First person: 'I almost died trying to reach Europe'

Justice Amin, 20
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The Independent Online

The final day was the worst. We were surrounded by man-eating fish. They were as long as human beings and many times fatter, and circled beneath us, waiting for us to fall. The waves were high as houses and the wind was angry. My skin was coming away in long strips; my feet looked like saturated loaves of bread. The spirits of the dead were all around us. Many people had died in that place. They included my friends.

I was raised in a small town on the Ghanaian coast. My uncle worshipped a clay idol. I refused: I am a Muslim and pray only to Allah. I had seen pictures of Europe on television. There were universities and jobs, and James Bond. I loved James Bond. I ran away and headed northwards on buses until I arrived at the orange city of Agadez, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. There were hundreds of others like me. Bedouins were packing them into huge desert trucks and jeeps. I paid a driver 300 dollars, but instead of taking us into Libya, he abandoned us at an isolated village. It was a month before the next truck came along.

The next driver took us to Algeria. The final 70 miles we crossed on foot. After two days we began to find bodies. Some were sitting upright, propped against rocks. We checked their water bottles, but they were empty. They were young men heading for Europe like me.

I spent a year in Tripoli, saving money to pay for the crossing to Europe. When the call came I was nervous. The boat was like a rowing boat with an engine. The organisers were drunk and shouting at us to keep quiet in case the police came. One of my friends got scared and tried to run away, but they pointed a gun at him and pushed him back to the boat.

None of us could swim. We had no idea how far it was, or how to steer the boat, and it was one of the most dangerous routes in the world, but I believed God would see me through. When the boat began to let in water, there was screaming and praying: people thought evil spirits would take us. But God led us to a fishing net. When our boat capsized, all of us managed to scramble on to it. We clung on for three days until day and night became one and the cold and the waves were all that kept us conscious. Some of my friends tied themselves to it; many times I thought they were dead. And then an Italian warship appeared. They took us into their small boats and sailed us to a door in the ship's side. Many of us could not walk.

I've lived in Italy for two years, and rely on a charity to feed me. I visit the job centre every day, but there is a recession, and vacancies go to Italians first. I still believe I'm lucky; some other survivors live in train stations and search for food in bins. I thank the Italian navy for rescuing me. But most of all I thank God. Before I had nothing. Now I have hope.

'I Am Justice: A Journey Out of Africa' by Paul Kenyon, is published by Preface, £18.99