The metal fishing boat was packed full with more than 700 migrants on their way from Libya to Italy. Samia Leila sat on one side, sandwiched between mostly young men. Rashid Jaqali, his wife and his daughter squeezed into the bow, and his two sons were split up on either flank, just visible over hundreds of heads.
When help finally came, relief soon turned into chaos. People scrambled wildly to get off, knocking the boat off its precarious balance. Leila, fighting the crowd, was one of the first out; Jaqali, his wife, his daughter and one son came next. Their older son, Mohammed, waved to his mother from across the boat, motioning: I will follow you.
The boat lurched violently from side to side. Then it capsized. Those rescued watched helplessly from afar as their loved ones left behind fell, one by one, like crawling ants, into the water.
For migrants, summer is the season of hope — and of death. It is the time of calmer waters, and tens of thousands embark on the desperate journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Many don’t make it, for reasons that include flimsy boats and overcrowding. In the last week of May alone, more than 1,000 migrants are believed to have drowned on the route. Death estimates from the boat carrying Leila and the Jaqalis on May 25 are up to 250; this account is pieced together from interviews with survivors and aid groups.
Rashid Jaqali, a 45-year-old Kurd from northern Syria, had moved his family to Libya so that the Kurdish militia couldn’t recruit his sons. He and his younger son, Yehia, went in 2013, and the rest of the family joined them a year later.
Their refuge in the northwestern city of Zawiya didn’t last long. None of the children went to school. The girl, Suzanne, was taken out after a couple of months because they didn’t have official documents. And the boys worked; Mohammed handled aluminum for interior decoration, his father marble.
As lawlessness spread in Libya, so did the rumors of kidnappings. The son of a family friend from Syria was mugged and thrown out of his car. Other friends told them about a man held hostage until his wife gave her jewelry to the criminals. The road to Tripoli was cut because of militia infighting.
Rashid’s boss stopped paying him, but he was too afraid to quit. There was no going out of the house after dark. Life in Libya had become even worse than in Syria.
“We got out of one whirlpool into a larger one,” Rashid said.
The family decided to move to Germany, where his wife’s relatives lived. They waited seven months for the waves to calm down. Rashid paid off his debts, tied up loose ends and forked out about $1,200 to a smuggler, a special discount for families.
Mohammed, 17, prepared his own backpack; he liked to dress well. He took a selfie with his new haircut, and promised his sister a camera when they got to Germany. He had no friends in Libya to say goodbye to.
His mother, Fatma, stuffed another backpack, keeping her jewelry well protected. When the time came, the smuggler sent a car to get them.
“The enemy is behind you, and the sea is in front of you. Where is the escape?” asked Rashid. “The sea is the escape.”
Leila was another Syrian who fled to Libya, only to find herself trapped there.
She joined her husband, a chef, in Tripoli in 2013, but then the country’s capital descended into open war. Leila’s husband and his two children left for Germany. Her husband’s daughter, Mirna, is almost 16, and it was no longer safe for her in Libya.
Leila was afraid of the sea, so she planned to eventually join them through a reunification program. But her husband’s residency papers in Germany were delayed and her Syrian passport expired.
With no other options, Leila called the same Libyan smuggler her husband had used. She paid $450, a hefty sum for a single traveler from Tripoli. She sold her car, quit her job in a medical supplies company and sat at home for a few weeks waiting. To prepare, she took anti-sea sickness pills.
On May 2, she shipped her clothes to her husband in Mannheim, in Germany. “For $100, imagine!”
On May 24, the smuggler told Leila her journey would begin that evening. She fasted to ask for God’s blessing. Just after sundown, the smuggler picked her up from his girlfriend’s house.
It was her chance to escape once again.
“I was dying,” said Leila, a determined 29-year-old with a lively giggle. “Not physically. I was dying bit by bit inside … We died a hundred deaths every day, like the saying goes.”
Just after midnight, hundreds of migrants crammed into a warehouse with metal gates, where each smuggler had brought his clients for the scheduled journey. Leila was shocked by the number of single, mostly African men. The Jaqalis had also thought — wrongly — that the group would be small and mostly of Syrians.
Leila asked for a life jacket, thinking it could give her an hour more to live if they sank. The smuggler promised one but never delivered it.
After making sure the coast was clear of any security, the smugglers took the migrants to the beach. There they shoved 60 or 70 people at a time into a small inflatable boat meant for 20, and headed toward a larger fishing boat moored a few kilometers offshore.
“I prayed to God before I got on board,” Leila said. “I said, God, make it easy, or if I die, make it fast.”
People were lifted up into the fishing boat. The Africans were housed in the bottom, near the engine, with no windows and access to above only through a well-guarded ladder. Young men and women went in the upper deck, some under an umbrella-like tarp, and in the middle deck, with metal bars surrounding it. The few families on board sat in front.
Despite protests from the passengers, the smugglers continued to fill the boat until it was overloaded. When one woman complained, a smuggler told her, “May you all die.”
The Jaqalis couldn’t sit together. Mohammed sat on one side near Leila, and 15-year-old Yehia on the other. Rashid could see the children and gestured occasionally, but no movement was allowed. On the uppermost level, designated organizers smacked anyone who stood, out of fear of tipping the boat.
It was calm in front. But where Leila squatted, the swings were so extreme that at times her back almost touched the water. She read the Quran in silence in the middle of a North African crowd — she had vowed to read a short verse 1,000 times. She ended up reading it nearly 2,000 times.
She could hardly breathe from the hash smoked by the young men around her, and their curses disturbed her. Every five minutes, she looked at her watch.
“You are in the middle of the sea, you don’t know anything, you don’t know if you will make it or not,” she said. “You feel like time is not moving.”
Six hours later, at 10 a.m., the engine finally stopped. The boat driver announced that help from the Italians would arrive in 40 minutes.
Leila saw a small inflatable boat appear in the horizon, ahead of a larger military rescue vessel.
“We were alive,” she said. “Everyone was alive. We got through the hard part.”
But the worst was still to come. The Italian rescuers threw life vests in the water, and the young men on board swarmed to the same spot to grab them and get off. The commotion started the boat rocking.
“We would say, calm down, kids. You will all get one,” Rashid Jaqali said. “No one waited … Instead of rescue, there was death with those vests.”
The rescue workers first saved the women, the children and the families. They spotted Leila among the young men, possibly because of her green headscarf, and carried her into the inflatable.
At that moment, with all the tension lifted, she couldn’t speak. It was as if her memory had stopped.
“No language was registering,” she said. “There was no English. No Arabic, no language whatsoever. Nothing. Not a word.”
She finally pulled herself together and helped the rescue workers with translation, working side by side with the doctors in a sterilized white suit.
In the meantime, Rashid Jaqali was fighting to get his wife and daughter clear of the young men. Yehia slid along the metal bars in the middle of the boat to reach his parents, terrified. Rashid squeezed him between two women and pushed them up front for the rescuers.
Yehia pointed out Mohammed on the other side of the bow, squatting on the floor and holding the metal window next to him. When Rashid looked over, there were 20 people ahead of him.
Now migrants were climbing up from the engine level, making the boat rock even more. Rashid recited the Fatiha, the Quranic verse Muslims say when in trouble, as he stepped off the boat into the inflatable.
Fatma was one of the last women off the boat. As she left, she spotted Mohammed.
“He waved at me and said go, and they will come and get me. He said that with his hands,” she said in tears. “He wanted to save me. But my heart was burning, not saved.”
The boat was rocking wildly. When Rashid took one more look back, it had tilted over.
“What the hell? I didn’t see anyone any more, it was that upside down,” he said. “An Italian pushed me into the ship. I said to him, ‘My son! My son!'”
Five days later, the Jaqalis were still waiting to hear word about Mohammed.
“I am going nuts,” said Rashid, pulling on a cigarette, with black circles around his eyes and stubble on his face.
His wife held out pictures of her son.
“I dreamt of him,” she said. “He was smiling at me. Only his leg was injured. I saw him three times. He was alive.”
But Leila knew the young man seated near her on the boat must have died.
“We all know, and we are pretending,” she said.
On the sixth day, the news finally reached the Jaqalis: Mohammed was dead. Suzanne put flowers in the window sill to mark the loss of her brother. Fatma said her son hit his head and died on the spot.
“Didn’t I tell you I dreamt of him wounded? He was smiling at me from afar,” she said, sitting on her bed with glazed eyes. Minutes later, she asked if it was possible to erase her Libyan number from her phone. “I don’t want anything to do with Libya. I don’t want to remember it.”
A day later, Fatma was hospitalized. She passed out and had the shivers.
A week and a half later, the Jaqalis have yet to bury their son. Their plans are all but shattered. Fatma wants to stay close to her son’s body where his burial is likely to be, while Rashid is unsure what is best for the other children. Fatma watches video of the capsizing, trying to locate her son and imagine how he might have fallen. She mutters that he didn’t want to go to Germany, as if he knew he would not make it.
Leila is thankful that she was traveling alone, and not waiting for male relatives who might have ended up like Mohammed.
She is on her way to Germany to meet her husband. She leaves Siculiana fully made up, with new clothes and her marriage certificate in hand. She does not wear a veil, and her blonde hair flutters in the wind.
“I was saved through a miracle,” she said. “I feel like I am born again, right now … It would be impossible to witness something harder than this.”