Alem had been tossing and turning for the past few hours. He hadn’t slept much since he arrived in Libya four weeks before, his mind constantly alert for the roving militias or police targeting migrants like him, his thoughts bent forward to the journey that still laid out ahead of him and the questions he couldn’t help but mull over. Would he need more money? Would he make it across that waiting stretch of sea? Could he get beyond Italy’s shores to Germany or Sweden, and complete that final trip, skirting from the life he knew to the one he hoped to build?
In some ways he hadn’t slept since fleeing his home of Eritrea four years before, his days blurred into a nightmarish sequence of a life lived on the margins. Rootless without a home or family, community or country, he had found himself alone each night with unanswerable questions of the future and known fears of the past, tossing in his bed as he drifted through the empty expanse of an unrealized dream.
As he lay awake now, he listened to the soft, childlike breathes of the dozens of other men that slept beside him and let his mind drift back to Asmara, his home. He remembered the shiro his mother used to cook and the smell of the roasting coffee beans his father would sip in the evening. He stumbled through the memories of everything he had given up and the stability forsaken that fateful night four years before when he and a friend had decided to flee the lifetime of military service that stretched out in front of them, running from their army camp in the west of the country and striking off into a barren land without food, just two liters of water. They had set out towards Sudan and wandered for two days, lost in a sea of heat and sand, two lives pushing through the vast landscape of a choice whose gravity they barely understood.
Alem rearranged his belt as he lay now in the Tripoli compound, it’s bulk digging into his hip, and felt for the last $100 bill he had folded up and sewn into the seam of his pants. Along with a few useless Libyan Dinars, it was all that was left of the four years spent cleaning houses and working construction in Khartoum. God willing, Alem thought, it will be enough.
A vehicle pulled up outside the compound and Alem’s ears perked, his stomach clenched. The police? Some local militia? Thieves? Was there any difference these days?
The compound door swung open and a man walked in. “Let’s go”, he said in Arabic, “The boat’s ready. Quickly! Quickly!”
The room of migrants shook awake immediately and silently as if no one had been sleeping at all, like lives paused waiting for someone to press play. They must be quiet the man emphasized, and so they tiptoed and whispered out of the compound, stealing themselves from the compound’s metal door and into a 40-foot freight container that had rolled up on the back of an 18-wheeler outside. They continued to push in — 50, 100, 150, 160.
“Push back, push back!” they whispered, “Move! Move, oh please move. “
Their warm bodies clung and held onto each other amid the darkness, like prayers echoing into silence.
Please God, don’t let them leave me, Alem repeated over and over to himself.
When they were finally packed in, the smugglers stacked a decoy wall of soap at the end to mislead anyone who might stop them and make a quick check along the way. Hidden from view, the doors shut and a loud thud closed them in with the fate of their decisions. 160 lives tightly bound to some necessary faith the door would be opened at the port, that they would not be killed and dropped in the desert of that lawless land like so many before.
The truck began to rumble and jerk forward and Alem could feel his hands meet others in the air as bodies flailed out, grasping for something steady amid the vertiginous black.
After an hour the grumbling and swaying slowed, stopped, and the door swung open, letting sounds of the ocean drift inside. Quietly men outside pulled down the fake wall. Everything was dark except for a few stray light-posts standing stiffly, their bulbs peering dumbly into the night.
Filing out, Alem and the others found themselves at the water’s edge of some docking area. A wooden boat, old and rickety, floated nearby. A rope clung to the bow and wound down into some infinite darkness below the surface.
The truck suddenly started again and the Libyan men climbed in front. They had to go pick the rest of the group, the men said. They must all wait there, beside their boat — that boat, they said pointing to the old wooden one Alem had been looking at.
Within minutes Alem and the others were left under the black swathe of sky, the stars small and faint, glistening like needle points in some dark cloth thrown over their heads. The boat rocked beside them, their hope of salvation and some idea of the future, slowing nodding with the ebb of a tide they could not control. You will carry me forward Alem thought as he looked at the wooden vessel, Please treat us well.
The noise was faint at first — A distant whine like the motorbikes young boys would rev and race some Saturday nights back in Asmara. Heads turned and people scanned the distance.
A street running along a nearby building was soon lit up and lights and noise were quickly given form as trucks screamed around the corner.
Within seconds four pickups were on top of the group and men in ragged fatigues and mismatched uniforms jumped from the backs, all guns and gritted teeth. It happened quicker than Alem could understand, the uneasy contemplation of that still night sky instantly transformed into the terrifying certainty of it all going wrong.
He was thrust onto the back of one truck as others were shoved in underneath him and wedged beside, some crying, others beginning to plead.
The next seven days passed like a bad dream. The prison, a cold cement room, more closely resembled some partially constructed office than a holding cell. The men claimed to be Libyan police but there was little way to know. They wanted money and if Alem and the others could pay there would be no problem, they said. Just $1,000 each and they’d be free to go. Few have anything left, the last of a past life’s savings exhausted on the final boat trip they now may not make.
What little food there is consists simply of stale bread and water and the men with guns mix trips to give food with others to dole out beatings.
Few sleep as a frantic stress burrows into their stomachs, tightening the very sinew like purse strings. Everyone knows if the boat gets enough other passengers the smugglers will send it on and their chance for the future could fade. They will die there — No money, no way of getting out of that desert country even if they somehow escape the cement walls. Alem has little feeling amid his taught body, his tears long squeezed off.
Soon he and others realize they have no options but one, and so on the 8th night after the guard has fallen asleep in the building nearby, they break down the door. 80 lives in all sprint into the night, breath gulped greedily in short bursts as they speed into the darkness, fists pumping and swinging, clenched tightly around this fleeting hope.
Gunshots explode behind them. Voices of men yelling, others screaming, soon follow.
Alem keeps his eyes locked forward to the lights of Khums, a small coastal town three kilometers away. Don’t look back, don’t look back he repeats as he sprints through the sand.
Of the 80 who try, around 30 people make it to Khums. Sweaty and frantic they bargain with taxi drivers to take them back to Tripoli. Understanding what’s just happened the drivers hike their prices and Alem’s last Dinars and $100 bill quickly burn up in one last flash.
Four nights later after hiding in the same compound in Tripoli, Alem is standing back beside the same wooden boat as it rocks back and forth, acknowledging some fateful truth he still cannot interpret.
They have moved to a different launching point this time and the silence of the night remains unbroken.
Within the hour Alem and 303 others are in the boat pointed north into seemingly endless space.
304 men and women and children stuffed in between the edges of the rickety wood, rise and fall with the waves of the Mediterranean. 304 collective lives toss towards some end, carried by some undying hope and propelled by the dread of what lay behind, the ripples of those past lives flowing out with the wake.
To something different — Please, God let this lead to something different, Alem prays.
38 hours later a helicopter appears overhead, circles the boat slowly, and then is gone, like some momentary torrent of fear and brittle joy boomeranged in and out of their existence.
Hours later the relentless horizon spits out a small dot that steadily grows. It is the Italian navy, Alem knows. They had made it. They were saved. Grasping the side of the boat, Alem’s body quickly comes back to life, his stomach slackening, his shoulders relaxing. He feels hunger for the first time in weeks and realizes his mouth is dry with thirst.
A woman nearby begins to cry with relief as the Italian boat grows in size, the infinitesimal size of their lives amid the ocean of their sorrows and sacrifices finally given meaning.
The next three hours sweep past amid a jostling of bodies and languages and waves and steel and soon Alem is steadied on board — the powerful Italian boat lunging forward as it carries him and the others away.
Land becomes visible after a few hours, but it is small and isolated — a perch of dirt and rock stuck between Europe and Africa. It is an island.
Alem’s body tightens, coiling back into the taught, defensive state of the last four years. He is looking out towards Lampedusa, the Italian island detention center and waypoint for thousands of passing migrants. The tenuous foundation of his hopes all comes crumbling in.
There is no escaping Lampedusa. Alem had learned that much from friends who had made the journey before. “Pray you don’t land there,” they said. Once there he would be trapped — He would be shuttled into the reception, fingerprinted, and registered for asylum in Italy. Once registered he would be forever tied to the country’s hobbled economy and over-leveraged social service system.
If he had been brought to Sicily he would have had a chance to escape. There, his friends said, it’s possible to evade fingerprinting and make a run north. He would be just a few train and bus rides from Germany or Sweden, countries his friends insisted were better for asylum seekers.
Lampedusa, a stretch of soil marooned in the nothingness of that sea, was different and the lives that passed through it were destined for the same degree of isolation.
And so the tears for the life he had given up, the tears of the life he saw growing on the horizon, the tears from the beatings and days of thirst and hunger he had endured over the last four years all came pouring out. He could not escape. What was then was as it was now and what had been there would be here. He, Alem Asmeron Gebrelase was as he was and the world had kept spinning at its ferocious pace, the gravity of his life pinning him down to something his memory could neither forget nor his choices shake.
The boat docked and Alem soon stepped off, his feet moving slowly down the walkway and onto the island.
Alem had crossed the ocean without being able to swim. There was nothing to swim to now.