On the 28th October Lesvos witnessed one of its worst tragedy’s yet, when a large wooden boat carrying over 350 people sunk in the Aegean. Nobody is sure how many died that day, but most estimates put the figure above 40. Many were children.
On the boat that day was a young man fleeing the war in Iraq and ISIS, his name is Safwan, he is 24 years old and from Mosul.
This is his story.
Before ISIS took over Mosul, Safwan ran a small café. He lived there with his three brothers, two sisters and father.
“My life was happy, I had everything I needed. I had my own car. Life was good,” he explained
Then ISIS took over, since then the inhabitants of Mosul have been de facto prisoners, forbidden to leave the city. ISIS have murdered or driven out most minority groups. Life in Mosul is one of violent oppression where people suspected of activism against the occupiers, resistance activities, homosexuality, promiscuity or adultery are brutally tortured and executed. ISIS expected the men to grow beards, stop smoking, to dress in a certain way.
On 26th June, they caught Safwan smoking; he was whipped.
ISIS were also recruiting men of fighting age, forcing them to join, but many were refusing. Unable to run his shop, fearful of ISIS and not wanting to be forced to fight for them, he decided his only option was to flee. He sold his cafe and the car to pay for his trip; he had a total of 4000 Euros. The hardest thing was saying goodbye to his family.
“A friend of mine told me he wanted to leave Iraq and he knew someone who could help us get out. This man helped us get out of Mosul. We were smuggled in one of those fuel trucks towards Syria.
“It took us about 8 hours. In Syria he passed us on to a Syrian man in an area called Kherbet el joz, we walked for an hour towards Turkish-Syrian border”.
Once in Turkey he met a few other Iraqis who were also making the journey towards Europe. They travelled together and they paid 2,300 Euros each to the smugglers for the boat journey.
“I expected to pay around 1000 Euros for the boat trip. That’s how much the small boats cost, but I paid more because I was told it would be safer to get on the bigger boat
“We were told that there would be 95 people on the boat. We went to the meeting point and at first a group of around 37 people arrived, then more people arrived and more kept coming until there were around 350 people. We were loaded onto the boat at around 2:30 pm.
“We couldn’t say anything or protest because we would get shot; they had guns and we had no choice but to get on the boat – there were so many kids.”
Safwan pauses as he remembers the events of that day. He is pale, his hands tap on the chair, his eyes twitch around the room.
“We all got on the boat, we were really terrified. The boat only made it halfway and then it broke. I was on the upper deck, I was sitting on the stairs, I heard a crack and then I looked back and I saw people were falling backwards into the sea and some were falling through to the lower deck – people were screaming- everyone was screaming- men, old people, women, everyone, children were crying.
“So many people died. All around me people were crying, screaming, some were drowning. I was able to save three children and an old man, by putting them on some floating wreckage. This went on for about two hours before anyone got to us. They first started saving the children. The water was freezing.”
By the time anyone got to Safwan, he had been in the water for around 4 hours. He had drifted away and it was only thanks to the light from the helicopter that he was spotted by a fisherman and pulled out.
“A small fishing boat spotted me and I was pulled out. I couldn’t lift myself up at all. I had lost all my energy. I was on my last breath when the fisherman pulled me out”.
Safwan is silent.
“I don’t remember anything else from this point. It was a shock my brain could not comprehend what had happened. People were dead all around me at sea”.
He was taken to the transit camp at Moria, along with other survivors. Despite not knowing any of the others on the boat, he decided to stay at Moria with them until the bodies have been found. He feels it’s the least he can do, to keep them company and support them in their grief
There were many who lost family members that day and now have to wait in the hope their bodies may be found and laid to rest. For now they are stuck in limbo, in a strange land, far from home.
One family who Safwan has grown particularly close to are waiting to bury their child. The husband cannot yet bring himself to tell his wife, that the body has been found.
As for where Safwan goes next? He doesn’t know. When I ask him, he shrugs his shoulders. Originally he’d hoped to go to Sweden or Germany, but those plans mean little to him now.
“ISIS have no humanity. They stripped away our freedom. There is no life there anymore.
“I want to live a new life”, he says with tears in his eyes, “I want to forget everything that happened in Mosul; and on this trip. I want to start a new life. I want to move forward and never look back.”