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  • Writer's pictureYing-Yu, Chen (Alicia)

Meet Ezana

(Sliema, Malta, 2017)

Recorded: 2 August 2018

Published: 20 June 2021

Meet Ezana. 37 years old and from Eritrea. He was born in a semi-desert area close to the Red Sea and at a time when his country did not exist. His name has been changed to protect his identity. To reach Malta he crossed three countries, Eritrea, Sudan, and Libya. His journey took three years, including one year in Eritrean prison and one year in a refugee camp in Sudan. He escaped prison in Eritrea on the evening of 15 February 2011, passing rivers, valleys, and broken roads to reach a small town. Then he arrived in another village Omahajer, located at the Sudan-Ethiopia border. Together with around 15 other people fleeing, he took a bus to the Shagarab refugee camp and stayed in a compound that housed thousands of other people. For his first few days there, he received food only once. He had little water to drink, and there was no clinic with needed medical equipment. The shower rooms were run by other refugees in the camp, each had a toilet but there was no roof. It cost 50 cents to US$1 for each use. He waited for three months to obtain UNHCR refugee status, which limited his travel anywhere outside of Shagarab. He applied for resettlement to Switzerland with the hope of a family reunion with his cousin. “I stayed in the camp from 2012 to 8 May 2013 at 4:00p.m.,” he recalled the exact time. His hut was burned out, probably by smugglers. He lost everything, including his identification documents. In the meantime, the resettlement application was still pending. After suffering consistent police abuses and hostile attacks by the locals, he and three other friends decided to risk their lives to leave for Libya. The routes were now open in the country after the death of Ghaddafi, de facto leader of Libya from 1969 to 2011. Ezana crossed the Sahara desert, spending his first night at the outskirts of Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. He had been fasting during Easter but broke fast when the smugglers took him and the others to dinner. They ate mutton before continuing the trip. He still remembers the meal. “It’s like a BBQ, salty, spicy, juicy, on my goodness, it was very, very good. I can still remember the taste in my mouth.” said Ezana. The next morning, he squeezed into the back of a cargo truck with over 180 people, including tens of women and several children. They were so cramped, they couldn’t stand. He described the desert. “Dying trees, ugly rocks, wind with blowing dust,” he said, amidst an endless yellow horizon, “Nothing was alive.” They were stopped by the Libyan Army. They asked the passengers to leave the bus and beat them and shot at them with random gunfire. A teenager standing next to him was struck by a bullet in the chest and arms. “We wanted them to take us to Libya, but they were abusing us. It’s the nature of the smuggled journey,” said Ezana. There was scant water to drink and almost no food to eat. Every day the people were becoming weaker from lack of food and water, and finally the trafficker stopped the bus and called his colleague to bring provisions to the next stop. “I ate a slice of cheese. That’s the best food I have ever eaten,” said Ezana, straining to hold back his emotions as he remembered this moment of starvation. Most of the people on board his truck survived the crossing and arrived in Libya after eight days.

“We were taking a shower after 11 days in the desert...

In an unknown city in Libya, he was held in a compound for one night. In the early morning, the Libyan military came with a truck, beat them, and then gave them bananas and tomatoes to eat, before traveling to the Southeastern city of Ajdabiya. While he stopped briefly in Ajdabiya, the smuggler who had given him the mutton dinner on the outskirts of Khartoum called a friend who took them to a shower. “We were taking a shower after 11 days in the desert,” he was relieved, but the journey was only halfway through. Traveling to Benghazi and then all the way to Tripoli was perilous. There were about seven others with him squeezed into a four-seat car; three in the back and three in the trunk. He was lucky to sit in the front cabin, crossing over 600 kilometers to Benghazi. As soon as they arrived in Benghazi, a drug addict brought him and the others to a room with about 10 to 15 others. They were beaten while being told to be silent. They were forced to pay an amount that came out to be about US$100 for food – some bread, orange juice, a few tomatoes, potatoes and onions – and were asked for another US$650 dollars to complete the trip to Tripoli. His transfer to Tripoli, which was 1,000 kilometers away, took place on a military bus. Once, they stopped at a checkpoint and one man had to go to the bathroom so badly, he urinated right in his seat. “We couldn’t move. It was horrible,” he said. He was brought to a coastal camp after his two-week journey fleeing Sudan. Staying in a warehouse, he was not allowed to leave, nor was he able to even speak at a high volume. He started to lose his sense of direction. He was disoriented. They had to wait in the warehouse until their boat could leave. One smuggler among them said, “if you can just pay me now, we can prioritize you to leave.” But he hesitated to travel due to the tough weather. He waited for a month for calmer seas. On the night of 1 July 2013, the smuggler brought him to the shore. Ezana crossed the Mediterranean Sea in a wooden boat with about 300 people. After sailing at sea for three days, the engine stopped working. They were under the intense sun for 15-18 hours in Maltese waters. The boat slowly began to sink. The Maltese government negotiated with other EU member states during this time, pressuring them to share the reception of the people on the boat. “We’re waiting, the boat kept sinking. July 1, 2, and 3 we were at sea.” On July 4 Ezana was rescued by a Maltese ship that took eight hours to retrieve all the people on board. Everyone survived. Ezana landed in Malta on 4 July 2013.

Ezana is an amazing human being.

Originally published on

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