Survivors say coastguards refused to help them as vessel sank and stamped on hands of those clinging to Greek boat.
Even now, eight days later, they can both still taste the sea. Just as they can still feel the water slipping through their fingers as they desperately tried to bail out the boat.
And the cries: “help me, help me, help me,” the only words the Afghan and Syrian migrants knew how to say as the vessel went down. “We were so afraid,” said Abdul Sabur Azizi, recalling the moments before he lost his wife and 10-year-old son to the sea.
“At some point we took the babies and held them up high, above our heads, to show that there were children on board,” the 30-year-old murmured, his eyes fixed firmly on the floor. “The Greek coastguard didn’t care. They had guns, they were shooting in the air. We told them the boat had broken down, its engine didn’t work but all they wanted was to take us back to Turkey.”
And that, he says, is when the Greek officials got the rope, tied it to the bow of the ship and began towing it “so fast that the boat began bouncing this way and that, like a snake, across the water.”
It didn’t last long – maybe 10 minutes at most. “The waters were very calm but we were going so fast, we were flying high,” said Ehsanula Safi, his Afghan compatriot still too visibly distressed to make mention of his dead wife and four children. “When the rope snapped the first time it made a hole in the side of the boat. The hole got bigger and bigger, and as the water gushed in we tried to get it out, first with a bucket and then with our hands.”
Eleven are believed to have died when the boat capsized. Only two bodies have been found. Of those missing, eight were under the age of 12. Of the 16 who survived all were men, with the single exception of one woman and a baby.
The events surrounding the sinking of the ship in the Aegean last week have not only triggered outrage, both in and outside Greece, but highlighted the increasingly controversial methods being used to stop immigrants from entering the EU.
While Athens has denied allegations that the boat was being towed to Turkey – arguing that radar records show it was being tugged to the Greek island of Farmakonisi when the tragedy occurred – refugees insist they were the victims of an illegal “push-back” operation of the kind frequently indulged in by authorities to keep human cargo at bay.
More than 150 migrants, the majority of them asylum seekers from Syria, have perished in “push backs” – a policy pursued since traffickers began taking the treacherous sea route from the Turkish coast to the Greek isles following the construction of a metal barrier along the land border that divides the two neighbours.
“There was a lot of pushing, a lot of kicking,” said Azizi with a wince. “Most of those who died were in the hold. Those of us who fell in the sea tried to hang on to the coastguard vessel for dear life but they didn’t want us to. They were stomping on our hands with their shoes.”
The conservative-dominated coalition of the Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras, has ordered an investigation. But as the controversy has intensified so has the language. Last week, the EU commissioner for human rights, Nils Muižnieks, said the incident bore all the hallmarks of a failed collective expulsion. “The Greek government has pledged to put an end to the illegal practice,” he railed. “I urge them to implement their promise.”
As anti-racist groups took to the streets, Athens’ shipping minister, Miltiades Varvitsiotis, countered that Muižnieks was trying to create a political issue out of the tragedy. Moreover, he claimed, survivors had changed their accounts of the incident.
“A father who lost his companion and their four children states clearly that the coastguard ‘saved us,'” said the politician, adding that the sudden change was “striking and curious”.
Seated in the migrant centre where he has
agreed to speak, Safi, the man in question, shakes his head in disbelief. At 39, he has lost everything. “Nothing makes sense,” he sobbed. “All I had wanted to do was get to Europe. Now we don’t want anything: asylum, protection, bread, a home. All we want is the bodies of those we love. And justice for those who did this to us.”
Source the Guardian