In the early hours of Sunday September 13th a boat carrying over 100 people went down off the island of Farmakonisi in Greece. We may never know exactly how many people were on board or how many are still missing.
There was no manifest or list of passengers. This was not a cruise ship it was a refugee ship.
What happened that night?
Jay remembers being on the beach near the town of Didim in Turkey. It was dark and there were many of them on the beach. The smugglers split them into groups of around 20 to ferry them in smaller vessels to their boat. There were about 3 lots of 40 that left before his group of 20 were taken last.
This was supposed to be the safest way to go. It was a larger boat and less likely to sink. They thought it would be better than the smaller rubber boats.
It certainly wasn’t a pleasure cruise in the mediterranean. Once on board the smugglers were walking around with knives keeping everyone quiet. Jay was shouted at when he opened his phone. They didn’t want the light to alert anyone of the boat’s presence.
Just off the coast of Farmakonisi things started to go wrong:
“I saw one guy run down into the boat and we heard a bang we didn’t know what happened, people were panicking… I think they did something to sink the boat or to the engine, our boat was not very old. He went down to the engine and then we had the smell of burning.”
Jay looks clearly shaken still as he recounts what happened next:
“We were about 100 meters from the beach, the smugglers jumped off… the boat was pointing away from the beach and drifting… one of the refugees tried to steer the boat, the engine wouldn’t start… I took a laser and pointed to the island but there was no-one there”
Then he recalls the fear as the boat started to take on water:
“Then I heard a woman call out that water was coming inside, I ran in and started helping people out of the door, to the front of the boat. My cousin and daughter I put them out too.” Jay would never see them alive again.
“Suddenly I was in the room helping and the water came very quickly and filled the whole cabin and I swam out in the dark.”
He recounts so calmly yet there is a sadness in his eyes. He doesn’t feel lucky to be alive, he feels sorry that he couldn’t save more people.
Once on the prow of the ship Jay decided to swim to shore to try and find help. Knowing that most of his friends and family couldn’t swim.
By now the ship had drifted away from the shore he estimates it was about 1500 meters away.
“My friend Hasan followed me, but he wasn’t a strong swimmer, he soon got cramp in his leg, I tried to swim and carry him but then I got cramp too.. We were holding onto each other for what seemed about 3 hours, we thought we were going to die, we had given in and were exhausted. Then we heard a helicopter and saw the Greek army ship.” Hasan is now in Athens.
Once he was rescued Jay helped the authorities identify the smugglers. According to Jay they were all Syrians and were detained by the police in Leros.
Who is Jay
His real name is Zaid Saleh Abed Dulaimi, but he likes being called Jay. He’s a fit 28 year old man, who was born in Baghdad.
He’s one of many Iraqi’s that have been coming through the refugee centre in the last month. I hear and see comments about the refugees all the time. Many see a young fit man and ask why he is here? Why has left Iraq? Why isn’t he fighting there?
Jay is a Dulaimi, they are a tribe of about 3 million in Iraq and follow the Sunni form of islam. Since Sadam Hussein was toppled the majority Shia have been in control of Iraq. Large areas occupied by the Sunnis have been attacked by the Islamic State and many have fled to Baghdad.
Unfortunately if you are from the Dulaimi tribe Iraq is not a safe country to live in. From shootings and slayings to imprisonment, the militias target them throughout the majority Shia areas.
Iraq is a mess today, no-one knows what will happen next. A year ago the leader of the Dulaimi tribe had a military alliance with ISIS but now the tribe are a target of the Islamic State.
He has been alone for the last 5 years since his parents escaped Iraq in 2010. They now live in Cardiff, Wales.
Jay has had many different jobs and had to move around a lot to keep safe. He’s worked in Baghdad, Basra, Turkey and Georgia over the last 5 years.
Whilst working in Basra he had to hide his Sunni identity to get a job. In Iraq your religion is on your identity card. Militias came to his workplace and were demanding lists of employees to route out Christians and Sunnis. He fled once more back to Baghdad.
Baghdad is a very dangerous city especially if you are a Dulaimi as the Washington Post reported in May. The reality there is that they “need protection to guarantee we’ll stay alive”. I’ve met a few refugees this week from Iraq who have bullet wounds.
Jay’s interview with the BBC in Leros
The survivors today
Last Wednesday Jay along with around 30 refugees from the Farmakonisi disaster were brought to Rhodes. They came here with the task of identifying their relatives.
The bodies of those from Iraq will be returned home for burial. Official representatives came to help them. The Syrians couldn’t be returned and were buried in Rhodes on Tuesday.
Militias have followed Jay every step that he has taken so far. Hopefully now on this island he is safe at last. He’s now staying in a small basic hotel in Rhodes where the UN organised accommodation for them.
Most of them now say they feel safe for the first time in years. But not Jay, years of having to run will take a long time erase. Now, because he helped the authorities catch the smugglers, he is concerned they may try and catch up with him in some way.
When the refugees arrived here they had only the clothes they were wearing when the boat sank. All of their belongings were lost. Their money, identification, mobile phones, it all disappeared in the sea.
From the moment he arrived, Jay has been working with the Helping Hands of Rhodes volunteers. He wanted to help others from the start. He’s translated for the other refugees and helped others tell their stories. He has worked in the Helping Hands storage facility sorting donations to help other refugees.
What’s next for Jay?
All Jay now wants is to be with his family.
“I now just want to be with my family… It isn’t that I want to be in the UK if my family would come here I would be with them here, my parents are old now and I just want to be with them.”
At some point in the next few days Jay and the rest of the Iraqi’s here will be transported to Athens by ferry. It’s not certain what will happen next.
The reality of the refugee boats
There are too many that have lost children, wives, mothers, husbands and fathers making the journey across to these islands.
Some have lost everyone, one of the women here today has lost her entire family, she’s lost, alone and doesn’t know what to do next.
The group of Iraqis that are in the hotel today have lost between them 25 people, 12 children, 4 women and 7 men. 2 children are still missing one of them just 20 days old.
The children that are with them are still behaving like children, their need to play and run seems to be helping the adults cope for now. Though they smile for the children you can still feel the sense of loss in each one.
As a group they are supporting and helping each other. The counsellor who came with them had to leave after a couple of days and head to an island where another boat had crashed.
I have asked each one the same difficult question and the answer is always the same.
Knowing what you now know would you still take the boat. The answer is a sad “yes”. They had no choice, either way death would be waiting.
Many of the survivors have wanted to tell me their story, they want their story written, for people to know what happened to their loved ones and why they are here. I’ll be posting more of them soon.