Our cousin Sophie fractured her arm recently. It happened during one of the anti-government protests that repeatedly erupt in the centre of London. The riot police charged the large group of massed protesters and began hitting them with their batons as they ran. Sophie got caught in a shop doorway and was set upon by a policeman, the bone in her arm was fractured as she had it raised to protect her face from the vicious blows. She was one of thirty-seven bloodied and bruised protesters that were taken to hospital that day. In a way she was lucky just to have a fractured arm, it could have been a lot worse; a couple of weeks earlier a man from our neighbourhood died from his injuries after receiving a brutal beating at the hands of the riot police. The incident raised the levels of anger and violence, and it was a dangerous time to be out on the streets protesting.
But even after fracturing her arm she still joined the protests. We tried to persuade her not to but she wouldn’t listen, her rage runs too deep, and she was never one to run from a conflict anyway. There are thousands of young people like her, seething with anger at the corruption and inequality that has ruined their lives and dreams. I can’t blame them, I’d be out giving voice to my rage if I was that age. But it doesn’t make a difference, the corruption and inequality and poverty keeps getting worse, and the protesters just get beaten up by the police for their troubles.
I got more worried and stressed than angry. It ate away at my insides and eroded my hope. I worried for my two children Zoe and Emma. For my wife Jessica. I worried that they would get sick and die, and that they wouldn’t have enough food to eat the next week. I worried about the murderous gangs that infested our neighbourhood, I worried about whether I’d still have a job the next month or if our house would get burned down in the next slum fire while our girls were in there sleeping. Just the other day thirteen families lost their homes in a fire barely twenty metres from our house. One poor boy got severely burnt because the fire moved so fast and he couldn’t get out of his house in time.
We’ve lost two children already. Jack our firstborn, and Elsie. They both died very young, both to diarrhoea. They were beautiful children, they gave us a lot of joy during their short time on the earth, but they died too young. The pain of their loss will never go away. We had to be strong and carry on with daily life for the sake of our girls, but you could see the grief buried deep in my wife’s eyes. Jessica had the most beautiful smile, it danced across her face and made you wonder at the song that gave it life. But it was never the same after that. Now the sadness never leaves her eyes even when she smiles. Nothing can match the grief of a mother losing her children, children she has carried in her womb and fed from her breast.
We’ve heard that in South Sudan children never die of diarrhoea. They have the money and medicine to treat it. They have good schools that my daughters can go to and get a proper education. They have shops full of every type of food imaginable. And money to buy it. They have jobs for everyone and workers’ rights and regular pay. They live in comfortable homes with electricity and water. They don’t have millions of people crowding into festering city slums because life is too hard in the barren countryside. They aren’t born into crippling poverty. They don’t have to make the choice between their children working with them in the fields or going to school. They have better opportunities in life. That’s all we want for our daughters.
They won’t get those opportunities in the UK. There it’s just about surviving day to day. And most of us were struggling to do that. There are no jobs anywhere. Crops fail year after year. Reservoirs run dry. Life there is fragile and uncertain. People either leave, protest or struggle on as best they can. We chose to leave. So many people had gone to try for a better life elsewhere that it made you consider it. I didn’t want to become like those poor, desperate people who scavenge amongst the foul waste and horrific smells at rubbish dumps looking for materials that they can sell for recycling, only getting a couple of pounds for a day’s work. Or to see Jessica join the gaunt women foraging through the brambles growing wild along the hedgerows, a bag of blackberries their only food for the day. Or, heaven forbid, for my girls to join the parentless gangs of young kids sleeping rough on the streets and in the subways, often with cardboard or a ripped, threadbare sleeping bag the only thing covering their fragile bodies.
We planned to all go together. We were aware that a lot of men would go on their own, try to get a job and a house and then bring their family over later, but I just couldn’t leave them behind. I might never see them again. We knew how dangerous the journey was, especially for our two young daughters, and we knew that we might not make it, but we decided that we’d rather die together trying for a better life than stay at home slowly dying of disease or malnutrition; of poverty.
We had three choices regarding which route to take. We could try the route from southern Spain to Morocco. Or from Sicily to Tunisia. Or all the way round the Mediterranean through Bosnia, Greece, Turkey, Syria and into Egypt. Through Spain or Italy was quicker, but more dangerous. Spain was a lawless and volatile country. Violent gangs were robbing people on their way down south, and there were rumours that the gangs were also kidnapping people trying to cross to Africa and forcing them into slavery. A friend of ours said he knew someone who had just disappeared. Everyone said it was the gangs. They said he was probably already trapped in a factory or a farm somewhere, his miserable situation now ten times worse.
The sea crossing was more dangerous too, infinitely more hazardous than walking around it. Countless rumours and stories circulated of the traffickers using dodgy boats and abandoning the passengers when a patrol boat appeared, and we heard that overloaded boats often capsized in bad weather.
And if you managed to cross the sea then you might struggle to get into Africa. Morocco in particular was getting tougher on letting people into their country. They were tired of having to look after all these hollowed out Europeans arriving on their beaches. They weren’t the richest African country. They didn’t have the same wealth or infrastructure as the Congo or Angola, but they were paying the biggest cost. You see Congo had had enough, they were full, struggling to cope with an influx of a few thousand Europeans and had closed their borders. So Europeans were stuck in Morocco, and Morocco had had enough too, they didn’t want these sorry hordes of bedraggled immigrants milling around in their inadequate camps. They had begun turning boats away, sending them back to Spain.
Next thing you know is Morocco and the others will be building a wall along the coastline to keep us out. Like Hadrian in old Roman Britain or the Great Wall in China holding the barbarian hordes at bay. Or like the old wall in America that kept the poor Latinos out. They like to keep us poor and keep us out.
But thankfully Tunisia wasn’t so closed yet. And South Sudan were still welcoming Europeans into their country. All Europeans too; refugees from Sweden fleeing war and conflict and people like us from the UK. That’s where we wanted to go. The mythical Promised Land. The country everyone wanted to reach. Before they too changed their mind and closed their borders.
So we chose to go through Italy. It was the middle option; quicker than through Greece and less dangerous than Spain. It meant a daunting crossing over the Alps from France, but the Alps are more forgiving than the ruthless Spanish gangs. We said our prolonged and tearful goodbyes to our family, most of them understood why we were going, though the ever militant Sophie thought we should stay and fight for a better future at home. We didn’t own many belongings, and our home was a sad little place in the centre of Hackney slum, but what we had we gave to our wider family to help them along. Zoe and Emma weren’t fully aware of what was happening but they could tell from the gravity of the situation that it was something major.
We set off with our few belongings and caught the bus down to the coast, it was a pretty uneventful journey down to and across France. It got more difficult as we approached the Alps and started to climb. The girls lost their initial enthusiasm for our adventure and started to complain about tiredness and the severe cold. But we pushed on. We crossed up by Claviere instead of going all the way down to the Riviera. We’d heard that in Liguria Italian police were having one of their periodical crackdowns so we chanced crossing further up. We knew some people had died trying to cross near there but the weather is less extreme this time of year and we made sure we had extra layers for the crossing. We wound our way down to the south of Italy avoiding any mafia strongholds and took one of the many rickety old boats from Sicily across to Pantelleria.
And now here we are, waiting with hundreds of other hopeful immigrants to catch another boat across the lonely waters to Tunisia. We have been waiting for a week now, everything is very uncertain, and essentially we are at the mercy of the smugglers. They seem particularly callous, these Sicilian smugglers, so I’m wary. Jessica is worried too, I can see the fear lining her face, but we can’t go back now. Our smuggler says that we are waiting for the best weather conditions, which will be tomorrow. But they’ve said that before, so we’ll see.
Once we cross our plan is to then catch a truck or freight train across Libya and Sudan. Hopefully arriving in South Sudan within no more than three months. It sounds simple enough but we know it will be difficult. And dangerous. We’ve heard enough stories not to think otherwise. We heard dark rumours that in Sudan gangs of racist skin-heads roam around looking to beat up any white people they come across, I don’t know if it’s true or not. But we could definitely get stopped by security in Libya and get sent back to Tunisia. Or worse we could be held in a rough detention camp for a few months, penned and packed in like animals while they decide what to do with us.
You know, as we’ve been sat here waiting to cross I’ve had time to think about a lot of things. And it’s surreal when you think about it. We’re here struggling to get to Africa on old, run-down fishing boats at the mercy of gangs and smugglers. And there are rich Africans flying overhead going the opposite way, coming over here to enjoy a holiday in the beautiful snow-capped Alps or the pristine Greek islands. Probably being offered a drink as they cross over the Mediterranean, blissfully unaware of what is happening down below them. Or not caring. Or maybe they are looking down out the aeroplane window, wondering if there are fifty terrified Europeans in a flimsy boat going the other way. I wonder what it would be like if we met face to face as we were travelling in our opposite directions.
My granddad once told me that a long time ago it was the opposite way round. Europe was full of powerful and wealthy countries, and the African countries were a mess of war and poverty and corruption. He said the Congo was one of the worst. They were like Sweden is today; a wild, dangerous place with warlords and militias causing havoc and spreading fear. And all their poor neighbours struggling to cope with an endless stream of traumatised refugees crossing the borders. It’s hard to imagine now in such a peaceful and progressive country.
He said that hundreds of thousands of Africans tried to get to Europe to have a better life. But they wouldn’t let them in. They didn’t care enough to help their neighbours in need, or to overturn an unfair system that caused their desperately poor neighbours to scale the fence of their manicured suburbs. They didn’t fight their own selfishness and greed. I guess we’re paying for that now.
It’s tragic too. The Mediterranean is filling up with European bodies, falling on top of the bones of poor, nameless Africans who drowned centuries ago trying to go the other way. Africans and Europeans all resting in the same grave, kept apart in life but embracing each other in death. I hope and I pray that tomorrow we won’t become another tragedy, more unknown bodies drowned in the deceptive waters. I want more than anything for my precious daughters to have a chance at a better life, not dying trying to find it.