lights and hear sirens and car horns on the shore.

There's shouting everywhere. We hold our hands over our eyes because the light is dazzling. I can't count but there's a whole host of helicopters. I've never seen anything like it: blue, red and white police helicopters, olive-green military helicopters from the Red Cross and white helicopters from various TV stations that point cameras at us. They must have been watching us for hours and are reporting for the late-night news. But they've intervened only right at the last minute.

From a military helicopter directly above us, we hear incomprehensible noises that gradually form into words. "Clandestini!" they shout through a megaphone, and, in English: "How many?" Then orange and red plastic objects fall from the sky, pumped with air; how are we supposed to know what they're for? We don't yet realise that we're being rescued. But the captain tells us they're life jackets and shows us how to use them. "If the Italians ask who captained the boat, tell them we all did it. Got it?" he bellows.

I can't feel anything – I'm numb. "Aki…" Awed shakes my shoulder. "We're safe! In Europe!"

This wailing cacophony? This is supposed to be Europe? I'd pictured my arrival in paradise differently. I thought I would burst with joy. And now? When the driver of one of the speedboats that sweep over the waves like glow-worms turns off the engine and docks on the port side, I see white men in grey uniforms waving. What do they want? "Ragazzi, ragazzi!" they shout. They're wearing thin plastic gloves on their pale hands. "Women and children first!"

Zekarias was asylum seeker in Italy, then Switzerland and finally Germany. In 2006, after two years there, he was granted leave to remain and allowed to go to school, where he completed a certificate of secondary education. He now lives in Nuremberg and has earned a qualification in hospitality.

'Paradise Denied', by Zekarias Kebraeb and Marianne Moesle, is out now as an ebook (£4.99, Bastei Entertainment)