Photo Feature: From shipwreck to Safety

On 5 May, 194 migrants and asylum seekers survived a shipwreck off the coast of Sicily and were brought to the port of Catania by the cargo ship that rescued them. IRIN spoke to some of the survivors. 

Story by Sara Assarsson and photography by Åsa Sjöström in Catania

Mariam Adams, 16, is seated in a tent in the Sicilian port of Catania with her five-year-old sister on her lap. A volunteer from the Italian Red Cross gently examines the little girl’s tummy while her mother, older sister and uncle wait to be seen.

 Bebe, 5, fell into the water when the dinghy carrying her and her family across the Mediterranean started to deflate. 

Bebe, 5, fell into the water when the dinghy carrying her and her family across the Mediterranean started to deflate. 

The family left Nigeria earlier this year. They managed to climb to the safety of a cargo ship as the rubber dinghy that had been carrying them from Libya to Italy deflated south of Sicily on Monday.

“There was a scramble as everyone tried to reach the ladders. Lots of people fell into the water. Some got trampled on,” says Adams, who was one of 194 survivors brought to safety in Catania on Tuesday morning. 

  Maltese cargo ship Zeran brings 194 migrants to safety at the port of Catania, Sicily, on 5 May 

Maltese cargo ship Zeran brings 194 migrants to safety at the port of Catania, Sicily, on 5 May 

Aid group, Save the Children, says survivors reported that more than 40 people drowned as the cargo ship approached, but only five bodies were recovered from the dinghy.

 Workers from Italy's Ministry of Health carry the body of one of the migrants who died at sea.

Workers from Italy's Ministry of Health carry the body of one of the migrants who died at sea.

“We spent two days at sea before we were rescued. We are very grateful to be alive. So many people die at sea,” Adams says, hugging her little sister.

The family of five sold all their belongings and left their home in Nigeria’s south-western Ogun State two months ago. A truck took them through the Sahara desert to reach Libya.

It was very hot [in the desert] and we hardly had any water. Some people fell off the truck and died.
— Mariam Adams

Their ordeal was far from over after they reached Libya.

“Libya is a very dangerous place. Some African people tried to make money by setting up hair salons in the street. In the evenings, they would be rounded up by terrorists who forced them to hand over their money. We also saw lots of people getting shot,” she says.

After living in hiding for nearly two months, the family paid a smuggler US$5,000 to take them to Italy by boat.

“When I saw the boat I was really scared,” says Adams. “But we had no choice but to get on.”

Nearly 150 people were packed on the dinghy. On board, the family became friends with fellow Nigerians Edus Sunday, 38, and 20-year-old Loveth Bensin who had left Nigeria to escape Boko Haram’s violent insurgency.

  Loveth Bensin (left) and Edus    Sunday    fled Nigeria to escape the violence of Boko Haram's insurgency.

Loveth Bensin (left) and Edus Sunday fled Nigeria to escape the violence of Boko Haram's insurgency.

”They [Boko Haram] wanted to kill me. When they burnt my house down I took my wife and ran,”
— Sunday, who was one of the first to step off the Maltese container vessel, Zeran, after it docked in Catania.
 Rescued migrants disembark from the cargo ship that rescued them.

Rescued migrants disembark from the cargo ship that rescued them.

”I was in the water, but managed to swim to the ladder and climb up,” he says.

Adam’s youngest sister, five-year-old Bebe Mafedor, also fell overboard but was pulled out of the water by one of the migrants.

”He jumped after her and saved her life,” says Adams.

A long line forms on the quay in Catania as aid workers and government officials register the new arrivals. 

  Before being registered by the Italian police, migrants are photographed and assigned numbers.

Before being registered by the Italian police, migrants are photographed and assigned numbers.

Volunteers from the Italian Red Cross hand out bottled water, cake and trainers. The routine has become a familiar one; last year, 290 landings were recorded in Sicily. So far this year, volunteers have assisted in more than 70 landings, according to president of the local Red Cross, Rosario Valastro.

The situation in Libya is not likely to change anytime soon. There will probably more tragedies.
— President of Sicily's Red Cross, Rosario Valastro

The day after Mariam Adams and her family arrived in Catania, another hundred migrants – most of them from Eritrea – were brought ashore by Guardia di Finanza, an Italian law enforcement agency mainly responsible for dealing with financial crime and smuggling. In recent years, its vessels have increasingly been involved in rescue missions.

Back on the quay, little Bebe and her seven-year-old sister Kinsola Adabajo, change into new clothes and pink ballerina sandals.

  Bebe Mafedor, 5, and her seven-year-old sister, Kinsola Adabajo on the quay.

Bebe Mafedor, 5, and her seven-year-old sister, Kinsola Adabajo on the quay.

“All we have are the clothes we wear. My sister had a hair salon and my father owned a big house. But we had to sell everything we had to be able to leave,” says Adams.

The family hope to reach Germany. Despite the harrowing journey, Adams has no regrets about their decision to leave Nigeria:

“There is too much poverty in Nigeria. There’s no education and no future. Poverty makes people do very bad things.”

sa/ks