“Wherever we went, death followed us”: A Syrian family’s tragedy
A story of hope that ends in tragic loss for a mother — one of many — from a crisis with no end in sight
MISRATA, Libya, 13 March 2017 – Sham is a Syrian girl, 10 years old, with large, dark eyes and a shy smile.
She lives on the outskirts of Misrata, Libya, with her mother, father and younger brother Balal, who is 5 years old.
Sham struggles to talk. Most of her words were lost deep in the Libyan sea, along with her brother, Talal. He tragically drowned when their boat sank 15 miles off the coast of Sabratha as they were trying to cross the Mediterranean.
"Wherever we went, death followed us,” says Sham’s father, Mahmoud.
In search of a safe place
In 2014, their family escaped from the conflict in Damascus. “We wandered around Syria, looking for a safe place, but there was not a safe place anywhere,” he says. “So I decided it was time to try to get to Europe."
In Damascus, Mahmoud was working as a carpenter. He made little money, but his family always lived with dignity.
"When you're poor you cannot even choose how to escape, you can only escape by spending as little as possible,” he says. “And we were five people."
Syrian crisis in numbers*
6 years of conflict
6 million children dependent on humanitarian assistance
2.3 million Syrian children
living as refugees
More than 1.7 million children
out of school
>> Learn more in the report:
Hitting Rock Bottom
*as of March 2017
His wife’s brothers lived for a while in Benghazi , in eastern Libya. They had the names of people who could help Mahmoud and his family get a place on a boat to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
“They [the smugglers] promised they could organize a boat, give us the life jackets and get us safely in Europe," he says.
Mahmoud wanted to be able to tell his three children: You can study, I promise you that I will help you realize your dreams.
But he never got the chance.
Mahmoud now works as a carpenter on a construction site in Misrata . He makes about 700 dinars per month. At the official exchange rate this would equal about US$500 , but today the value of the dinar is a fraction of what it once was. 700 dinars on the black market is worth about US$100 .
Every morning he leaves his house when it is still dark outside and walks several kilometres to his work site. His car, which he managed to buy only after a few months of working, has since broken down and he has no money to fix it.
“Sometimes I think it would be better for me to die than to live like this,” he says while sitting on a stool in front of the entrance of the family’s home. The house has no heating to keep the family warm in Libya’s unusually cold temperatures this winter; it has just a single room, a bathroom and some cookware on the ground.
Journey across the sea
Fouzieh is Mahmoud’s wife. She is 39 years old, but she moves with slow and awkward movements, as if her body aches with grief. Her face wears the look of someone much older, someone who has seen too much.
The pain that their family has endured for two years has now become a taboo. It is nearly impossible to talk about it, let alone overcome.
"When we arrived in Libya I hoped with all my might that it was the last leg of our journey before arriving in Italy," Fouzieh recalls.
But they were forced to wait. Their traffickers held them captive for 15 days in a concrete house near the sea.
"They told us that we had to wait for good weather, but the weather was good and our room continued to fill up with people,” she says.
“As the days passed, it became clear to us that they were not waiting for good weather but rather to gather as many people as possible, so that they could earn more money."
During the time they were held captive, the smugglers brought them little food and little water – only a bit of cheese and bread, often rotten, handed to them through the iron bars of the few windows in the building.
Fouzieh remembers the unbreathable air, the fights over food with other migrants. “I did not have any food so that my three children could eat. They constantly asked me: ‘Why are we here?’”
Then one night the smugglers came to pick them up in groups of 20, maybe 30 people, she says.
“They brought us to the shoreline and took us onto the small rubber boats, to reach the main wooden ship ready offshore to take us into the sea.”
“When I saw the sea, and the darkness, I heard the sound of the waves crashing onto the sand, I looked at my husband and told him: ‘I do not want to go anymore. I'm scared.’"
Fouzieh was so frightened that she began to scream. One of the smugglers came over to her and dragged her onto the rubber boat with her children.
They were already suffering when they reached the large wooden ship. But Fouzieh soon realized that here, in the middle of the sea, there were further injustices: there was a class system.
"The Syrians like us were above deck, we could pay a little more and we were provided with life jackets. Then, below deck, there were hundreds of African boys and girls, with no life jackets. Crammed into a small space, they were breathing with great difficulty."
The plight of migrant children in Libya*
4,579 people died crossing the Mediterranean between Libya and Italy
700 of those who lost their lives were children
9 out of 10 children who made the crossing were unaccompanied
>> Learn more about #ChildrenUprooted
*figures from 2016
Shortly after their departure in the middle of the night, the boat began to take on water.
Fouzieh remembers the screams of the men crammed below deck. They shouted that they were afraid, and they did not want to die.
"They began shouting louder, to tell the smuggler that there was water now on board, and they were in fear of the ship sinking and all of us dying. But the smuggler pretended not to hear. He tried to keep going."
The smuggler then used his satellite phone to call his accomplices, who were back on shore.
When they returned to the ship, they loaded only the smuggler on board to safety, leaving hundreds of people stranded in the sea, fighting to survive against the waves.
Fouzeih struggles to recount those moments. She swallows, looks down, as she nervously handles her phone, looking down at the photos of her son – the son she lost.
After the smuggler left, she realized that the ship had taken on a large volume of water, and was now tilting to the side.
"I fell into the water, clutching my youngest son, Balal, and I did not know what to do. Before we left shore, the smugglers never told us what we should do in the event of a disaster or if something should happen to the ship,” she says.
“I do not remember anything. I did not think anything. I just prayed to survive.”
Rescue and tragedy
Fouzieh embraced Balal tightly all night long. A whole night in the water struggling between life and death.
“Throughout the night, Balal would sometimes fall asleep and I slapped him on his face to wake up. His dead weight made it almost impossible for me to hold onto him,” she says.
“[He] asked me, ‘When can we have some rest?’ and I said, ‘soon’, but I knew I was lying.”
While she was in the water, Fouzieh looked for someone or something to hold on to. "One time I saw a round shaped object. I clung onto it, but then I realized that it was a head of a corpse.”
After hours and hours in the sea and a desperate plea for help to a passing boat, which did not stop to pick up the living or the dead, Fouzieh was finally rescued by the Libyan coast guard. She and Balal were brought to shore.
She immediately began to search for the rest of her family. After a few hours she discovered her husband and her daughter, Sham, had survived thanks to his strong embrace. But their son Talal was still missing.
The last thing Fouzieh remembers is the hospital, where she was taken after she fainted.
Three consecutive days of IV drips, fear and the one question she kept asking: “Where is my child?”
"’Later Fouzieh’, the doctors say, ‘tomorrow Fouzieh, do not worry Fouzieh’, but no one would tell me anything for three days,” she says.
“Then my worst fear became a reality. The doctor showed me a photograph of my son Talal. My son is dead."
Fouzieh has not seen the sea since that moment. She is convinced that her son was killed by another migrant, who wanted to steal his life jacket.
"There was a wound on his face,” she says, as if to justify her thoughts, “someone killed Talal."
Fouzieh cannot sleep. Her constant thoughts, the memory of Talal will never leave her.
She cannot understand how it is possible to leave hundreds of people to die.
She cannot forgive herself for having made the choice that no mother should ever have to make: save one child while abandoning the other, in the hope that he will find the energy to save himself.
Francesca Mannocchi is an Italian journalist. She contributes to various Italian and international magazines and TV, including: L’Espresso, Al Jazeera, MiddleEastEye, RAI-3 and Skytg24, among others. Her work focuses on migration and conflict zones. In recent years she reported from Tunisia, Egypt, the Balkans, Iraq, Libya, Turkey and Lebanon. Last year she directed, with the photographer Alessio Romenzi, “If I close my eyes”, a documentary on Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, screened last September at the Rome Film Festival. In 2016 she received the Premiolino, the most important journalistic award in Italy.