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Memories of Lampedusa

Interview: Kate Laycock, Neil King / cdOctober 7, 2013

Abu Kurke of Ethiopia is all too familiar with the dangers of trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa by boat from Africa. He told DW his tale of survival - and of the images he hopes to forget.

A blue, double-decker boat overflows with people of African descent as a military-like ship sits on the water's horizon in the distance.
Image: picture-alliance/Milestone Media

News of the drowning of more than 300 migrants seeking refuge in Lampedusa, Italy from Africa brought back painful memories to Abu Kurke of Ethiopia. He was one a handful of survivors in a traumatic tale of sea-crossing endurance that ultimately brought him to the Netherlands.

DW: Mr. Kurke, this week must have been very distressing for you. How did you feel when you heard the news about events near Lampedusa?

Abu Kurke: That made me very sad. It was similar to what happened in 2011 - to me and many people who had to die. It's very terrible. How can I tell you? I don't know.

You were only one of nine people to have survived a similar crossing. Where did your journey begin?

I was in Libya - I was in prison. I'd been kicked out of Italy in 2010, and I was in prison for eight months. Then, when I got out of prison, there was a war in Libya. So I was looking for somewhere to go. I took the boat with my friend from Tripoli. It was a small boat, and there were too many people on it - 72 people, with small children, also women. We were going to Italy, but we never reached Italy.

We had many problems on the sea. The wind was very bad - the captain said he couldn't steer well. We received some calls from the Italian Coast Guard, but in the end, nobody helped. A helicopter came with water, and then went away and told us he was coming back to help us. He never came back. We were waiting for that helicopter for six hours.

So there we were, without any food - children on the boat, women. When we'd first seen the helicopter, everyone was happy. We thought, "We will survive." So when it never came back, that was terrible. We were there for two weeks on the sea, without any food. A baby was crying for a week in front of me - the baby died in front of me. I watched that. I still have problems. I still have nightmares, always.

What was the feeling like on the boat? Had people given up, or were you still hopeful you would make it?

Everybody was praying. We'd also received a telephone from the coast guard, but the battery ran out. For many days we saw ships and many fishing boats, and all of them just looked at us when we got close to them - and then they'd run away. We tried to speak with them. We showed them the baby - we showed them we didn't have any oil - we needed food - also, that there were bodies of people in the boats. All the boats ran away from us. No one helped. In the two days after we saw the helicopter, we lost many people.

The boat washed up in Libya after two weeks. There were 11 of us. When we saw land, we thought it was Italy. Everybody was praying that it was Italy. Only five of us could walk - the other people were exhausted. Military people helped us, but the military also took us to prison.

Coffins of victims from a shipwreck off Sicily are seen in a hangar of the Lampedusa airport October 5, 2013. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello (ITALY - Tags: DISASTER)
An estimated 300 men, women and children died on October 3 trying to reach EuropeImage: Reuters

We were in prison for three days without medical help. One guy died in prison. Another, a woman, died one hour after coming off the sea. Afterwards we went to the Catholic Church in Libya. They helped. I want to say thanks to them, because they saved our lives.

You ultimately reached the Netherlands via Italy. What made you decide to get on another boat after that first traumatic experience?

I was not planning to go again to the sea. I was planning to go to Shousha [a UN refugee camp in Tunisia]. Military people arrested me and other people and put me on the boat. The boat finally arrived in Lampedusa.

How were you received there?

When I reached Lampedusa I was happy. The Italians helped us from the boat. But I left Italy because there are thousands of migrants there. I was looking for medical help.

Knowing all the risks, people continue getting on those boats. Why are they prepared to take this risk?

Most of the immigrants are from Eritrea, from Ethiopia - women and children, dying - families coming. It's because there are political problems. In Ethiopia, thousands of Oromo people are in prison. I am from Oromia [an ethno-political state in central Ethiopia]. Most of the people who die on the boats are from Oromia.

Africa and Europe must help these people to get out of prison and stop these people coming to sea and dying - and not just the sea, but in the Sahara Desert. The problem comes from their own country.

Now that you're in the Netherlands, what do you hope for the future?

I hope freedom will come for my people, in my country. I'm also happy here. I want to live my life in peace.