Monday, October 14, 2013

‘My sister swam for three hours before drowning’ -

Malta resident Gidey Ygzaw Legaw lost his sister in the Lampedusa migrant boat tragedy on October 3. Photo: Darrin Zammit LupiMalta resident Gidey Ygzaw Legaw lost his sister in the Lampedusa migrant boat tragedy on October 3. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi
As the latest tragedy involving migrant boats unfolded yesterday, Gidey Ygzaw Legaw was painfully aware of the devastation it would wreak on the family and friends of those who drowned.
Mr Legaw’s sister, Amileset, was travelling on the rickety vessel that sunk off Lampedusa on October 3. The “quiet and gentle” young Eritrean woman was one of more than 300 migrants who did not live to realise their dreams of a new life in Europe.
“I always told her to stay in Eritrea. I told her the desert and sea crossing were too dangerous,” Mr Legaw said.
Having made the crossing himself eight years ago, Mr Legaw was speaking from experience.
He was able to shed new light on his sister’s fateful journey using first-hand information gleaned by telephone from Alay Bahta, an Eritrean survivor of the tragedy.
Details of his account were verified by Mgr Philip Calleja of the Emigrants’ Commission, who is helping Mr Legaw in his attempts to travel to Lampedusa to formally identify his sister’s body.
Ms Legaw crossed into Libya from Sudan some two months ago, furnished with funds from her husband’s brother, who lives in Israel.
Despite her sibling’s attempts to persuade her otherwise, she was determined to reach Europe as she felt life was unbearable in her homeland, where dictatorial President Isaias Afewerki rules with an iron fist.
Ms Legaw was in a group of around 120 Eritreans who paid a smuggling network $3,000 each to transport them from the desert city of Sabha in southern Libya to Tripoli.
Her brother said they had been “imprisoned” in a building belonging to the network, and they were threatened with death if they did not pay.
Upon arrival in the capital, she was forced to pay another $1,600 to cross the Mediterranean in the doomed wooden boat, which Mr Legaw alleged was carrying more than 600 people.
Media reports have consistently estimated the number of passengers at around 500.
The Sabha to Tripoli smuggling route is run by Libyans but the Tripoli to Europe network is operated by Somalis, Eritreans and Ethiopians, Mr Legaw claimed.
He named Ermias, an Ethiopian man, as the human trafficking kingpin in Tripoli.
Mr Legaw last saw his sister in 2003 but they spoke regularly by telephone. Their most recent conversation was a a month ago, as the smugglers confiscated phones ahead of the crossing.
According to Mr Legaw, the boat’s engine broke down about a kilometre away from Lampedusa.
He claims two unidentified boats circled the stricken vessel as it drifted for several hours through the night, but the passengers’ pleas for help went unanswered.
Eventually the Tunisian captain, Bensalem Khaled, who is facing multiple charges in an Italian court over the incident, lit a distress flare to catch the attention of other boats in the area.
Tragedy struck when the flare burnt his hand and he flung it below deck, where engine fuel was stored, causing a fire to break out.
I always told her to stay in Eritrea
In their desperate attempts to avoid the flames, panicked passengers caused the boat to capsize.
Mr Bahta said he swam with Ms Legaw for some three hours before she succumbed to fatigue and drowned.
Now Mr Legaw is hoping to acquire an alien’s passport so he can travel to Lampedusa and arrange his sister’s burial, which he can barely afford on his meagre wages.
For the stoic Eritrean it will be a horribly familiar undertaking: in 2011 his wife of nine years, Anialem Yoinhanse, also drowned as she attempted to cross the Mediterranean.
“It is very dangerous,” he repeated, shaking his head.
“But if you try to tell them they won’t believe you because it is their dream.”