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Lampedusa's boat people: One man's story

From Ivan Watson, CNN
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Man aids struggling Libyan refugees
  • Tareke Brhane made two dangerous attempts to reach Mediterranean island of Lampedusa
  • He now works for a charity on the island, welcoming new arrivals, offering them food, drink and support
  • Numbers of people trying to get from Libya to Lampedusa has risen sharply because of unrest

Lampedusa, Italy (CNN) -- When the boat people arrive at this small Italian island on the southern edge of Europe, many look lost, not even sure what country they are in.

Among the rescue workers waiting on the shore to greet them is a man dressed in a red jersey with big hair.

Tareke Brhane works with the aid organization Save the Children. He knows first-hand what the boat people have been through.

"Five years ago, I came in the same way from Libya. I tried twice," Brhane recalls. "The first time I stayed five days in the sea. We don't have water. No food."

Brhane is a battle-scarred survivor of the dangerous sea journey from North Africa to Europe.

Crossing the Mediterranean on an overcrowded, barely seaworthy wooden fishing boat is but the last step in a long and dangerous road travelled by tens, if not hundreds of thousands of immigrants fleeing poverty, conflict and oppression in hope of a better life.

"Some people say 'why are we coming this way?'" Brhane says. "We do it because we don't have [any other] solution. Because it's the only way."

Brhane and his family fled their home in Eritrea in 2003 to escape the country's authoritarian government.

The US State Department's 2010 report on Eritrea's human rights record makes for dismal reading: "Human rights abuses included abridgement of citizens' right to change their government through a democratic process; unlawful killings by security forces; torture and beating of prisoners, sometimes resulting in death; abuse and torture of national service evaders; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention."

People say 'why are we coming this way?' We do it because we don't have [any other] solution. Because it's the only way.
--Tareke Brhane
  • Lampedusa
  • Immigration
  • Italy
  • Libya
  • Save the Children

Brhane says his family fled Eritrea's system of open-ended military conscription, which obliges all male citizens to serve in the army indefinitely without pay.

"We have obligations to do military service," he explains. "I [would] like to do it, but not for all my life!"

Not long after escaping Eritrea to neighboring Sudan, Brhane says his mother urged him to embark on the trip to Europe.

It took 10 days to cross the Sahara Desert to Libya aboard a single land rover crammed with 34 men, women and children packed inside and hanging precariously to the roof of the vehicle.

"If you fall, they leave you there," Brhane says.

Brhane plunged into a world of armed smugglers and traffickers who he claims buy and sell immigrants.

"When we arrived in Libya we were sold to traffickers who beat us constantly," he wrote, in an article published in the Daily Beast last April titled "My Harrowing Libya Escape."

"They once took a beautiful underage girl outside and we never saw her again."

From Libya, Brhane made his first attempt to cross the Mediterranean. He paid more than $1,000 dollars - a fortune for a refugee - for a seat aboard a small, open fishing boat to take him to Italy.

There were 264 people on board. The boat's motor broke soon after it left the Libyan coast.

After five days at sea, Brhane says the Maltese Navy discovered the stranded vessel, only to hand it back to the Libyans.

The government of Libyan strong-man Moammar Gadhafi promptly threw the immigrants in prison.

Brhane spent months moving through Libyan jails. At one point, he was locked up in Libya's notorious Kufra prison, located in the Sahara desert, in a windowless cell with more than 70 other detainees.

He says he witnessed guards abusing female migrants.

"If you have a sister or mother or wife, you can never look in their eyes again after what they do to them," Brhane says. "They can rape them in front of you."

Finally, Brhane emerged from prison and found the means once again to pay some $1,200 for another boat ride to Italy.

This time, he succeeded, landing in Sicily on October 26th, 2005.

Fast forward six years: Brhane now works with a small team of aid workers contracted by the Italian government. They distribute water bottles and packets of cookies to the migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, who sit shivering on the dock after their sea journey.

"Be relaxed, you are in Lampedusa, you are in Italy, you are safe," Brhane tells them. "After ten minutes you'll be taken to the camp. [in] the camp there is food."

This winter, Lampedusa was overwhelmed by a flood over more than 30,000 boat people who arrived over the span of just 3 months.

The island has since become a symbol for European politicians campaigning on anti-immigration platforms.

After initially being unprepared, the Italian government has now put in place a system for processing the immigrants.

Aid workers say they've seen an increase in larger boats coming from Libya, with migrants fleeing the grinding conflict between the Gadhafi regime and Western-backed rebels.

And the illegal journey continues to claim lives: Last month, locals organized a village funeral for 3 passengers who drowned after their boat ran aground on the coast of Lampedusa. No-one even knew their names.

"When Europeans, North Americans and Australians see images of ragged and thirsty refugees crossing deserts and seas, it must be hard to see us as individuals, each with our unique life histories," Brhane wrote in "My Harrowing Libyan Escape."

Accident of birth is all that separate the Western tourists, who fly to Lampedusa every year to frolic on its pristine beaches, from the desperate migrants who wash up, sometimes dead, on its shores.

Brhane asks why in the 21st century, little more than a passport made of paper divides humanity into two classes of citizens.

"Paper, it makes us different," he says. "Paper can change the life of a human being."

For the untold tens of thousands of travellers making their own dangerous journey in hope of a better life, Brhane has several simple words of advice.

"Be strong," he says. "Because if you lose hope, its finished."