“The sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.”
Joseph Conrad, “The Rescue” (1920)
While working on the “Dark Waters” project along the shores of Spain, Italy and Greece, I saw a beautiful and tranquil waterline. By contrast, in the stormy areas, breakwaters are common, blocking the natural movement of the waves toward the coast. I traveled there as part of the project, supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross, to see the new gates to Europe up close. Along the beaches, I searched for clues of the immigration crisis – among the items that washed up on the sand, in the architecture, in the landscape and in the movements of the sea.
Millions of Africans have crossed the Mediterranean and reached these shores since the 1990s. Tens of thousands have lost their lives en route, some disappearing without a trace. The wave of immigrants is slowly changing the face of Europe, and despite the slowdown reported during the past year, there is no reason to think it’s about to end. Climate change, economic gaps, endless wars – all indicate that the mass migration will continue. In southern Italy, I spoke to people who survived the journey. They told me about the trip, the trials they experienced en route and their confrontation with the sea within. They all sought a better life. They all encountered death.
Saidia, 45, Algeria. Mother of six children. Her son Najar Ilyas, 22, disappeared at sea
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“I arranged to meet him at 10 P.M. on the beach. He did not show up, and I called him for two weeks, and no one answered. The police reassured me, ‘He’s here, do not worry.’ No one was there when I arrived. I told my son not to come with the boat because my heart is not calm, because the sea is not safe. I cannot look at the sea. Every time I go to the beach, I cry because my son is inside there somewhere. I do not eat fish anymore, I think about my son. My heart tells me my son is alive, that he is not dead, but I do not know where he is."
Wallace, 23, Burkina Faso
“In 2017 I tried to cross the sea to Italy, but the engine broke down. We lost 13 friends. We threw bodies into the sea so avoid panic. This year it worked. Again I spent days at sea, tired and hungry and despondent. I just waited for death. Sometimes when I wake up, I don’t believe I’m in Europe.”
Adama, 27, Ghana. Married with three children
“At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, our boat capsized, the fuel spilled into the sea and swirled about us in waves, creating a solution that causes burns. Only at 2 A.M. did they arrive to rescue us. I could not support my children, so I decided to cross the sea, to try and take care of their future. I grew up near the sea in Ghana; as children we played soccer on the beach. Today when I remember the sea, I cry. I will never enter the sea again.”
Amado, 22, Senegal
“I had a difficult journey. I passed through Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Libya, where I was jailed twice. I decided to try to reach Italy after my parents died in war. My little brother also left for Libya, and on the day I arrived there, I was told that he had died in the desert after robbers took his food and water. When we set out to sea, there were 150 of us, and in the middle of the trip we couldn’t continue. Only 16 of us remained."
Emmanuel, 22, Ghana. Married with a 1-year-old boy
“When we began the trip, there were 142 of us; at the end, we were 61. When the chaos started, I grabbed onto an empty gas canister, which allowed me to float. I saw many people drowning around me. I wanted to save them, but I knew that when people are drowning, they grab onto anything, and they would drag me down with them. In the end, I gave my gas canister to someone who was exhausted. He fell asleep on the canister and disappeared into the sea.”
Jacob, 31, Ghana. Married with two children. During the trip he was imprisoned and sold as a slave; he later escaped
“The engine of the boat broke down, it was horrifically hot, people who could not swim, complete chaos. From 11 A.M. until midnight we were in the water, not knowing how we would survive. Everyone was looking for something to hold on to. I can swim a little and it helped ... I thought that this was it, that I would not survive. I saw dozens of dead people, so I knew I could die, too. I loved the sea. Today when I see the sea, I see death.”
Ofir Hovav assisted in preparation of this article; the “Dark Waters” project will be published by Kehrer next year.