Thousands of desperate migrants bound for Europe have perished in the Mediterranean Sea. In one impoverished Egyptian town, families fear that 15 of their sons are among the dead.
The Nile delta cotton-growing town of Dahmasha already feels like a ghost town. Hundreds of its young men have embarked on the dangerous journey via war-torn Libya.
Now a group of tearful, black-clad mothers and wives fear the worst after hearing reports, so far unconfirmed by authorities, that a rickety boat carrying their loved ones sank last month.
Crammed minibuses arranged by human traffickers had left the town northeast of Cairo for lawless Libya in mid-August, carrying 37 young men who had each paid 70,000 Egyptian pounds ($3,775).
About a month later, the International Organization for Migration reported that at least 20 migrants, mainly from Egypt and Morocco, had drowned when a boat capsized off Libya on September 14.
Two of the dead have since been returned to Dahmasha, and a short, undated video surfaced online over the weekend apparently showing 20 survivors.
But there has been no word from the remaining 15.
“I just want a one percent fighting chance… to hear something that will quench my thirst for knowing where my son is,” one mother, Horreya Farrag, told AFP.
She said she last heard from her 24-year-old son, Mohamed Farrag, hours before he boarded the boat on September 12 from the Libyan port of Zawiya, headed for the Italian island of Lampedusa.
– ‘Dead before you get there’ –
Farrag, a house painter and the eldest of three siblings, left behind a young wife and a two-month-old son in Dahmasha, a town of 18,000 people some 50 kilometres (30 miles) northeast of Cairo.
“He was the kindest of all of them,” said his widowed mother. “I raised the three of them to be as close as a fist.”
The missing man’s 23-year-old brother Karim said: “He had approached me about joining, but I told him: ‘I’m not going. You’re dead even before you get there. You’re holding your own funeral shroud in your hands’.”
The families say they have received no information from Egyptian authorities. AFP also received no reply after reaching out to Egypt’s emigration ministry.
Egyptian MP Sahar Atman said she had enquired about the missing men with the Egyptian cabinet and foreign ministry.
Last week, she said on Facebook that 20 of the men had survived and preparations were under way to return them to Egypt.
In a video that circulated on Facebook on Saturday, which Dahmasha’s residents shared widely, tired and haggard young men from the village listed the names of relatives who had perished on the trip.
Some family members confirmed their identities but could not verify the claims as the apparent survivors still had not been in touch with them directly.
– ‘Feel our pain’ –
The journey the men took became a terrifying ordeal long before they reached the shores of the Mediterranean, said the villagers.
Rawya Abdalla, 38, recounted how her brother-in-law Ahmed frantically rang her from Libya, pleading for his family to send ransom money to traffickers who were holding him.
“One day he called me, completely panicked, begging me to send him money so we can free him. He said they weren’t feeding them or giving them water,” Abdalla told AFP.
“He was held hostage in a storage warehouse for 25 days and they also whipped them for what they deemed to be the smallest mistake, for talking to each other.”
After selling the family car, they gave 20,000 pounds to the local smuggler who said he would pay the ransom.
The claims echo a report by rights group Amnesty International last month that described how migrants in Libya were being “abducted by militias, armed groups and traffickers” and being “tortured or raped until their families pay ransoms”.
Tens of thousands of migrants have made the perilous sea journey toward Europe in 2020 alone, according to the IOM, though Egyptians make up a relatively small contingent of those from Africa.
Abdalla said locals are still desperate for information from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, and for help in addressing the hardship faced by them and many of the country’s over 100 million people.
“We’re asking the president to feel our pain,” she said in the small town, where many fields are parched because irrigation channels have run dry.
“What should our youths do? Kill or steal to survive? They are migrating to bring back some money legitimately.
“We’ve lost our sons and our money,” she said. “We’ve lost everything. We have nothing. We want their corpses so we can bury them here.”