Malta migrants: Sole survivor describes 11 days in dinghy

By Diana Cacciottolo

Mohammed Adam Oga is being treated at Malta's Mater Dei hospital for dehydrationImage source, Times of Malta
Image caption,
Mohammed Adam Oga is being treated at Malta's Mater Dei hospital for dehydration

"There were 15 of us on the boat and I am the only one alive," says Mohammed Adam Oga from his hospital bed in Malta.

The migrants had each paid a smuggler $700 (£575; €630) to make the journey from Libya to Europe in the scorching heat of the Central Mediterranean.

Then their fuel ran out. Then their food. Then their water. He is the sole survivor, he says, of the passengers, including a pregnant woman, who attempted the arduous journey in one of the deadliest stretches of water in the world.

Media caption,
A Maltese military team rescues Mohammed Adam Oga from the dinghy

"We were at sea for 11 days. We started drinking sea water. After five days, two people died. Then every day, two more died."

He was picked up in Maltese waters on Monday after the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, spotted a dinghy adrift at sea.

Footage of the rescue by Malta's armed forces showed him slumped over a man's body, before he was airlifted to hospital.

"God sent the Maltese to save me," he told Times of Malta, while being attached to a drip and too weak to walk.

How the ill-fated trip unfolded

The 38-year-old, who describes himself as an exiled Ethiopian politician from former rebel group the Oromo Liberation Front, decided to make the journey after he was contacted by friends from Germany.

Once in Libya he met a Somali named Ismail and together they arranged their passage via a smuggler.

They set out on 1 August from the Libyan city of Zawia, 45km (28 miles) west of the capital, Tripoli. "The agent gave us the GPS and told us 'go to Malta'," he said.

Those on board were: a man and a pregnant woman from Ghana, two men from Ethiopia, and 11 Somalis, he added.

After running out of fuel, food and water, Mohammed Adam Oga describes a desperate situation as they tried in vain to get help from boats and helicopters passing by.

"We saw many boats. We shouted, 'Help, Help!' We were waving and they were just passing. A helicopter came and left."

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Few NGO boats remain at sea near Libya as EU member states disagree over who should take in migrants

Mohammed closes his eyes to demonstrate how his fellow passengers began to die.

"They died in the boat. It was sunny, hot. No food and no water. Ismail said we should put the bodies in the sea. We took the bodies and threw them in the water. The bodies were smelling."

Eventually, he says, the pair were alone on the boat. "Ismail said, 'Everyone is dead now. Why would we live?"

At one point he describes how his partner became frustrated and said they should die together.

"He threw everything in the sea, phones and GPS. I said, if you want to die, die on your own. I don't want to die."

Then Ismail died too.

Caught up in Europe's migrant row

Mohammed is one of more than 40,000 people who have survived crossing the treacherous Mediterranean to Europe's coasts this year, including 1,000 to Malta.

According to the UN, 839 have died, making the Mediterranean the most dangerous sea route for refugees and migrants in the world.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The Open Arms boat, anchored off Lampedusa, is at the centre of a political row in Italy

While the sea crossings continue, there is deadlock among EU countries about what to do.

Italy's anti-immigration interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has repeatedly attempted to block charity ships from docking, clashing with the Italian prime minister over 147 migrants who arrived off Lampedusa on Thursday on the humanitarian ship Open Arms.

A second boat, Ocean Viking, has picked up 356 migrants people in four rescue operations close to Libya.

Italy's much smaller neighbour, Malta, is watching events in Italy closely. Its armed forces have rescued migrants at sea, but Malta is disinclined to help charity ships, as it fears they are encouraging Libya's smuggling gangs.

What will happen to Mohammed?

When the rescue took place on Monday, Malta's Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia warned: "We cannot do this alone".

Mohammed Adam Oga is now likely to have to tell his story to Malta's immigration police and the country's refugee commission.

Image source, Times of Malta
Image caption,
Mohammed is now keen to travel to the UK

He remembers the last days of his journey as like being in a dream. He does not remember his rescue and was unaware that Ismail had died.

He believes he faces arrest if he returns to Ethiopia because his former rebel group is outlawed. He left 15 years ago, first for Eritrea and then Sudan, and wants to travel to the UK.

"If you go to Germany, you have to speak German. I have a little English," he says.

Does he have any regrets about taking the journey?

"No," he says. "I am happy. I am alive."

A version of this story originally appeared in Times of Malta.