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Escaping Ebola: Danger from the Desert to the Deep Blue Sea

Fleeing Sierra Leone for Europe, Fatima and her family endured a dangerous journey across six countries, the Sahara Desert and conflict-ridden Libya. And that was all before they joined the thousands who continue to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean.

Written by Hereward Holland Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Niger migrant deaths
Soldiers walk away after burying the bodies of migrants who died of thirst when their truck broke down in the Sahara Desert north of Arlit, Niger. AP/Almoustapha Alhacen

Fatima has been on the run from an invisible terror for almost two years. It took her sister Omo, her brothers Muhammed and Yaya, and her uncle, also called Muhammed. Now she sits on the deck of the Sea Watch search-and-rescue ship 24 miles off the coast of Libya, exhausted and heavily pregnant, but safe.

Her bubbly 10-year-old son Daniel lies in her arms as she recounts her odyssey, which traversed six countries, the largest desert in the world, an ISIS insurgency and the hungry waves of the Mediterranean. “We came, little by little,” she says, stroking Daniel’s forehead.

In 2014, Ebola swept through Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, infecting 28,600 people and killing 11,300 of them. The hemorrhagic virus decimated Fatima’s hometown. “It was like during the war,” Fatima said, referring to Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war in which over 50,000 people were killed. “In Port Loko, Ebola was the worst in all Sierra Leone,” Fatima says of the lush riverside settlement two hours’ drive from the country’s capital, Freetown.

Over a million people seeking asylum arrived in Europe by sea in 2015, mostly fleeing wars in the Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, others, like Fatima and Daniel, were running from other things: disease, oppression and poverty.

As the numbers swelled, Europe’s warm embrace soon turned cold and in March the Turkey-Greece sea route was closed. But while the number of arrivals has gone down, even more people have died at sea this year – highlighting the inadequacy of Europe’s response.

Fatima recalls how she had watched Ebola take whole families. She couldn’t let it take her young family, too. So in September 2014, she fled with Daniel and her husband, Musa, “because it was getting worse every day.”

They wanted to get as far away as possible, which meant first going through Guinea, then Senegal, Gambia, Burkina Faso and eventually ending up in Mali where smugglers offered to take them across the Sahara Desert.

Firm data are unavailable, but a recent report by 4mi, an affiliate of the Danish Refugee Council, says that anecdotal testimony suggests the crossing of the sea of sand could be even more deadly than the journey across the Mediterranean.

Based on interviews with over 1,300 migrants between 2014 and 2016, the report says 1,245 people perished crossing Libya, Sudan and Egypt, compared to 3,771 people killed or declared missing crossing the Mediterranean in 2015. “The relatively small number of migrants interviewed by 4mi monitors suggests the 1,245 figure is a conservative estimate of those who actually perished.

“It would be safe to assume the number of migrants and refugees dying before reaching the shores of Egypt and Libya is even higher than the number of deaths at sea,” the report says.

Six months pregnant, Fatima and her family squeezed on to the top of a pick-up truck with 30 other people. For three days, they saw no sign of life. “The desert was worse than everything,” she says. “The water was disgusting. It tasted salty. Some died, some survived.”

Once in Libya, the family was robbed of everything, including Fatima’s phone. She and her family spent three months searching for a way to escape the country in the grips of an ISIS insurgency and cross the sea to sanctuary.

Last year, over a million people entered Europe by boat, most of them crossing to Greece from Turkey, although 150,000 crossed from Libya. On average, 10 people died every day, most of them on the longer and more dangerous journey from Libya.

This year, the number of people crossing to Greece has sharply declined, but the traffic on the route from Libya continues apace. Shipwrecks and boat capsizings on the Mediterranean have already claimed over 3,600 people this year, almost as many as last year. In one deadly week in May, the United Nations Refugee Agency estimated 880 people drowned.

By the time Fatima and her family had reached the point they were meant to cross from Libya to Italy, Fatima was sleeping on floors and due to give birth any day. Then their luck turned when they managed to persuade a smuggler to take them on board for free.

“The boat was full of people. People were fighting, people were yelling,” she says. “I suffered a lot. Even if you say you are pregnant, nobody listens to you. I was crying until I got here.”

The Sea Watch search-and-rescue ship arrived to meet them, and the crew plucked Fatima and Daniel from the overstuffed rubber boat. Musa had remained on the boat and would meet them later on the Italian naval vessel that would take them on to Italy.

Sea Watch is part of an informal flotilla of aid ships and European war ships saving thousands of people every day. But the head of mission, Ingo Werth, is concerned that the enterprise, while essential, is only a temporary and ineffectual solution. To really save lives, he says, would require political action.

“It’s a ridiculous game. I think it would be much safer to go to Libya, pick up the people and take them to the Italian shore. It would be much safer. You wouldn’t lose one life,” he says.

A UNHCR spokesman told News Deeply it is urging governments that are still accepting refugees to take in more people through organized channels, including resettlement, work or study schemes, family reunions and humanitarian visas.

For Fatima and her family, the journey is almost over – she hopes. Sitting on the Sea Watch deck, Daniel drifts off to sleep as Fatima begins to contemplate the end of life on the run.

“Daniel is very strong, but we are tired,” she says. “We are tired of that kind of life.”

This story originally appeared on Women & Girls Hub

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