“The fish ate us, Mom”: Palestinians drowning in the sea trying to flee Gaza

In a small room, which has no furniture, Yahya Barbakh a 27-year-old Palestinian survivor of a shipwreck in the mediterranean sea you sit in a plastic chair with your child in your arms. He is one of the survivors of the boat that sank when he was heading towards Europe fleeing the siege that is being experienced in the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, Barbakh’s mother serves coffee and baklava, traditional Arabic sweets, to guests who pass by her humble home in Khan Younes, southern Israel, to congratulate the family on Yahya’s “miraculous survival,” she says. human rights activist and journalist Maha Hussaini.

The young man, father of two children, returned from Turkey a few days ago, after trying, unsuccessfully, to migrate to the European continent to find better living and working conditions, and thus support his family.

Left a few months ago, the ship carrying Yahya Barbakh and nine other Palestinians from the Gaza Strip sank on November 5, while sailing between the Turkish port city of Bodrum and Greece. Two people died and one is still missing.

“Two months ago, I decided that I had to do something about the miserable life we ​​are living. He had already done all he could. I have worked as a driver, as a barber, I have taken every opportunity to work and live, but at some point, all of this was simply not enough for my family and I to live with dignity, ”says Barbakh for Middle East Eye.

The man details that at the beginning his relatives, mainly his mother, disapproved of the trip because they feared that he could die in the attempt. However, in the end he was able to convince them.

The family sold their gold and borrowed money to prepare for the trip, which, despite everything, they believed would be the beginning of a decent life.

For the first leg of his trip, bound for Cairo Airport (Turkey), Barbakh paid around $ 480 for a visa and ticket, and another $ 500 for tanseeq or “coordination”, a term used for bribes that facilitate the crossing of Gaza through Rafah into Egypt.

The amount of money that Barbakh paid, in that first part, is equivalent to 37 days of work for the average wage earner in Gaza.

Once on Turkish territory, the traffickers sent him to a neighborhood in Bodrum to the south of the country, where he had to pay them $ 3,000.

When he arrived at the mentioned neighborhood, Barbakh met dozens of people, including children, of different nationalities, mostly Syrians and Palestinians. All waiting for traffickers to help them migrate, motivated by a better future.

“They sent us the location through WhatsApp, and we had to walk through the woods, in an environment so dark that we couldn’t even see our hands, to get to the point where they wanted us to get on the boats,” says the young man.

“We had been promised that no more than seven people would be in a safe boat. But when we got there the first day, we were surprised that 30 or 40 migrants and asylum seekers were waiting to board an inflatable boat that had five holes, “he adds.

Barbakh – who pauses in his testimony – explains that smugglers are used to threatening migrants with calling the police if they refuse to get on the boat. In addition, they are forced to come on board by pointing guns at them.

Once the boat was full, a smuggler started the engine and asked if any of the migrants on board could drive the boat.

“Driving the boat was not difficult. They simply asked us to continue sailing for about 20 kilometers until we reached the other side, Greek territory, ”says Barbakh.

The man and his new companions faced various difficulties along the way, even having to deal with the Turkish coast guard, who first arrested them and then released them.

After being released by the Turkish authorities, Yahya Barbakh boarded a wooden boat along with thirteen other people in a boat that had the capacity to carry only ten.

Faced with this situation, the traffickers asked four old men and a young woman to get off the transport, but the woman refused, insisting on reaching her fiancé in Europe.

“Not long after we started sailing, the wind picked up and the water began to rush into the boat. We were terrified and used everything we had to get the water out. Some of us take off our shirts and woolen jackets to absorb the water and then drain it off the boat, ”he says.

The man saw two helpless people, including his friend, Nasrallah al-Farra, who had planned the trip with him, quickly drown after the ship capsized.

“The boat capsized, and two young men were trapped underneath. We couldn’t rescue them because we were all drowning just like them. He was sure he was going to die. My entire life paraded before my eyes as I struggled to keep my head above water ”, he continues.

About two and a half hours later, Barbakh passed out. Luckily for him and his family, when he woke up he was on a Turkish coast guard ship.

“I woke up and only saw a man lying next to me. I started yelling and waving at the coast guard, trying to tell them that there were 10 people on the boat, ”he explains.

“I only calmed down when I saw them pull more living people out of the water. At the end of the day, only seven of us were alive. They took out two bodies and one person is still missing ”.

While waiting for rescuers to remove the rest of his companions, Barbakh used the cell phone of one of the survivors to send his mother voice messages on WhatsApp, which were widely disseminated on social media.

“We were drowning for two hours, Mom. I’m Yahya, mom. Abu adham [Nasrallah] gone, Abu Adham drowned. Tell Abdallah, ”Barbakh said in the recording while crying.

“The fish ate us, Mom, the fish ate us,” he finally adds.

Since Israel’s deadly attack on the Gaza Strip in 2014, hundreds of individuals and families have risked their lives boarding dilapidated rubber and wooden boats to leave that area in search of a better life in Europe.

Just a few days ago, the Israeli army announced that it had bombed Hamas positions in southern Loop between the night of Saturday, January 1, 2022 and Sunday, after the launch of rockets from the Palestinian enclave.

On Saturday morning, two rockets launched from the Gaza Strip Loop they fell into the Mediterranean off the Israeli city of Tel Aviv.

The alarm sirens did not go off and the rocket interception system did not go off, the Israeli army said in the statement.

Sources within Hamas told AFP that these shots “were due to a technical problem due to bad weather.”

A Hamas spokesman condemned the Israeli bombings, and called for continuing “defending the Palestinian people and holy sites against settler occupation until victory.”

For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, stated at the beginning of the weekly council of ministers that “whoever aims missiles at the State of Israel will pay the consequences.”

Sworn enemies Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day war in May 2021, the fourth since 2008.

With information from AFP