It’s a hot afternoon in the Italian city of Milan. 20 year old Merhawit looks haggard yet restless. Her voice is hoarse, and she looks like she hasn’t had a proper meal in weeks, which is probably the case. She has only been in Italy for six days, after being rescued at sea by the Italian coast guards. In about two hours she plans to be on a train bound for Switzerland, where she will be reunited with her brother. It will possibly be the last leg of a harrowing, regret-filled journey, which she thought she would never survive.
Merhawit left Eritrea by crossing the Ethiopian border and was registered at one of the UNHCR refugee camps. Like many others hoping to reach Europe, she departed within a week and headed for Sudan. Unfortunately after crossing the Sudanese border, she was arrested and taken to Shagarab refugee camp. After four days in the camp, she departed with 60 other refugees with the aim of getting to Khartoum.
The journey to Khartoum saw Merhawit narrowly escape a kidnapping attempt by members of the Bedouin Rashaida tribe, who she later learned had kidnapped and extorted about 30 of the refugees she had been traveling with.
Listen to Merhawit’s account of her journey through Ethiopia and Sudan.
After a month in Khartoum, Merhawit, together with friends, got in touch with smugglers. “I met the smugglers in Sudan. There are many of them in Khartoum and my friends have contact with them,” she says. “If a person gathers up to 10 individuals and contacts the smuggler, then one person can travel free of charge.”
Despite several warnings about the dangers of the journey, Merhawit decided to take her chances, hoping she would be as successful as her friends who had made it to Europe.
“I heard a lot of stories about this trip from my friends in Europe,” she says. “When we heard that our friends had made it, we got encouraged.”
“I was informed of the precautions we should take as a women, like getting an injection to prevent pregnancy,” she adds.
Once in Libya, together with other refugees and migrants, she was held captive for three months by traffickers who extorted and beat them. During the last month, her abdomen began to swell, leaving her writhing in pain. She only obtained medical assistance once she was rescued at sea.
“I was sleeping in a mattress full of lice and dirt,” she says. “I was infected from the harsh travel conditions and my stomach was swollen. I thought I would die.”
Listen to Merhawit recount her journey through Libya, and her final rescue at sea.