Sissoko, Paris, February 12, 2019 | Photo: InfoMigrants
Sissoko, Paris, February 12, 2019 | Photo: InfoMigrants

For two years, Sissoko, a 31-year-old Malian, has been trying to recover from his crossing of the Mediterranean. Of around 130 people who boarded the ship, 62 died, including all the children on board.

"It was November 2016. I had been in Libya for a few months and couldn’t do anything. I was wounded by a bullet in the hip when Libyans shot at me and fractured my bone. The head of the [migrant] shelter where I lived in Tripoli told me: "Your injury is serious, either you go back to Mali or you have to go to Europe for treatment. Otherwise it will end badly."

"I had never really thought about Europe. But I could not go back to Mali, and I could not stay there. So I decided to cross the sea to save my leg.

"The departure was the evening of November 24. Figuring it out was complicated. How would I get to the water’s edge? How would I get into the departing boats? My leg had to stay straight at all times. Three smugglers lifted me to put me in the boat. I felt my bone moving as they carried me. I screamed, I was in enormous pain. They told me to shut up, it was night, I couldn’t attract attention.

'There was nothing -- no shore, no coast, no boats'

"One hundred and thirty people boarded the same small boat as me. I was placed with the children in the middle of the boat so that my leg wouldn’t move too much. Then around midnight, they pushed the boat into the sea. One of the smugglers told us that in three hours there would be ships in sight to come and help us out of the water.

"We sailed for a long time in the black of night. At 7 am, when the sun rose high in the sky, we looked around us. There was nothing. No shore, no coast, no rescue boats.

"The person holding the compass didn’t know how to use it, we didn’t know where we were. The person who was steering the boat told us that the engine was no longer working.

"Then the trouble really started, when the boat started gradually deflating. The water began to seep into the boat. I could barely move because of my injury. A few hours went by and help still hadn’t arrived. The water was up to my waist. People started to get restless, then there was panic. A Beninese woman I didn’t know gave me her two-year-old baby. I think she believed that, as a man, I could protect him.

"The strongest men took the cans of gas and emptied them so they could be used as buoys if the boat sank completely. But when it spread throughout the boat, the gasoline burned a lot of people.

 [Note: Gasoline mixed with seawater causes a chemical reaction and burns the skin. Doctors on humanitarian ships often treat this type of chemical burn.]

'Bodies were floating around us'

"With the movement of the crowd, with the swell, people fell into the water. I don’t know how I didn’t drown ... I saw people struggling, screaming. My leg hurt so much. Then, after long minutes, I saw bodies floating around us. I thought we were all going to die. The water was going to engulf the boat completely before long.

"The survivors had white lips, they did not move. A woman asked me if the people who were floating around us were dead. She did not want to believe it. I ended up lifting a head out of the water so that she would calm down and stop moving the boat. I still had the child in my arms. I could not find his mother anymore.

"And then, all of a sudden we saw a plane in the sky. Then a few minutes later we saw a ship in the distance. The crowd started moving again.

"As they approached, the rescuers realized that they could not come all the way to us. The waves they would have made with their approaching boat would have engulfed the rest of the boat. They threw us ropes from far away so the survivors could hold on to them. Everyone was screaming, falling in the water. I put the little boy down on the canoe next to me for two seconds so I could grab the rope, attach it to myself and then wrap the boy in it with me. People panicked, they moved a lot. I turned around, the child was no longer there.

"Since that day, I haven’t been able to sleep. I wake up at night, I am told that I scream in my sleep.

"That November 24, all the children who were with us died in the sea. There were six of them, I believe. When the rescuers arrived, they were too late. Half of the people were dead.

"I was transported by helicopter from the rescue boat to a hospital in Sicily, in the province of Enna. The doctors were able to treat my hip and after several months of rehabilitation I was able to walk again.

In December, 2018, after two years in Italy, Sissoko arrived in France. Under "Dublin" status, he can’t apply for asylum for several months, he is likely to be returned to Italy. Every night he dials 115 to find lodging. He is waiting for his appointment at the hospital. After his operation in Italy, the doctors explained to him that the pins fixed in his hip had to be removed after twelve months. It has been two years and he still hasn’t had them taken out.