The Eritrean returning to the Med to save his fellow refugees
Darwit was one of the lucky ones. Ten years ago he left on a UN scholarship to study in South Africa, and now he lives and works in London after being granted political asylum.
But amid increasing reports of the dangers facing Eritrean refugees , the 38-year-old accountant felt he had to act.
“So many Eritreans are risking their lives to escape,” he said. “When I heard a boat was seeking volunteers to save those crossing the Mediterranean I jumped at the chance to help my people.”
Darwit volunteered to join a Médecins Sans Frontières rescue boat, spending his summer rescuing refugees from the waters as Europe’s leaders argued over who should take responsibility for the crisis.
The accountant, who is using a pseudonym over fears for his family left behind in the capital city, Asmara, said the volume of Eritreans seeking to escape had made it impossible to ignore the plight of his people.
When he saw his first refugee boat, Darwit recalls having to swallow down a surge of panic as he heard shouting in Tigrinya, one of Eritrea’s national languages.
Water was seeping through the hull and the boat listing dangerously, he said. Below deck, squatting in total darkness, 150 Eritreans were wedged together so tightly most could not move their arms. The seawater had reached their waist. Some were praying loudly, others sat in silence. Many had vomited as the vessel tilted in a brutal morning swell.
In total, 347 Eritreans were crammed on the pale blue fishing boat that was built to carry a crew of six, Darwit said. Half of them, including many women and children, were jammed inside its windowless hull.
“One of those on the boat said to me: ‘We are dead inside, we’d rather die trying to escape. Things have got so bad in Eritrea’,” said Darwit.
No one knows how many Eritreans have died on the journey north to Europe, nor how many boats have sunk without trace. The UN estimates that the small Horn of Africa country each month.
The cargo of the blue boat also served as a reminder to Darwit that Eritrea is being depopulated of its younger generation. Almost all those on board were under 22 years of age. One was just ten months old. The boat would have sunk within two hours had it not been found, Darwit said.
Many of those fleeing the East African country do not expect to survive the journey to . When the was rescued 30 miles north of Libya shortly after 7am on 19 June, the evidence that many of those on board expected to die was everywhere. On the few life jackets provided by the smugglers, the telephone numbers and addresses of families in Eritrea were scrawled across them. Others had etched contact details on their clothes.
“Alongside the numbers, they had written messages like: ‘Please take my body to my family,’ and: ‘Mum I love you.’ They had boarded the boat expecting to die,” said Darwit.
Darwit served on the MSF ship, Bourbon Argos, which was scouring the Med for migrants throughout June. As the Eritrean cultural mediator, it was his role to calm those on board when they were first spotted. Drownings have occurred when migrants see a rescue boat and scramble to one side causing it to capsize. Few can swim and the perception of the Med as a forgiving sea is misleading.
“It can be every rough, sometimes it is raining with a two or three metre tide and keeping people calm is essential,” he said.
“It was very surreal, coming face to face like this with people from my country. Their eyes were wide open in disbelief when I told them we were taking them to Italy and not back to .”
Once on board, most fell quickly asleep. “Often it is the first time they have had a proper sleep in months, it’s amazing to see them finally rest. In Libya someone told me, you must always keep one eye open even when you are sleeping.”
When they woke, they shared stories of why and how they escaped and described their route through the Sahara desert or the months in refugee camps.
“When you see a young Eritrean in London you must always wonder what they’ve been through to get here,” said Darwit.
One of those rescued was Habtom, a 25-year-old from Tokombiya in the west of the country. Habtom had wanted to be a farmer, but the government’s policy of indefinite national service made this impossible.
“I couldn’t move or work freely,” he said. “Then the authorities started to do mass round-ups in the villages, asking questions about me. I had to leave, though I wouldn’t wish that journey on my worst enemy.”
During Darwit’s 15 days on the Bourbon Argos, the boat rescued 1,178 migrants from the Med. “The best moment I remember is when they first saw the lights of Sicily before dawn and all the Eritreans began to sing, they were smiling, it was brilliant. That bit was very emotional,” he said.
Often he finds himself wondering what will become of the men, women and children he helped save, adding that he often has nightmares about their plight. “The sight of them in the water will live with me forever. I’ll never be able to forget them.”