This is the second installment of Fictionalizing the News, a writing exercise I set for myself where I write a short story based on an article in the news. Please be aware as you read this, that though it is based on an actual event, I am not attempting to describe reality or tell the truth in any way, it is just a story that I made up. The characters in this story may have names that correspond to those of real people, but they are entirely fictional. I call this story Death on the Mediterranean and it is based on this article.
It was a warm sunny day, not a cloud in the clear blue sky and sea an inviting turquoise, the light glinting off the tops of the waves. Under normal circumstances it would be perfect for a day at the beach, normal circumstances however, had gone out the window five years ago.
It all started with what the foreign media dubbed The Arab Spring; the Tunisians overthrowing president Ben Ali in little over a month, and the chain reaction that spread through much of the Arab world. When the protests started in Daraa later that spring, Amena felt hopeful and eagerly followed events on Twitter and Instagram. When the protests reached Damascus, where she and her family were living, her two brothers had joined the protests and had urged her to do the same but she didn’t dare to; she had heard what happened to some of the female protesters on the Tahrir Square and was afraid the same thing might happen to her. A few days later, on March 16, the police arrested a large number of protesters and in the tumult her younger brother Houman was killed.
He was her favorite, they were only a year apart and they had played a lot together when they were young. His death made her feel like someone had reached into her chest and ripped her heart clean out. She wished she had been at the protest that day so she could have been killed in his stead or at the very least have been at his side when he died. After her brother’s death, Amena had started going to the protests to honor her brother’s memory and continue his fight. As things became more and more violent she was forced to back out and eventually even her older brother, big brave Fathi, stopped going. None of them were afraid of death or imprisonment but they both knew how hard their mother had taken it when Houman died, and didn’t want to risk putting her through more grief.
As the civil war broke out that winter, Amena was back to closely following the news, both in international media and on Twitter. She may have been watching from the sidelines but she remained hopeful as the Free Syrian Army slowly but surely gained ground.
Life was never easy in a country at war with itself, depending on how the fighting was going Amena and her family sometimes had it tough, sometimes had it better, but unlike so many others of their countrymen they never considered leaving their home. It wasn’t until 2014, when Daesh showed up on the scene and started seizing control of parts of the country that things got really bad. Of course, there had been various Islamist groups all along but they were never as prominent as the men of the black flag.
Amenas family tried their best to survive under the double threat of the Assad government on one side and Daesh on the other. By this time it was becoming difficult to communicate but they still managed to get reports now and then; they read about the refugee camps in neighboring countries; they read about the people drowning on the Mediterranean and saw the videos of refugees being attacked in eastern Europe and they despaired. Going would mean a huge risk but so did staying as Daesh came ever closer to Damascus. After much discussion it was decided that Amena should go because she was the only one in the family who knew any English, once she had reached Europe, she could get permission for the rest of the family to come legally.
Though they were not poor the journey to Europe, even just for one person, would cost a lot and it took the family a long time to save and borrow enough. By the time Amena set off, Europe had closed her boarders and the deal between Turkey and the EU meant the safest route was impassable. Instead she would have to take the longer and far more dangerous trip via Libya.
Early one morning in late April she hugged her parents and siblings goodbye, knowing it would be the last time in a long while, then set off. A driver picked her up together with two others and brought them to the border with Jordan. They had to cross the border on foot and on the other side they met up with several more refugees. They were all loaded into a minibus that took them south to the small port town Aqaba where a Ferry brought them to Nuweibaa in Egypt. So far the trip had gone relatively easily but once in Egypt things got a lot harder. They drove for three days and nights on bumpy desert roads under the scorching sun and cold of the desert night, stopping only few times to refuel or go to the bathroom. There was barely enough food and water to last the entire trip, and none of them got much sleep sitting on the worn car seats. They were stopped for passport checks several time in Libya by both the Libyan Government and by the Islamists of the GNC but eventually, almost a week after leaving Damascus, they arrived at a small port town on the outskirts of Tripoli.
Here they were ushered into some small sheds just by the docks where they would wait for the boat that would take them to Europe. The sheds were very simple, the walls and roofs made from corrugated iron and only a few naked bulbs for light. When Amena arrived there were only a few others there but as the days passed the sheds filled up with people. It was hot, crowded and smelly but the smugglers forced them to stay inside for fear of being discovered.
She stayed cooped up in that shed for several weeks and she started to think she would never get to Europe, then finally, the smugglers came and told them they would be leaving the following day. It was the dead of the night when they boarded the ships, several hundred people filling up two old fishing boats. Amena ended up in the second boat which, as it turned out, didn’t have an engine, instead it was being towed by the first boat. In the pre-dawn hours of May 28 the two overfilled ships set out towards Lampedusa, lying low in water from the heavy load.
Several hours after setting out she was standing there, pressed by other people on all sides, looking out over that endless turquoise ocean and blue sky. The sun was beating down on the refuges as the ships chugged along slowly, her clothes were drenched with sweat and here legs were cramping up from standing in the same position for hours. She looked towards the boat in front of them and noticed that the swell behind it was smaller than before, and she could see some men, she assumed it was the smugglers, moving around on deck. Some of the other passengers had also noticed the same thing and she asked the man beside her what was going on. He couldn’t really tell but it seemed to him that they were slowing down. Amena felt concerned, why would they slow down now, land was nowhere in sight.
Minutes later she heard a woman scream somewhere to the front and left of her. She wondered what it was but then she noticed it too, her feet were getting wet. She looked down and saw that a puddle was forming on the deck. Other people had noticed too and panic started to spread, but someone found a bucket and started bailing. Others followed their example and started bailing with whatever tools they could find. It was hard work, especially in such a cramped space, but they were determined to stay afloat. They bailed for hours and hours, new people taking over the buckets as soon as someone got tired but the water was seeping in too quickly, their boat was sinking. Amena tried to keep her hopes up, telling herself the coast guard would reach them in time, but as time went on without another ship in sight, that hope faded.
The water got deeper all the time and after six hours of bailing it was closes to waist deep and the ship was sinking faster. She looked forward towards the first boat and saw commotion on the deck. The captain of that ship was shouting something to one of his men, she couldn’t hear what, and she saw the man grab an axe and run to the stern. He raised the ax high over his head and brought it down on the taut tow cable. It snapped with a loud cracking sound, and she saw with horror as it whipped back, hitting a woman standing in the bow of the boat. The woman staggered backward, blood spurting from a gash in her neck, then fell down disappearing from view in the crowd. Moments later one of the men bailing shouted “We’re going down, everybody get out”. The call was taken up by others which launched a wave of panic across the deck. People started pushing towards the gunwales, throwing themselves in the water.
Amena made her way to the edge, hesitated for a moment then jumped in. She knew how to swim but her drenched clothes clung heavily to her body, hindering her movements. She fought to keep her head above water for as long as she could but was relentlessly dragged down by her heavy clothing. The last thing she saw before she went under was a ship appearing over the horizon.