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Vienna | 17.5.2008 | 13:25 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

 
 
A Boatman's Story
  Eric Nyandu Kabongo is a singer and artist from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The violence that has engulfed his country forced him to flee his home. He moved to Gabon, where he was attacked, then to Benin, where he didn't feel at home, and then, like many sub-Saharan Africans, to the northern coast of Libya. There, living in a cramped room with five other migrants, he faced daily hostility from a suspicious local population. For him, like many others in his situation, Europe became the "Promised Land" - the land of milk and honey. And that's why he got together the money to pay for a 300 kilometres trip across the Mediterranean in an open fishing boat.
 
 
  His trip was part of a mass-movement of desperation. In the past five years, many thousands of African immigrants have come ashore on the EU islands of Malta or Lampedusa or have even made it to the coast of mainland Italy. But each year hundreds drown on the treacherous journey, or die of thirst or exposure on the ill-equipped vessels. Because the trips are organized on the secretive black-market, no-one knows just how many people have perished on their quest for a better life.

I met Eric in Vienna and we discussed his experiences. I asked him whether, when he embarked on his voyage, he realized exactly what dangers lay ahead.

When I was in Libya, trying to arrange the crossing, they painted a very nice picture. They didn't tell me it would be a small boat - only five or six metres long. They didn't tell me that they'd put 26 people in the boat. They don't tell you any of that.
 
 
 
  Although you were cramped, I believe that at the beginning of the journey, you were all very optimistic?

Yeah! At the beginning they tell you that it will take six hours and then you will be in Europe. You think 'six hours! I won't even have to eat!?'

And very soon, of course, the coast disappears from the African side and there is still no sight of land on the European side. At what point did the optimism on the boat start to turn to worry?

It was on the second day in the morning. There was nothing but water as far as the eyes could see and people were starting to ask themselves a lot of questions. Maybe the captain is pointing the boat in the wrong direction? Maybe we are lost? They didn't have to say it - it was written on their faces. Everyone was thinking a lot. There were long periods of silence.

When you say 'captain', we're not talking about an experienced seaman are we?

No. We called him 'captain' because he was guiding us. He was chosen at random by the Arabs in Libya, who told him how to steer and how to keep the compass facing north. Then they say 'Inshallah' and that was it.

 11. Juni 2006, ein Boot voller Flüchtlinge vor Lampedusa.

Bild: APA/EPA
 
 
  What was the point when you really began to think that you might die?

It was when we had spent two days with nothing and were heading into the third day. There was no fuel, no food - nothing. As a human being you realize there is no hope. There is no way out of the situation. We began to share stories from the Bible, but as time passed even that lost its power. Then you saw someone begin to cry, and you'd begin to cry, too. At first it was the women, but then everyone was crying. And then people began to confess their sins. We knew we were at the end.

What was going through mind, personally, when you were faced with death?

I turned myself to the Gospels. I was afraid and very tired. But there is always this small spark of hope that drives you to stand up in the boat and see if you can find something.

And you were singing, I believe?

Yes we sang a song from Nigeria. It goes (sings): "Oh Lord I'm very, very grateful for all you've done for me." We were dispirited but we wanted to say thank you.

How did you feel when suddenly you saw a ship and realized that you might be safe?

(laughs) I tell you the smile was brought back! We were exhausted but everybody tried to stand up to see where the boat was. But on such a small boat you can't all stand up at the same time, or the boat would collapse. So I tried to calm people down. We had to take it in turns to stand up and have a look. But everyone was smiling. It was like being born again!"
 
 
 
  So it was a happy ending. But it was no fairy tale ending. You were rescued by the Maltese navy, who took you back to Malta. But the first people that you see on land were the police. You are taken to a detention centre?

Yes. We'd been rescued. We'd been saved. For that I will never be able to thank the government of Malta enough. We were put in a detention centre and held there doing nothing for a long, long time. Some people were losing their minds. Something has to be done.

One measure the EU is taking is funding a public project in Africa to warn people about the dangers of the trip you took. Do you support that?

Yes. This journey is not a good thing. It's dangerous. That's why I am talking about it. But unless the problems in Africa are solved, such trips will continue. If you don't have the basic things you need to live, like enough food for example, you will move. People will take risks.

 Vor der Küste von Las Palmas, Februar 2008

Foto: APA/EPA/Giorgio Felice Rappeti
 
 
The Facts
  According to a recent Washington Post article, around 1.000 immigrants are currently sitting in crowded facilities in Malta known as "closed detention centers."

Human rights advocates have described living conditions there as "unacceptable".

People who are taken from boats must spend 18 months in these locked facilities -- off-limits to the news media -- then may be granted humanitarian status to stay on and move to an "open detention center."

Nonetheless human rights groups estimate that more than a million sub-Saharan Africans displaced by war and poverty have gathered in Libya, preparing to make a journey similar to Eric's.
 

 
audio
 
title: Eric Nyandu Kabongo im Gespräch mit Chris Cummins
length: 6:48
MP3 (6.524MB) | WMA
   
 
 
  Das Interview gibts auch im FM4 Interview Podcast, hier: fm4.orf.at/podcast
 
 
 
Exodus - The play
  Eric Nyandu Kabongo was talking about his experiences on a tour with the european theatre production Exodus - featuring real people telling their real stories about cultural identity, homeland and the loss of homeland. As well as Eric, there is a Maltese sailor, a veteran of the Kosovo conflict and a Greek-speaking Italian man who fears his cultural roots are dying out.

 
 
 
 
  It's touring Europe and is in Vienna for one night more - 17th May at 19.30 at the Theater des Augenblicks, 1180 Vienna. I thoroughly recommend it.
 
fm4 links
  Shadow of a Dream (immigration and football)
   
 
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