As told to Inua Ellams
Senebesh is holding Dani’s hand under the rusting jeep in a car park in Khartoum. She is trying to stifle the laughter which is as ripe as fruit in her mouth. It is leaking out of the corners of her lips and, if she lets it burst, the consequences would be disastrous.
Moments before, Dani gave in to Senebesh’s request. ‘Tell me a funny story,’ she’d asked and Dani cleared his throat. ‘One day, an Arab couple went on a romantic honeymoon to London…’ ‘I like this story,’ Senebesh interrupted. ‘Shush! Let me talk!’ Dani continued: ‘The wife barely spoke English. When they got to the hotel, the receptionist told them: “Anything you want, just call, I’m here.” In the evening, when the husband had gone to buy food, a mouse ran across the floor and the wife started screaming. “Hello! Hello!” She had called the reception. “What is it?” the man asked. The wife didn’t know the word so asked, “You know Tom and Jerry, the cartoon?” “Yes,” said the man, “Jerry not Tom, Jerry is here!”’
Years from now, when you ask Senebesh what it was like, the smile that will ghost her lips is this fruit of a memory, this singular joy, but it will fade to something dark.
Senebesh met Dani at the camp in Gedaref a few months before, and saw the 14-year-old kid beneath his rehearsed swagger. He harshly demanded water and, when she frowned at him through the cloud of dust, he asked politely. She laughed as he guzzled loudly, his throat like a drain pipe. When he finished, he asked if she’d like to hear a story and kept Senebesh entertained for a solid hour. Ever since, she’d seek him out for more. Dani was safe, charming, but Abbas was the wild one.
Under the rusting Jeep they could hear the approaching Sudanese Police, their boots scuffing earth. ‘Come out! We know you are here!’ Senebesh pressed her full mouth to the ground as Dani whispered, ‘Jerry! Jerry!’ And when she felt she could hold it no longer, they heard Abbas yelling: ‘Don’t you have bigger thieves to catch? Useless police! You want something to do? Catch me if you can…’ and ran as they gave chase. ‘Told you! He is never late!’ Dani said as Senebesh brushed dust off herself and turned towards the market in Khartoum. ‘Just a fist full of dollars more,’ Dani said, quoting a favourite film, ‘then tomorrow we leave for Libya.’
Abbas had organised everything. He was a year older than Senebesh, but streets, decades smarter. He planned their escape from the camp, promising: ‘No more queues for stale bread, no more denim-jean tents, no more bathing in the river, no more diarrhoea-ridden food… come with me, we’ll cross the desert together! Us against the world!’ ‘Three musketeers?’ Dani asked, his eyes brightening, ‘Yes!’ Abbas added: ‘…whoever they are.’ They were a fantastically effective team, swapping shifts, washing dishes in kitchens, cleaning taxis, selling fabric, fruit… anything they could lift in the Khartoum heat, they’d hawk, whilst Abbas kept the police at bay: succumbing to their demands for bribes, cursing when they wanted more, using them to ward off rough smugglers who bullied, demanding large fees to arrange their journey through the Sahara. All this was a full-time job and Dani was thankful Abbas was up to it.
Months from now, in the desert night, when Abbas is pouring petrol in their bottled water to stop them gulping, to make the water last, Dani will have to remind himself of Abbas’ good intentions. He will have to have faith.
Senebesh loved the camp in Gedaref. Years from now, in the loneliness of English streets, she will miss its community, the togetherness of suffering, how even when the police and thieves returned the women they’d kidnapped, brought them back bleeding, swollen, a rag between their thighs, the camp would heal her and revenge together. The night she was almost taken, she found the boys and handed over her savings. ‘Three musketeers,’ she said. Abbas asked why she’d left Eritrea, though he knew the reason. It was the same for so many: faith. Only Orthodox Islam and Christianity were allowed in Eritrea. Her family, secret Pentecostal Christians, held gatherings for others till a neighbour informed the Eritrean Police. The house was raided, her father imprisoned, mother killed, sister vanished, the house burned and a warrant issued for her arrest. So Senebesh left. When Abbas asked Dani why he had left, he explained he didn’t want to join the Eritrean Army. His older brothers and father had died in its compulsory service and he chose to live. When they asked Abbas his reasons for wanting to leave Sudan, he laughed into the night’s slow breeze. ‘Next time,’ he said. ‘But tomorrow we go to Khartoum. After two months, Libya. My sister…’ he said to Senebesh, ‘you cannot stay here any more.’
1) Lip balm for Senebesh.
2) Gloves for cold nights.
3) Goggles for the sand storms.
4) A bottle of fuel.
5) A fast driver…
Abbas, who had found the driver with the best reputation, who gathered the provisions for the month-long crossing, rolled off another list:
‘Rules For Survival,’ he whispered as they boarded the truck.
1) People go mad in the desert. Trust no one.
2) Eighty-eight people to each jumbo truck.
3) Most will sit on top of the roof.
4) If you fall asleep you will fall off. Don’t sleep.
5) If you are in the middle, you will fight other passengers.
6) All drivers are vagabonds with guns. They take women and do what they want.
7) The best seat is on the outside, by the driver’s window.
8) The journey will feel like an incredible film, but if you die, you won’t come back.
9) Find a good God to believe in.
10) It is always longer than you think.
Six weeks from now, in Zuwara in Libya, waiting to cross the sea to Italy, Dani will question what Abbas did. Senebesh will explain his sacrifice, Dani won’t understand. Senebesh will compile her own list. It will become a mantra. She’ll say to him, ‘This is what happened’:
- There was no GPS.
- The truck got lost in the deep of the desert.
- The third time it broke down, the men had to push.
- The driver drove off when the engine kicked in leaving some men behind.
- The fourth time it stopped, Abbas refused to push.
- The driver wanted the truck lighter.
- The driver wished to ditch an old woman.
- Abbas fought to keep her on.
- The driver wanted Senebesh.
- The driver kicked Dani’s water.
- The driver told Abbas to choose.
- Abbas could not, so chose himself. ‘Save your tears sister, you need the water,’ he said and waved until they vanished, a dot among the dunes.
‘Tell me a story,’ Senebesh begged. The truck had just arrived in Tripoli and Dani was in a daze. Senebesh couldn’t tell if he was seeing the dozens of bodies they’d passed in the desert, the flies harvesting their rotting flesh, or if he was hypnotised by the tap, by water. They’d watched three people die of thirst on the truck, listened to others wailing in the night, hallucinating, asking for beers and cold drinks before a silence claimed them. He stood by the tap, sipping and instantly refilling his bottle, refusing to move, guarding each drop, unable to believe such a thing could be free again. Senebesh gently took the bottle from his hands. ‘Dani, story!’ Dani blinked for several seconds trying to concentrate. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘There was a poor boy who used to pass under a tree by a stream and throw stones at the fruit. When they fell, he would eat the juicy oranges.
‘One day, he found a wall built on the road, the tree was on the other side and a man stood guarding it. The boy begged the man to give him a fruit, but he refused, cursing the boy. Desperate, the boy threw stones hoping the man would simply catch a falling fruit and throw it over, but the man would eat the fruit and throw the stones back at the boy. So, the boy had an idea. He threw a large stone but made sure to miss, so, though it almost hit him, it rolled into the stream. The man was so angry, he grabbed an orange and threw it, which the boy caught, said, “Thank you,” and ran away eating, laughing, eating and laughing,’ Dani said, laughing at his own story. ‘Thank you,’ Senebesh said, silently also thanking God that Dani had found a glimmer of his old self. ‘Are you hungry?’ she asked.
They ate a fried chicken (a whole one each) on the journey from Tripoli to the fishing port of Zuwara, marvelling at each hot morsel, chewing slowly, softly, deliberately. Of the 88 they left with, 19 died or were left in the desert. Eight Nigerians, nine Ghanaians, three Ivorians, 11 Syrians and other Eritreans survived. Some had lost uncles, brothers, sisters, even their children crossing the desert and those who made it to the end, Senebesh made sure to remember. She knew them by name, weeping as she said goodbye. Aliyah, who’d lost her daughter crossing, wept too, unconsolably, refusing to leave Senebesh. ‘My brother went before me, he is in Lampedusa, I just have to get to him.’ ‘But you don’t yet have the money to cross,’ Senebesh said. ‘There are easy ways,’ she replied, looked to the ground, flicked her eyes at the group of sea smugglers huddled together, looking at her hungrily, then stared back into Senebesh’s wide face. Senebesh looked away, understanding what she meant. Aliyah made enough in four days. The others would have to work for months in Libya, sleeping in warehouses on the harbour, beyond which lay Lampedusa, the island-prison in Italy, the place the refugees are held, the first stop in Europe.
‘They call it the blue desert you know,’ Dani said sitting down heavily, waking Senebesh up. ‘Another desert?’ she shouted over the boat’s engine. ‘It is just as hot, nothing grows and it’s endless.’ ‘How long left?’ ‘Sixty-two hours,’ Dani replied. ‘We’ve only been sailing for ten?’ Dani shrugged as Senebesh turned to find the Libyan shore, now a barely visible strip in the distance. Of the 430 people crammed onto the inflatable boat, a stern-looking Senegalese man, the unofficial captain, barked at her, ‘Look for oil rig, we’re not going back to Libya, don’t look back.’ Senebesh glanced at the satellite phone and GPS tracker in his hand. After basic lessons in steering, the smugglers gave these to him, told him to sail for an oil rig near Lampedusa, that the workers would alert the Italian coastguards, that the plan isn’t to reach the island, but to be rescued, and the boats were designed so. ‘What you looking at?’ the captain barked again. ‘Nothing,’ Senebesh said, as Dani moved to stand between them, fixing the man with a hard stare. ‘Leave her alone! You’ve bigger things to worry about!’ ‘What things?’ Senebesh whispered, and her face fell as Dani explained. ‘We are too many for this boat. It’s held together with glue, the smugglers use anything. The glue is melting. The man over there spread his water-soaked jacket over the melting part, has to splash water on it, keep it wet in all this heat.’ ‘Will it hold for long?’ she asked. ‘Two days, no more…’ That’s not enough time!’ ‘That’s why he is nervous,’ Dani said. ‘The coastguards are our only hope.’
Senebesh didn’t sleep that night. She couldn’t. She counted stars over the Mediterranean, matched her breathing with the snoozing others, nibbled at her ration of biscuits and dried injera, and whenever she remembered, splashed sea water on the jacket even though it was too cold for the glue to melt anyway. She became the jacket’s sole guardian, watching over it, a hawk in the blue desert. On the third day, when too many holes had appeared, when the boat began to sink, when the weak engine started struggling, dolphins appeared on either side and in front, keeping pace with the boat, leaping in and out of the water, playing as they chugged towards Lampedusa. Dani would remember them for the rest of his life; he thought of them as water angels, a sign things would be alright, thinking this just as Italian coastguards arrived, circled their boat, barked at them harshly in Italian, spoke into their radios and sped off again. The waves rocked their frail boat and overwhelmed the engine. It stuttered out just as Aliyah found her brother.
At first they thought they were items of clothing, cast-offs from others who crossed, but the closer they got, the clearer they saw that caged among the fabric, some stiff, some swollen, were the water-drenched flesh of refugees like them. They recoiled as one, all tried to turn away from the bodies but couldn’t. They began to make out faces. Some looked serene, peaceful, asleep, as if, if Senebesh reached out to prod, they’d wake gently. Some had holes for eyes where the fish had feasted, others had fingers nibbled to the bone or torn off completely and the closer they got to Lampedusa, the more bodies their boat bumped into. With each wet thud, each body, each drowned flesh slapping against the boat, the people flinched. The dolphins had vanished now, and as Aliyah looked, fearing the worst, she saw her brother floating, his eyes intact, staring upwards, dead to the sky. She dived in after him. The others screamed at her to come back in. Senebesh tried to lunge after her but Dani caught her in time. In the commotion, the boat began to rock, more sea water seeping in, sinking the boat faster till they were submerged in the wide open sea. In the distance, they heard the Italian coastguards’ sirens with larger boats in tow and struck out towards them, swimming best as they could, gurgling, swallowing and spitting out sea water, thrashing in the blue desert.
Two hours from now, on Lampedusa, Senebesh will watch the captain standing motionless in shock. Aliyah will be holding on to her brother’s corpse. Senebesh will search among the survivors and find Dani gone. The coastguards will shake their heads when she asks if there are more and she will lose her appetite, she won’t eat at all.
This story was publishes in Refugee Tales (Comma Press, 2016), a project edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus, in which British writers met with refugees and presented their accounts anonymously.