‘They rescued me from the dead, but I wish I had died with my wife’
Parched and sunburnt after seven days at sea on board a rubber dinghy, a group of about 75 African migrants summoned their last ounce of energy to shout for help as a merchant vessel sailed past.
The small reserves of water and food had finished after two days, so when the MV Victoria 6 stopped and the crew started throwing down bottles of water there was a rush causing the boat to list.
“That was when my husband fell into the sea. Somebody threw him a jerrycan to help him stay afloat. I was screaming for help but nobody helped him,” Bridget Ezukuse told The Sunday Times, recounting how she lost Celestine, her 32-year-old husband and father of her unborn child.
“He was weak after five days of no food or drink and the waves eventually carried him away,” she said sobbing helplessly.
Ms Ezukuse, a 25-year-old orphan from Nigeria, is one of 68 immigrants rescued in the early hours of Thursday some 70 nautical miles off Malta from a dinghy that had left from Libya a week earlier.
According to official police figures, six immigrants were lost on this treacherous journey – two died before help arrived, another two fell into the sea, while two more died before they could reach land. However, Ms Ezukuse is insisting that five immigrants – four men, including her husband, and a young woman – were lost in the rough seas, not two.
Police Sgt Major Charles Galea, who manages Lyster Barracks in Ħal Far, said among the four dead brought ashore was a 14-year-old boy, whose 16-year-old brother had to identify him at the mortuary yesterday.
Sitting on a bench at the detention centre, Ms Ezukuse’s vacant eyes well with tears and she rocks herself gently as she recounts what happened.
The couple married in Nigeria three years ago and with barely any food they set their sights on the European dream, leaving behind their country and poverty for Libya two months ago.
The couple had a two-year-old son, but they felt it was too dangerous for him to make the trip so they left him with Celestine’s mother in the hope of being reunited with him once they settled in Europe. In Libya, where unrest persists despite the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, the two never felt welcome – “we were constantly told ‘we don’t need blacks here’” – and although they tried to integrate they were treated badly. That was when they decided to cross over to Europe.
“They told us it would take just one day to get to Italy. They gave us a little water and some biscuits... everything finished after two days. We were all hungry and thirsty and some were sucking their blood to survive; they were like vampires,” she said.
Two people had already died on board before they were rescued and she feared if they had spent any more time at sea they would have all perished.
The MV Victoria 6 towed the dinghy towards Malta but it broke loose along the way. It was recovered by the Armed Forces of Malta and the immigrants were brought ashore in two batches on Thursday. Over the past two days, Ms Ezukuse has been living in a daze.
“I’m scared, so scared. My husband told me we’ll be together but now he’s gone. I’m all alone now. If I was deported with my husband I wouldn’t mind because at least we’ll be together, but now I have nowhere to go and nowhere to stay,” she said, burying her sunburnt face in her hands.
Sensitive to her ordeal, Sgt Major Galea immediately stepped in and reassured her she would receive all the help to secure her welfare and that of her unborn child.
He explained that vulnerable cases were dealt with swiftly and not kept in the detention centre for long thanks to the coordinated efforts of the Refugee Commission, the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers (AWAS), the police and the army.
“These people are not prisoners and we do our utmost to ensure we give them their dignity,” Sgt Major Galea said, as he comforted Ms Ezukuse and led her back to her room.
Ms Ezukuse does not know how much her husband paid for the trip, but Iyahen Sunday, who was on the same dinghy, said he handed over $1,600 (€1,297) for himself and his wife.
Mr Sunday’s story is tragically similar to that of Ms Ezukuse as his 22-year-old wife died just when the group was finally rescued. After seven days out at sea and no land in sight his wife became increasingly frail.
“She was thirsty and I gave her water to drink from the sea,” he said, adding that when the “big ship” arrived they were too weak to help themselves to the water the crew were throwing down.
Instead, he stood aside, sheltering his wife from the mayhem and holding her tight. At one point she fainted and he was assured a doctor was on the way. When she came round she started talking to him and Mr Sunday started to carry her over his shoulders from the dinghy to the patrol boat.
“When I put her down she had stopped breathing. I don’t have anybody else in this whole world, I don’t know where to start,” he said, tapping his head as if to shake away the pain.
“They rescued me from the dead, but I wish I died with my wife.”