Crossing Death Corridor: Stormy weather has only postponed the perilous journey for thousands of Cuban boat people

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The Independent Online
ANELE FEBLES, a dark-eyed 18-year-old, gazed past the crashing waves to a bobbing shape a mile or so offshore. 'They must be crazy,' she said. 'But I hope they make it. Maybe we'll catch them up.'

The shape was a large raft, apparently carrying a dozen Cubans, one of only a handful that set off in the hope of reaching Florida on Friday, despite a storm that threw up mighty waves. The rough weather interrupted a mass exodus of Cuban boat people that had seen 1,600 picked up by the US coastguard on Thursday alone. The 11,800 picked up last week was more than the entire figure for the previous decade.

Only when you see at first hand the crazily-patched vessels do you believe the claim that for every rafter picked up, four more - perhaps five - simply disappear at sea. Thousands of Cubans, who used to laugh, dance and drink rum on Havana's Malecon (seafront promenade), may have drowned in the last few weeks alone.

Anele understood the craziness of the balseros (rafters) we could see as they drifted eastwards, making little progress towards the Land of the Free. A Cuban coastguard vessel cruised past the raft, apparently ignoring it. 'They only stop if they see somebody in difficulties, or needing water,' Anele said. 'Otherwise, they just let you go.'

Anele admitted she was probably a little crazy, too. She could not swim but she was waiting for the storm to clear so that she, her boyfriend and 10 other young friends could set off in their own makeshift raft of oil drums, zinc, steel bars and wooden planks - named, in streaky red paint, Balsa Bus (the Raft Bus). Apart from fair weather, they also lacked a compass. For that, they needed 20 dollars - a fortune here - and were hoping to pick one up on Havana's booming nautical black market.

They already had a mirror, essential for attracting the attention of the Miami-based Brothers to the Rescue team or the US Coast Guard. Most had brightly-coloured long-sleeved shirts, trousers and caps to protect them from the burning sun. The trip takes four or five days and nights if things go well.

'We couldn't put a roof on. It would slow us down too much,' Anele's boyfriend Orakamis said, explaining that their vessel would also boast a nylon sail, oars and a galvanised zinc rudder.

The group were planning to put a 40-litre tank of water at the front of the raft, whose zinc sides were welded to steel bars by Orakamis, a soldier by profession. They had glucose, aspirin, medicines and tinned food, stocked up over weeks of buying on the black market.

But Anele had a problem. She had not told her parents that she was going to risk crossing what locals call 'Death Corridor'. 'If I told them, they would either try to stop me or worry themselves sick,' she said. 'I want to get to Miami, maybe on to Canada, to make some money and send it back to them so they can eat like normal human beings.'

Standing by the craft that could take her and her friends to a better life or an early death, Anele, though only 18, left no doubt that she had thought long and hard about her decision. With quiet dignity, she spoke of her simple aspirations - to leave her country, make some money, look after her parents.

Drawing our attention to the roughly-daubed name on their raft was the only thing that raised a brief smile among Anele, Orakamis and the friends who waited with them for the weather to clear. Otherwise, they were tense but determined, well aware that they could end up in the US military base at Guantanamo, in detention in a third country, or even drowned at sea. 'Third country, fourth country, fifth country, we don't care,' said Lazaro, a 35- year-old who was to be the raft's captain.

He stopped speaking as a loudspeaker interrupted and a police van came into sight. Instinctively, I pocketed my notebook. But the van, with a dozen loudspeakers on the roof and wire mesh protecting its windows, drove past.

'The last meteorological report says there is a tropical wave between Haiti and Cuba,' the loudspeaker said. 'Anyone planning to leave should not do so before Monday.' Only a couple of weeks ago, it would have been unheard of for would-be boat people to stand by their craft on the sea shore in broad daylight. Now, the police were politely announcing weather conditions for sailing.

The 'Balsa Bus' was parked 50 yards from the rocky seafront at Cojimar, east of Havana bay, in front of a simple stone house known locally as 'the Cojimar embassy'. The owner of the house was allowing Anele, Orakamis, Lazaro and their frends to sleep on a concrete strip outside her home where they could guard the raft which had cost them 10,000 pesos to build. That is around dollars 100 ( pounds 66) or, more significantly, two to three years' salary for an ordinary worker. Leaving your raft unattended in Cojimar these days means waving goodbye to both it and a bunch of spontaneous refugees.

Hundreds of people lined the seafront at Cojimar on Friday, some with rafts ready, others prepared to leave on any craft that would take them.

Among the latter was Alberto Casal, 63, a retired merchant seaman. He stood with a plastic bag containing an empty Oranjeboom lager can, an empty yoghurt container and a plastic spoon. 'I'm ready to jump on any raft or craft that will take me. The can is for water, the container and spoon for any food I can get. 'We're treated like dogs here. All I want to do is be a person.'

Giving up for the day because of the bad weather, Mr Casal took us to meet his 100- year-old mother in the La Vibora region of Havana, home of the wealthy in the era before Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. 'My pension is 100 pesos (66p) a month. I spend most of my time trying to get milk for my mother,' he said. 'But a litre of milk costs 30 pesos, that's more than a week's pension. I've got to get out of here. At least in Guantanamo, they might give me some meat, chicken or eggs.'

Suggesting that Mr Castro get in touch with 'his own folks,' US President Bill Clinton said last week: 'The people of Cuba want democracy and free markets.' Actually, most Cubans simply want to eat some meat, drink some milk, perhaps have the odd glass of beer. 'You live like kings while we pay for it,' said Lazaro, captain of the good ship Balsa Bus. It was impossible to disagree.

(Photograph omitted)