Every year, thousands of people fleeing violence, insecurity, and persecution at home attempt a treacherous journey by boat, via North Africa and across the Central Mediterranean, to reach Europe. And every year, countless lives are lost on these journeys.
Oussama Omrane, a cultural mediator from Tunisia, works on board the MV Aquarius, a search and rescue vessel operated jointly by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée. Here he shares the story of 17-year-old Jonathan, a Nigerian teenager who was rescued in the Mediterranean Sea after attempting a harrowing journey from the coast of Libya.
We had just finished our rescue, and had a few moments to breathe before getting immediately back to work. I was glad that this operation had gone well, we had no problems. I really needed it.
In my last assignment on the other MSF search and rescue boats we had started to feel like we had a subscription to death – as well as rescuing people from overcrowded or unseaworthy boats, there were times when we also had to recover the bodies of people who had died on the journey.
Luckily, since I boarded the Aquarius, things are going well. Our MSF team and SOS Méditerranée colleagues are doing a great job, the teamwork is excellent.
After the rescue I came back on the ship and began my usual round among our guests, chatting with them. That was when I met Jonathan, a 17-year old Nigerian boy.
The first thing I noticed was the huge scar that he has on his wrist. We began to talk about everything and nothing: from the Africa Cup of Nations football league to his crossing of the Mediterranean. I gain his confidence, he trusts me and decides to tell me his story.
"It's a long story," he told me. "What I have suffered is unimaginable for a boy my age."
Slowly, Jonathan starts to open up even more. Unfortunately, he was not able to study because of poverty in his family. He grew up almost without a mother while his father passed away a year ago.
"I was away when my father died. I was in Morocco. I left Nigeria three years and seven months ago. I tried to survive by selling tomatoes but in the end I could not take it anymore."
He followed the footsteps of some compatriots who left Morocco to go to Libya. Thus began a terrifying phase of his life.
"I went to Sabratha and I started working as a porter, but then I found myself trapped an endless hell. One day, on the street, I was beaten and robbed by a group of bad and ugly people. They were Libyan. That wasn't enough for them, they kidnapped me and held me as a hostage for almost two months."
His eyes were wet as he told me this. He looked lost and stared past me, into the void. Jonathan sighed, he stopped talking then he continued with more rage: "They took me inside a house that had a large backyard. They locked me in a room. We were about sixty people in there, we barely breathed, there was only a small window."
Jonathan continued to describe what he had suffered, he tried to remember all the details, he mimicked the gestures of his kidnappers.
"They all had kalashnikovs, they entered the room, took some of us and started beating us. The louder you screamed the harder they would beat you. Sometimes they would shoot in the air to frighten us. They asked for money and if you did not have any you were cursed!"
I listened to Jonathan and tried to imagine, I tried to picture what he must have felt, but at some point I could not. Even if you believe that you are strong, there comes a moment when you can't take it anymore.
"They kept beating me every two days, with their hands, with the butts of their guns and with rubber sticks. Then they increased the intensity and started to burn me with cigarettes and later with a welding torch. You cannot defend yourself, your only defence are your tears."
At some point, Jonathan rolled up the sleeves of his tracksuit and stared at the scars he had on his wrists. He kept looking at them for a long while and then turned to me.
"One day," he said, "definitely the worst day of my life after my mother's death, I didn't see them arriving and they hit me. I found myself on the ground. They had tied wire around my wrists and ankles. It was too tight. I was an easy prey for their blood lust, they beat me and burned me endlessly."
As he told me what had happened, he showed me the scars all along his body - on his stomach, his torso, his back, hands and ankles.
Jonathan remained tied on the ground for a few hours and although he is now safe on our ship he continues to suffer. He has problems with his left ankle and he struggles to walk.
Jonathan's story is a harrowing tale. But it is just a drop in the sea of stories we hear on board our rescue boats – just the chronicle of an ordinary day aboard the MV Aquarius.