File photo of migrants on an inflatable boat in the Mediterranean Sea | Photo:  Picture Alliance
File photo of migrants on an inflatable boat in the Mediterranean Sea | Photo: Picture Alliance

Kandia, a Guinean who arrived in France a month ago, narrowly escaped death in the Mediterranean Sea. In July, he boarded an inflatable boat with 84 other migrants, convinced, as the smugglers had promised, that they would be rescued after a few hours. Their ordeal lasted five days in the end.

At the age of 28, Kandia* – like thousands of migrants in Europe – is a Mediterranean survivor. On a July night at around 11 pm, the Guinean took a seat on an inflatable boat near the northwestern Libyan town of Al Ajaylat. On board were 84 other people, including six women and two children, all trying to reach Italy.

They thought the journey would last a few hours, a day at the most: their smugglers told them that humanitarian boats were crisscrossing the area, a guarantee, according to them, that they would quickly be rescued. So they took almost no water or food. Most of the passengers did not even think about protecting their cell phones from the water around them. As a result, the group quickly found itself isolated and in distress over five nightmarish days.

Here is Kandia's account of the crossing.

"On the first day, the boat was working. I was sitting next to the two 'captains.' The 'captains' are migrants who know how to drive a boat. The smugglers test them before departure, then give them the responsibility in exchange for a free crossing. The smugglers avoid sending people who don't know how to handle themselves at sea, as this would cause them to lose customers.

Another man, a Guinean like me, was sitting next to me. He was in charge of the compass but he didn't know how to use it. I looked at the map at one point and said, 'No, that's not right! We are going to Tunisia.' We finally managed to correct the trajectory but, on the morning of the second day, we ran out of petrol. We called a telephone number that we had been given in Libya, which was supposed to be the international emergency number, but the line did not go through.

Everyone was shouting, the women were crying, we thought this meant death. We had no choice, so we called the Libyan police and asked them to come and get us. They told us they wouldn't come.

'I thought we were going to join him, that he was just ahead of us'

On the second day, the motor was detached and thrown away to make the boat lighter. There was a lot of wind and we wanted to use it to move the boat forward, but it was not in the right position. One of us, a Ghanaian, said he could swim. He said he could go into the water to steer the boat so that it would be pushed by the wind. He went into the water. There were waves.

The Ghanaian tried to hold on to the boat, but he was swept away. The waves pushed him further from us. He was shouting and screaming, but we lost him. He just disappeared like that, in the waves, screaming, until he vanished from sight. We were there, we couldn't do anything. We could see him but we couldn't do anything.

At that moment, I said to myself, 'Our turn will come soon'. I thought we were going to join him, that he was just ahead of us. This boy was about 20 years-old. I remember him as being quite small, thin, very dark.

His older brother was with us in the boat. He kept repeating, 'I told him not to go down [into the water], I told him not to go down, I told him not to go down...' Then he lay down. And from that moment, he said nothing more. Not another word, until the day we arrived. No one cared about him, everyone was thinking of themselves.

Slipped into the waves and sank to their deaths

At the end of that second day, two more people died. It was starting to get dark when big waves lifted and tilted the boat. One man fell backwards. As he fell, he clutched on to someone else and ended up dragging him with him. This second man tried to grab a third passenger to stay on the boat, but the third passenger hit his hand and pulled away. The second man also fell into the water.

These two men, unlike the first drowned man, could not swim. They splashed around in the water for a bit and then sank straight down. We saw nothing more. I don't know who they were, I think they were traveling alone. Their drowning quietened us even more. I told myself that the smugglers had delivered us to death.

What followed was three days of wind and waves. As soon as water entered the boat, people got busy emptying it. The boat was pierced in one place, three people were constantly lifting this part so that it did not touch the sea to avoid the water seeping in.

Our telephones got soaked and were unusable. There was no more drinking water. Some people drank sea water. I tried, I put some in my mouth but I couldn't swallow. Nothing went down my throat, everything was too dry and it burned. In the end, those who drank the seawater had very bad stomach aches.

'In a boat, if you're next to someone who speaks your language, you're lucky'

When you're in a boat like this, you can only talk to the people next to you. The ones at the other end, you can't hear them. If you're next to someone who speaks your language, you're lucky. I could speak with the Guinean, the one who took care of the compass at the beginning. For the first three days, I didn't sleep.

On the fourth day, we said to each other, 'If someone doesn't come to help us now, we're all going to die.' I wanted to save myself. A Sudanese man took out his phone, which he had managed to protect in a plastic bag. The phone did not work but we were able to recover the battery that had not leaked: we removed the external metal part, we stripped a charger cable and we placed the ''+'' and ''-'' wires on the battery. In this way, with great difficulty, we managed to charge the phone.

I was able to call the number of a large humanitarian boat, which a passenger had kept on a wet sheet. At the end of the call, we were asked for our position. We had no idea. Helicopters were sent to find us. That night, finally, I fell asleep.

The following day, we were rescued by an Italian oil tanker which took us to Sicily. We were all separated in small groups. Now I am in France, I do not have any more news of the other boat passengers. Except the Guinean with the compass. He's in Paris, we haven't seen each other, but we write to each other sometimes. We tell each other that we made it through thanks to God. Talking with him reminds me of suffering, it reminds me of where I come from."

*First name changed on request to protect the identity of the person concerned.