789 Blood on the Water

A little while ago I shared a story (blog 780) that was designed to put our heads right ... to help us understand what it means when we hear about refugees.

This week an article in the  SMH, Good Weekend  provides a different angle on the same subject. We see on the news that another boat full of refugees has been intercepted. And - oh yes - a couple hundred more people have drowned at sea … this read will choke you.

Blood on the Water

Edited extract from 

A Hope More Powerful than the Sea

by Melissa Fleming (Fleet, $40)

In 2015, Doaa al-Zamel was a 19-year-old Syrian refugee, grinding out an existence in Egypt, when she became one of 500 people crammed aboard a dilapidated fishing boat on the Mediterranean Sea, bound for Europe. Like her fellow passengers - Syrians, Palestinians, Africans, Christians, Muslims - she dreamt of a new life, one free of violence. 

Her companion was her fiancé and fellow refugee Bassem, who had persuaded her to leave her family to make the perilous journey. 

But Doaa, who was afraid of deep water, had never learnt to swim …

Doaa and Bassem took up their places on the starboard side of the deck, wedging themselves between other passengers and settling in for the last leg of the journey. Feeling so close to their destination, people began to relax and the mood brightened a little bit. Relieved parents helped their children remove their life vests so they could be more comfortable and set them on the hard deck. The boat seemed to move faster than before over the calm sea, as passengers laughed and joked together. 

The sun shone bright overhead and, feeling the heat of the day, some people took refuge under plastic rice sacks that were tied together and rigged to provide shade. But Doaa remained in the sun, relishing the feeling of warmth on her face. "Nineteen more hours," she told herself, "and all of this will be over. Bassem and I will be in Europe, on our way to a new life together." The time they'd spent in jail in Egypt, the miserable hours in the backs of trucks and on crowded buses, the exhausting runs through the desert, would all be worth it. She squeezed Bassem's hand and leant her head on his shoulder. He gave her a confident smile and whispered, "We're going to make it, Doaa."

Doaa allowed herself to close her eyes and drift asleep. She'd only been napping a few minutes when the sounds of an engine and men shouting insults in an Egyptian dialect startled her out of sleep. She and Bassem stood up to locate the source of the conflict, grasping the side of the boat and leaning over the railing to see a blue fishing boat approaching at full speed. A double-decker, it was a bigger and newer model than the boat they were on. Doaa could see about 10 men on board, dressed in ordinary clothes, not the all-black outfits of the smugglers. Some wore baseball caps to obscure their identities. "You dogs!" they shouted. "Sons of bitches! Stop the boat! Where do you think you are going? You should have stayed to die in your own country." 

Suddenly they began hurling planks of wood at the passengers on the refugee boat, their eyes wild with hatred. The boat sped up and veered away for a moment, but then turned back toward Doaa's ship. She stared in horror as it sped toward them on a collision course at the spot where she and Bassem stood. She froze. "Doaa, Doaa, put on your life vest!" Bassem's frantic voice screamed, shaking her from her paralysis.

They are going to kill us!" All around them, passengers panicked, scrambling for life jackets, as desperate prayers were interrupted by terrified shouts and children crying. The boat approaching them accelerated.

Doaa had just reached for her vest when the boat rammed into the side of the ship with a shriek of metal and shattering wood just below where she and Bassem were standing. The impact was so sharp and sudden that it felt like a missile strike. Doaa stumbled forward, almost falling over the railing, but Bassem's arms shot out and grabbed her. She realised that the boat was beginning to turn on its side. Oh, God, Doaa thought. Not the water. Not drowning. "Listen to me, Doaa," Bassem said. "Keep hold of my hand. Don't let go and we will make it. I promise I won't let you drown."

Doaa could hear men on the attacking boat laughing as they hurled more wood at Doaa's boat. Their laughter was the most horrifying sound she'd ever heard. Seconds later, the attacking boat sped toward them again and Doaa understood that they had every intention of killing every man, woman and child on board. This time, when they rammed the side of the boat, the rickety vessel took a sudden, violent nosedive into the sea.

As it plunged downward, her fingers slipped open and she slid into the sea, immediately sinking below the surface. Doaa found herself under the plastic rice sacks the passengers had tied together for shade on the boat. She frantically moved her arms, attempting to reach the surface, only to see that she was trapped, along with dozens of other people, underneath the sacks.

She remembered the time her cousin had thrown her into the lake and she had breathed in heavy, choking water. This time there was no one to pull her out, nothing but cold, salt water and the pressure growing in her chest and behind her eyes as she struggled to catch her breath. Then she saw a glimmer of sunlight and noticed a tear in the plastic. She stretched her hands into the opening, feeling as if they were moving in slow motion, and pulled herself through the small hole and above water.

Doaa realised the rice sacks were still attached to the boat, and if she crawled over them, she could reach the stern – the only part still floating – and grab on to the edge of the boat. Reaching the boat's edge, she caught her breath in huge gulps, then turned to look below her. The people under the plastic had stopped moving

She heard screaming all around her and turned her head towards the sea, where she saw scattered groups of people calling out the names of their loved ones and crying for God's help. People desperately grabbed on to anything that floated. Doaa noticed that the sea around her was coloured red and realised that people were being sucked into the boat's propeller and dismembered by its blades. Body parts floated all around her. It was worse than anything she'd ever seen during the war in her Syrian home town of Daraa. She watched in horror as one moment a child was crying and struggling to hold on to the boat, then the next he lost his grip and slipped into the blades, his small body cut to pieces. There was nothing but blood and screams.

"Doaa! Doaa! Look at me!" Doaa turned her head toward the sound of his voice and spotted him in the sea. She wanted to go to him, but couldn't bring herself to jump into the water. Yet the boat was sinking at an angle that was drawing her toward the spinning propeller. "Let go, or it will cut you up, too!" Bassem cried out. He tried to swim to her, but the waves carried him away.

She closed her eyes and opened her hands, falling backward, arms and legs spread as she hit the water's surface. She was buoyant for a few seconds on her back, then felt someone pulling at her headscarf, which slipped off her head and into the sea. Then she spotted Bassem swimming towards her holding a blue floating ring. "Put this over your head so you can float," he said as he passed the partially inflated ring over her shoulders. Scared that someone might try to grab her legs, she pulled herself on top of the ring, her legs and arms dangling over the sides.

The sun was starting to set over the horizon. Bassem trod water beside Doaa, holding on to her plastic ring. He spotted a man he recognised with a small bottle of water and begged him to give Doaa a sip. She swallowed a tiny amount, then immediately threw up all the seawater she had ingested. Getting all the salt water out of her system helped her feel more alert.

Nearby, they heard the anguished cries of Shoukri al-Assoulli, a Palestinian man they had met on the boat. He was floating on a plastic bag full of empty water bottles and calling out, over and over, the names of his wife and children: "Hiyam! Ritaj! Yaman!" He moved up to other survivors asking, "Did you see them? My wife, my kids?"

Darkness slowly descended on the survivors floating in the water, and the sea turned black and choppy. Doaa shivered as her cold, wet clothes clung to her. Bassem clung to Doaa's water ring, and Doaa gripped his arm, terrified that he would float away. She began to recite verses of the Koran out loud, and soon others around her chimed in. She felt comforted for a brief moment in this circle. The moon and the stars were their only light, illuminating the living and the dead.

Approximately 100 people had initially survived the shipwreck, but as the night wore on, more people would die from cold, exhaustion and despair. Some who had lost their families gave up, taking off their life jackets and allowing themselves to sink into the sea. Doaa heard desperate shouts as fellow passengers attempted to give hope to one young man who had removed his life jacket. "Don't do it," the other survivors pleaded. "Please don't give up." But the young man pushed the life jacket away and sank head down into the sea. He was so close to Doaa she could almost touch him.

Bassem took off his jeans so they wouldn't weigh him down, but he was losing strength. They had been in the sea for 12 hours. "I'm sorry, Doaa. I'm so sorry," he kept apologising. He was devastated that he had insisted they travel by sea when it terrified her so much. "It's my fault this happened."

"We made this choice together," she told him firmly. His teeth were chattering and his lips had turned blue. Tears slipped down her cheeks as she saw how weak he was, but she kept her voice steady. "We're going to make it, Bassem," she said, echoing the words he had used to comfort her in the boat.

When the sun rose the next day, Doaa saw that the night had taken at least half of the survivors. Corpses were floating all around her, blue and bloated, their hands clutched to their chests as if they were cold. Some of the remaining survivors who had made it through the night without life jackets desperately resorted to hanging on to the corpses to keep afloat.

An older man was swimming towards them, clutching a small baby on his shoulder. He held on to a water canister with his other hand, kicking his legs hard to get closer to them. When he reached them, he looked at Doaa with pleading eyes and said, "I'm exhausted. Could you please hold on to Malak for a while?" 

The baby – whose name meant "angel" – was wearing pink pyjamas, had two small teeth and was crying. The man explained that he was her grandfather. He was a fisherman from Gaza, and they'd left to escape the latest Israeli bombardment. Some 27 members of their family had been on the boat, and all the others had drowned. "We are the only two who survived. Please keep this girl with you," he begged. "She is only nine months old. Look after her. Consider her part of you. My life is over."

Doaa reached for Malak and settled her on her chest, resting the baby's cheek on the Koran that lay next to her heart. At her touch Malak relaxed and stopped crying. Malak's grandfather touched the baby's face. "My little angel, what did you do to deserve this? Goodbye, little one, forgive me, I am going to die." He swam away. Later, they saw him floating face down in the sea just metres away

Malak was shivering. Her lips were blue and cracked. Doaa dipped her finger in the sea and gently wet them. She thought that her own spit would be better to use, so the child wouldn't lick the salt, but there was no moisture to gather from her mouth. She had heard somewhere that rubbing a person's veins along the wrists keeps the person warm, so she tried that and began to sing songs that her mother had sung to her as a baby.

Bassem was also getting lulled to sleep by Doaa's singing and she knew that she had to keep him awake or he might just slip away from her. Doaa clapped her hands at the sides of his head to rouse him. "I'm scared, Bassem," she told him, leaning close to his ear. "Please don't leave me alone here in the middle of the sea! Hang on just a little longer."

She noticed his face was turning from yellow to blue. He started to speak: "Allah, give Doaa my spirit so that she may live."

"Don't say that, Bassem," Doaa pleaded. "We will be together with God." But she knew he was losing consciousness and trying to say goodbye. She understood that she had to give him one last gift and, through her tears, she managed to utter a promise: "I chose the same road you chose and in the hereafter we will be together as well." Doaa gripped Bassem's fingers with her right hand while her left arm braced Malak. After some time, she felt his hands slip from her grasp and she watched him go limp and slide into the water. He began floating away from her, so Doaa desperately tried extending her arm to pull him back toward her, but he was beyond her reach. She couldn't get out of the inflatable ring without losing hold of Malak. "Bassem," she cried, "for God's sake, don't go! I can't live without you."

She imagined letting herself slip through the inflatable ring and into the sea with Bassem. But then she felt Malak's tiny arms around her neck and realised that she alone was responsible for this child. Bassem floated face down in the sea, then slowly began to sink beneath it. The last Doaa saw of him was his thick black hair rising up as the dark water engulfed his head.

It was now a Thursday afternoon. "I have been in this hell for two full days," Doaa thought. She noted that only about 25 passengers now survived. Malak was sleeping most of the time, but whenever she woke, she would cry. Doaa knew that even though Malak couldn't talk, she was desperate for water.

Among the other survivors was a family she had met on the boat with two small girls, Sandra and Masa. They were all wearing life jackets, which were keeping them above water, but the older girl, Sandra, was having convulsions. Her father was holding her, speaking in a low voice through his sobs. Sandra's mother, a determined look on her face, swam toward Doaa, holding the smaller girl, Masa, in both hands. She grabbed onto the side of Doaa's float and looked directly into her eyes. "Please save our baby. I won't survive."

Without hesitation, Doaa reached for Masa and placed her on her left side, just below Malak, who now had her head nestled under Doaa's chin. With Masa's tiny body stretched across her stomach, Doaa wondered how her small ring would keep them afloat. A loud wail pulled Doaa away from her thoughts. Sandra was dead and her parents were weeping beside her floating body. Doaa held her arm tightly around Masa and tried to comfort the grieving woman with some soothing words. But, just minutes later, her husband's body went slack; he had given up. "Imad!" she cried. Then, suddenly, she, too, was silent.

As night fell, the sea turned black and was shrouded in heavy fog. The girls began to shift restlessly and cry and Doaa did her best to calm them. She was afraid to move her aching arms in case she lost her grip on them. Their weight on her chest almost stopped her breathing and suppressed her constant urge to cough. She longed for water. Earlier that morning, someone had given them a bit of rich tahini halva candy found floating in the water. "The babies should have it," the stranger had said, handing it over. Doaa had broken off tiny chunks and pushed them into their open mouths. The sweet taste seemed to calm the girls. She'd saved a bit for herself, but it had only made her thirstier. Water had become an obsession for the survivors. Men urinated in empty plastic bottles and drank the liquid to stay alive.

That night, Doaa was exhausted but too afraid to sleep for fear that the babies might fall from her arms. She counted the corpses floating around her: seven. At least they were face down, their shirtless backs bloated and blue-black, the colour of whales. The stench was unbearable. A man named Momen helped her move some of them away. He was one of the only remaining survivors and now stuck close to Doaa.

Momen gave her strength with his words of encouragement. "You are selfless, Doaa. I've been watching how you are supporting the others. I want to keep you safe. If we survive, I'd like to marry you."

Somehow, Doaa didn't find his words forward or strange: it was his way of keeping going, something to perhaps look forward to if they ever made it out of the water alive. "Dear God," she heard him say, "everyone is dying around us. I saw my son die, and my wife. Why did they sink us? No one is coming to save us!"

They'll come for us, inshallah, Momen," Doaa told him softly. "Be strong. Pray so hope is still inside you." With renewed determination, she thought about how she wouldn't fail Malak and Masa. When the girls started to stir and become agitated, she would sing to them her favourite nursery rhyme. She invented games with her fingers to distract them. She discovered that Malak was ticklish under her chin and would laugh when she played a game in which she would use her fingers to pretend a mouse was running up Malak's chest and onto her neck. 

When the girls fell asleep, Doaa would rub their bodies to keep them warm, and when she thought that they might be losing consciousness, she would snap her fingers near their eyes and speak firmly: "Malak, Masa, wake up!" The only word Masa said back to her was "Mama".

In the moments when she wasn't comforting the girls, Doaa would recite the Koran and many of the remaining survivors would gather around her to listen and pray. Some of them also knew the words of the Ayat Al Kursi, a prayer she used to recite before bed and knew by heart. Their voices soothed the babies and reciting the verses gave Doaa a sense of strength that she felt came directly from God. She clung to hope that someone would come to rescue them all soon.

On Friday, their fourth morning in the ocean, Doaa noticed that Malak and Masa were sleeping almost all the time and were barely moving. She constantly checked their pulses to make sure they were alive.

Momen became a kind of bodyguard for the trio; protecting them gave him a sense of purpose. No other women were left among the living. The other men seeking comfort from Doaa formed a circle around them, some trying to lean on her ring for a rest. Momen would try to shoo them away, warning them, "She's carrying these kids! She could lose her balance." He didn't have a life jacket and Doaa could see, by late afternoon, that he was beginning to lose strength. "Don't you leave me, too!" she cried, not knowing what she would do without his help and comfort.

Momen was floating on his back with his eyes closed when suddenly his body went still, then flipped forward, his face submerging in the sea. Doaa was now completely alone except for the two children whose lives depended on her.

In anguish, she looked up at the sky again for any sign of a plane, but instead she only saw a small grey and black bird. It flew toward her and circled over her head, then glided away. The bird came back three times and each time it seemed to look straight at her. Could this mean land is near, Doaa wondered. She hadn't seen a single bird in four days, not even a seagull. "This bird must be a sign from God," Doaa thought. "Maybe someone will save us."