VALLETA, Malta: Syrian refugees who survived a boat capsize off Malta in the latest disaster in the Mediterranean said on Sunday (Monday in Manila) they were fired on by “militiamen” as they set out on their perilous journey from Libya.
At least 36 people perished after the boat sank on Friday, a week after another shipwreck off Italy left at least 359 dead, prompting Malta to warn that the Mediterranean was becoming “a cemetery.”
The boat, carrying up to 400 migrants, mostly Syrians, left the Libyan port of Zwara on Thursday, just 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Tunisian border.
Some of the more than 200 survivors said Libyan militiamen shot wildly at them, leaving several people dead and causing the vessel to take on water and sink.
Syrian national Mohammed, 34, wept as he recalled his desperate search for his missing pregnant wife and seven-year-old daughter after he and his five-year-old girl managed to reach safety.
Mohammed said he had paid $4,800 (3,500 euros) to seek a better life in Europe, crossing through Egypt to Libya.
“When we got on the boat, Libyan militia put their machine guns to our heads and demanded more money. I had $5,000 and they took this too,” Mohammed said from a detention camp in Malta.
He said the Libyan gunmen followed them for four or five hours.
“All of a sudden, they started shooting at us and the boat . . . All I could think of at that time was to protect my two young children.
“Then they started shooting more bullets at the boat and they managed to puncture it. Lots of water started coming in . . . We all ended up in the sea. I grabbed my daughter. She swallowed water but I managed to swim and we got onto a raft rescuers threw in the water,” Mohammed said.
‘They asked us for our kidneys, our livers’
Another survivor, 25-year-old Aisha from Lebanon, told Agence France-Presse the militiamen “pointed their guns at us, asking us for money, for our kidneys and our livers. When no one gave in, they started shooting at us, injuring two.”
Citing other survivors’ accounts, the UN refugee agency spoke of several injured, saying shots were fired “perhaps by militiamen who shot to kill.”
Molhake al-Roarsan, 22, interviewed by Italy’s La Stampa daily, said he thought the attacks were related to a dispute between different groups of human traffickers.
“There was a furious fight, screaming on the radio and on the phone with someone who demanded that we return to land, but the captain did not stop.”
Once they reached Malta, the Tunisian captain was arrested after being recognized by survivors, according to media reports.
‘I lost practically all I had’
Ashur, a Syrian, said he and his family were fleeing the civil war in his home country. When the vessel capsized he managed to save his two-year-old daughter but lost his son and wife who was pregnant with twins.
“I lost practically all I had. What I have left to live for is my daughter who I will not let go out of my arms,” Ashur told Agence France-Presse.
Meanwhile, searches were continuing after 180 migrants from Egypt, Somalia and Eritrea who were rescued overnight Friday arrived Sunday in Porto Empedocle, in Sicily.
The town is also where the first 150 coffins containing the victims of the October 3 shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa were taken for burial.
Italian and Maltese forces on Sunday rescued a total of 386 people aboard two boats and escorted them to Sicily.