Marooned in "the jungle" outside Calais
LONDON—Mohamed, 31, is a Muslim from the Tigre ethnic group who was raised in a small village near the port of Massawa. He was called up for national service in the mid-2000s and assigned to the military police in Sawa after completing his training. Several months later he tried to escape to Sudan and was caught and jailed, spending the next three years in one military/political prison after another, first in Tessenei where he was caught and then in Aderser, Sawa, Meitir (near Massawa) and Adi Abieto (north of Asmara).
Upon his release he was again assigned to the military police, and again he fled, this time successfully. He told me he left because he was desperate to continue his education and did not see a chance for it so long as he remained in national service. He also complained about discrimination by Tigrinya-speaking Christians who dominated the military.
Mohamed said he made it from Sawa to the Sudan border in two days travelling on foot by himself. Once there, he got a lift from a truck to Kassala and quickly went on to Khartoum, which he managed to do as an Arabic speaker without papers or assistance from smugglers. He spent two months there before arranging travel to Libya with money sent by relatives.
The desert crossing was slow—two weeks—but uneventful. He arrived in October 2013, late in the season for a sea crossing, so he decided to spend the winter in Ajdabiya at the house of an Eritrean smuggler. He went to Tripoli in the spring to find a boat to Italy. At that point, things took a turn for the worse.
The vessel he found was an aging, wooden inshore fishing boat packed with 450 people on one deck and a small cargo hold. Mohamed said he was one of the lucky ones on top. They were at sea less than nine hours before the boat began taking on water and sinking. Everyone crowded onto the upper deck as the hold filled with water. When they saw another boat, they waved and shouted, but it kept going without stopping, he said. By this time theirs was going down.
A second ship steamed by and refused to stop, even when two refugees, a Syrian and an Eritrean, swam to it and pleaded for help. Mohamed said he is not sure what flag it was flying, but members of the crew lined up at the rail and took photographs as his boat sank, taking as many as 250 refugees down with it.
Mohamed said he remembers the date exactly—it was 12 March 2014—though he has no idea where they were at the time. He described seeing a floating platform, probably an oil rig, as he hung onto a jerry can himself, so he may have been somewhere off the Libyan coast.
Some of the passengers were able to swim; others clung to floating cans and bottles or other flotsam. Finally, a ship from the Italian Navy arrived and picked up the survivors—Eritreans, Ethiopians, Syrians, other Africans—who were taken to the port of Catania to recover.
Mohamed said he left without being fingerprinted and made his way first to Milan and then to Calais, France, where he tried to hide on a truck headed for the U.K. on a ferry across the English Channel. He had been there for two months with no luck when I spoke to him at the makeshift camp in the forest by the highway the refugees call “The Jungle.” Once, he made it as far as a ferry before he was caught and sent ashore.
He told me he was ready to give up but had no idea what he would do next. He also said that if things changed at home and he did not have to go back into national service, he would go back to Eritrea in a second: “I don’t want to spend one day in Europe.”