Winter 2010

Behind the Tugboat

Adetokunbo Abiola

When Nosa Omorodion saw the  sharks swim toward him in the Mediterranean Sea on one March morning, he screamed, lost his balance and his hand slipped from the buoy of the net. As he struggled to grip it, the twenty-two-year old Nosa stared from the direction of the sharks, closed his eyes and waited for the fishes to attack him. While he waited, he felt his heart knock against his chest, and he  told himself: “Not again! Not again!” After a few seconds, he opened his eyes and stared with terror at the dark eyes of the fishes.

They were big, and they stared  at him without expression. Similar eyes  stared at him two years ago. The eyes of the sharks about  to attack him while he  crossed the sea on his journey to Italy in a rickety boat. Nosa was certain the sharks in front of him would be as vicious. He shrank from them and cursed himself for being faced with this situation.

Nosa, along with ten other migrants, had boarded an old boat from the Libyan capital of Tripoli and headed for the Italian enclave of Lampedusa six days ago. A day later,  the engine stopped on the open sea, and the boat drifted in the water. The skipper of a Maltese tug boat, Dafalbou, spotted it, threw a line to the migrants, but wouldn't take them on board. Before Nosa's boat sank, he and the others climbed out of it, dragged themselves along the line thrown by the Maltese skipper and held onto the buoys of the giant net being towed towards Malta by the tug boat. While the tug boat moved, Nosa and the other migrants saw the fin of a shark cut through the water one hundred meters away.

As Nosa stared at the sharks now in front of him, he regretted his decision to emigrate from Nigeria for the second time in two years. At the same time, he decided not to allow  them  attack him as the ones in the past. He worked his way along the buoys and headed for the steel cable connected to the giant net and the tug boat. As he inched his way forward, one of his hands slipped from the buoy, and he sank into the sea. "No," he shouted at the top of his voice. "No! God! Don't let me drown in the sea! Let me get to Italy. Let me see my father again." And with a gasp, he gripped at the buoys and moved on. 
The wires of the net were so sharp that they cut into his palms. He winced and wanted to forget about getting to the steel cable. But  he bit on his lips, shook his head with defiance and worked his way towards his goal. A small wave washed over him, and he dipped into the sea, but he fought his way back to the surface again. The steel cable seemed thousands of miles away. But when he remembered the eyes of the sharks, he thought about the eyes of the ones of two years ago, and he shook his head. He preferred to brave the danger involved with getting to the steel cable than risk being attacked by another giant fish.

“Oh my God!” another of the migrants, Ohene Abedi, a Ghanaian, wailed five meters from him. “These cursed fishes again!” 

Nosa stopped, turned his head and stared at Ohene. A second later,  slimy creatures  swarmed over him. Nosa shouted. He was in the path of a shoal of fishes. Some of them, he had been told in Tripoli, could devour a man in seconds. Confused, Nosa slackened his  grip on the buoy and wanted  to sink into the sea so he could die once and for all. But a will detached from his conscious self made him hold on. However, within a few seconds, he realized these may not be man-eating fishes. They only writhed  against his body; they didn't bite him. Even though the fishes didn't pose a threat to him in any way, Nosa still felt their presence  was disturbing; so great was his fear of fishes. At one moment, he shouted: “What have I done to deserve this? What have I done to deserve this?” But when a fish writhed against his crouch, he stopped shouting and beat at it with his hand.

After a few seconds, he didn't feel their presence again, and he knew they had passed. He began to work his way to the steel cable. But he had lost a lot of energy while he tried to contain the  shoal of fishes, so his speed was slow. He felt his body itch him. Nosa knew it was caused by the salty water of the sea and the scales of fishes that were rubbed against his skin, but he dared not scratch his body. Instinct told him if he did he could lose grip of the buoys and fall into the sea. Though the tug boat moved slowly on the sea, Nosa could not guarantee being able to catch up with it if he lost grip of the buoys. Rather than gamble with his survival, Nosa endured the itches, and muscled his way to the cable. Just when he reached the point where it was joined to the net, he heard thunder rumble in the sky, and the rain started to fall. Why are all these things happening to me? he asked himself?

He looked at the sky and saw dark clouds race on it. Ten minutes earlier, the sky shone in bright blue, and rain did not threaten to fall. Now the sky raged with dark clouds and thunder. Nosa did not have time to marvel about how fast the weather changed at sea. Rather, he thought of survival. He searched his past for tips on how to cope with the situation. He thought about his years in Nigeria, but he couldn't recall any time when rain fell while he was at sea. When he realised the rain could threaten his survival, he felt panic seize his limbs, and  he shivered with fear. Would he get to Italy? he asked himself. Would he ever see his father again? Though he did not have total faith in the Christian God, he shouted to Jesus Christ to stop the rain so the sea would not become turbulent.

`"The waves!» Taiwo Awojobi, a migrant from Nigeria, shouted from the buoys. «The waves. It'll smash us. We're going to die!»

Before Nosa could look in the direction of the waves, he felt a wall of water slam against him. One of his hands  shifted on the buoy, and he almost lost his grip on it. A moment later, another wave smashed into him,  knocked his head against the steel cable, and he lost his grip. As he floated in the turbulent sea, he swallowed the salty sea water, felt his mouth fill up with it, and he coughed. Another wall of water crashed on him, and it washed him  into the sea. When he came up to  the surface, he heard the horn of the tug boat and the rumble of another thunder in the sky. As the sea tossed him about, he felt his hand hit against a metallic object, and he held it. He left it  when another wave slammed against him. Nosa sank into the depths of the sea, but when he rose up, he found himself entangled in the net. As he struggled to free himself, the sea threw him to the surface. He heard Taiwo shout as if from miles away, and then hands grabbed him. 

Nosa felt his hand slip away, as the sea surge carried him from the net. Unable to control his movement, he shouted at the top of his voice: "Save me somebody! Save me somebody!" He felt a hand  grab his arm, while a sea weed clung to his face. Desperate, he used one hand to remove the weed, but his elbow scratched against one of the buoys. He knew this meant he was close to the net. He swung his hand backwards, hit the net and grabbed the buoy for the second time. But as he did this, he heard the roar of the sea and turned. A wave rolled towards him. He closed his eyes to avoid seeing the water smash into him, but nothing happened. Instead, he heard a scream from one of the other migrants. He looked in the direction of the man who had shouted. That was when water splashed against his face. He grimaced, felt being overwhelmed by the turbulence of the sea, but he wasn't washed away into it.

After he survived another assault of the waves, he found himself by the buoy once more, and he grabbed it. While he swayed in the sea water, he breathed in quick gasps. A thin line of blood streamed down the side of his arm. The remains of rubbish blocked  his nostrils, and all forms of dirt stained his hair and face.

He hung onto the buoy for the next twenty minutes, while the sea became calm. The turbulent waves, the rain, the shoal of fishes and the fall into the sea seemed occurrences of the distant past; and he began to relax. Some of the migrants  shared his mood while they stared at the now calm sea.

«How I wish it'll be like this till we get to shore ,» Taiwo said.
«But it won't be like this,» said another of the migrants, Diallo Leopold, from Senegal . «It'll soon rebel against us.»
«The sea always rebels against Africans,» Taiwo said. «It seems to tell us we're criminals for wanting to leave our countries.»
«The man who wants to leave Africa through the sea is always at the receiving end,» said Diallo. «The fishes are against him, the sea is against him, and the immigration authorities are against him.»

Just as he finished to speak, Ohene shouted at the top of his voice, and Nosa looked at him.  Ohene wore a frightened expression on his face  as he  pointed into the water. Nosa looked in the direction to which he pointed.

A shark rose to the surface of the sea, pushing its wide open mouth against the net. Nosa looked into its mouth and saw the rows of gleaming white teeth bared to reveal sharp stilts of enamel.  The teeth of the sharks two years ago were of similar shapes and sizes. Nosa recalled how the sharks overturned his boat and feasted on the bodies of the migrants who fell into the sea. He remembered climbing to the part of the boat above the sea to avoid the attacks of the sharks. He remembered the Italian boat that came to rescue the migrants from the hungry fishes. He recollected how he tried to get into the Italian boat, how one of the sharks bit off part of the muscles of his calf and how he had been hospitalized for months in a hospital before he was deported to Tripoli. And now, another giant fish faced him. He imagined being chewed by its teeth, and a look of horror crept to his face. Though an inner voice told Nosa to master his fear, he shook his head against this advice and decided to move.

"The fish can't do anything," said a migrant by his side. "They can't bite through the steel net."
"I don't believe it," Nosa said. "Those giant teeth can bite into anything when the sharks decide to do so." 

To stop an argument from breaking out, he worked his way towards the steel cable. He pushed the remembrance of being almost drowned the first time to the back of his mind. He was propelled to move  by the sight of the wide open mouth of the shark and the violence similar ones once unleashed on him. Though he knew this fear was unreasonable, as the net would prevent him from being swallowed by the fish, he couldn't master his fright. He couldn't shake off the thought of being eaten by the fishes.

"Watch out!" shouted Taiwo Awojobi, the Nigerian migrant. "Dead bodies are floating in that direction."
The dead bodies belonged to  migrants who drowned while they crossed the sea.   

Nosa  ignored the news about them,  swam on, but he soon found himself surrounded all of a sudden by the dead bodies. He screamed, left the buoy and sank into the sea. As he rose, he saw only the decomposing particles of the dead bodies. When he got to the surface, he found the bodies all around him. He began to push them out of the way. When he became tired, he gasped and sea water polluted by the decomposed bodies entered his mouth. He gagged, spat out the sea water and swept the last of the bodies away. After this, he stretched out his hand to grab the buoy, but it was half a metre ahead of him. The tug boat had pulled it out of reach.

Nosa realized if he didn't swim fast enough the Dafalbou would leave him behind. He would never get to Italy. He would never see his father again. To prevent being left behind, he swam towards the buoy with his most powerful strokes. "Faster!" shouted Ohene. "For Christ's sake, faster, or we'll leave you behind." But Nosa had eaten his last meal days ago. Coupled with his earlier exertion in the sea,  he didn't have  the strength to increase his strokes to close the gap between himself and the buoy. "Go for the ropes!" shouted Taiwo. "The ropes!"

Six ropes were tied to the edges of the buoys. Each of them trailed after the net in the water as the tug boat moved on the sea. To catch up with the buoy, Nosa would have to grab one of the ropes as it came from behind. Since it was the only hope to survival, Nosa headed in the direction where he could grab the nearest rope to him. As he swam, he felt strength continued being drained from his body, and he felt his speed was too slow. 

But when he realized once again that the rope was his only hope to survival, he wiped the thought of fatigue out of his mind. He gritted his teeth and strove to increase his strokes. The sound of a helicopter reached him from the sky, but he was so desperate about getting to the rope that he didn't attach any importance to it. When he got to the place where he was supposed to intersect the path of the rope and didn't see it, he gave himself up for dead. I'll never get to Italy, he thought. Just as he opened his mouth to give a valedictory shout, he felt something slide across his neck, realized it was the rope and grabbed it.

As the tug boat pulled him along the sea once more, he realized how close he was to being left behind. What if he had missed the rope? he thought. He would almost certainly be left adrift on the sea. Within five minutes, he would drown, or the shark one hundred meters behind the tug boat would finish him off, depending on the one that came first. In either case, he would never see his father again. He would never get to Italy. As this occurred to him, he questioned the reason for the fright that overwhelmed him any time the sharks rose to the surface of the sea. Would this not push him to premature death? While he thought about this, he pulled at the rope so he could slide along it to the buoys.

As he worked his way forward, he felt he was close to exhaustion, but he continued to pull at the rope, until he was a meter from his fellow migrants. Ohene held out a hand, and Nosa put his palm in it. Ohene pulled him, and Nosa, once again, held onto the buoy of the giant net. A few seconds later, he heard the sound of the helicopter and stared at it. 

It  flew around the tug boat, headed to the East and came back for another journey around the migrants. While he watched it fly, Nosa hoped help would come from the pilot, and he closed his eyes to pray for it. At that moment, he heard the sound of the craft come near, and he opened his eyes. The helicopter dove towards the sea, leveled up and headed to the spot where the migrants held onto the buoy of the giant net. When the helicopter flew above him, Nosa saw the pilot lean out of the window of the cockpit and speak to the migrants through a loudspeaker. Nosa guessed the man spoke in Italian, a language Nosa didn't understand. From the corner of his eyes, he saw the craft move away, and he ceased to hear the voice of the pilot.

As Nosa watched the helicopter fly away to the West, he suspected the pilot went to get help to assist the migrants who clung to the buoy. Though Nosa felt a little relieved by this, it did not drive away the question that grew in him since the tug boat almost left him behind. Would premature death not come if he didn't pull himself together?

The problem, he knew, was the fish. If it came up from the depths of the sea, Nosa would remember the ones of two years ago, and it would make him try to work his way to the steel cable.

Nosa knew this was dangerous. If he worked his way to the steel cable and  was unable to hold onto it, he would fall into the sea, while the tug boat would leave him behind, as it almost did a few minutes ago.

Left behind in the sea, Nosa would be in trouble. He could not swim for more than five minutes without getting exhausted. If he became tired,  he would be left at the mercy of the water. Within five minutes, he could  drown.

Nosa reflected that he might not even survive up to five minutes of swimming through the currents of the sea before he died. A shark followed on the heels of the tug boat one hundred meters away. Nosa saw its fin emerge from time to time above the surface of the water. Nosa didn't believe the shark would act different from the ones that attacked him two years ago. He believed the nature of sharks could not be changed. Nature created them ferocious animals from creation. If Nosa became stranded at sea, the shark would sense his helplessness and move in for the kill. Nobody would rescue Nosa.

Apart from this, Nosa knew the sea changed fast. At one moment, it was calm, while cool breezes blew over the surface. At another moment, it was rough, while giant waves rose and fell. If Nosa lost his hold of the buoy on his way to the steel cable, and the sea chose to be rough at the moment, he would fall in and drown.

Nosa, as he held onto the buoy,  felt justified in being pessimistic. He had been lucky twice before. The first time was when he lost grip of the buoy and the waves swept him into the sea. The second time was when he caught up with the tug boat after it left him.  He believed it was not possible for him to be lucky a third time. He felt any more mistake could lead to his death.

If he died, Nosa thought, how would he get to Italy one day? If he didn't get to Italy, he continued to think, how would he get the money to offset the debt his father incurred to sponsor Nosa's trip out of Nigeria? If his father didn't offset the debt, how would Nosa save him from his creditors? If his father could not save himself from his creditors, how could he keep the family home that was used as collateral for the loans used to sponsor Nosa's trip? No, Nosa thought, he had to stay alive to avoid being the cause of his father's tragedy.

If he wanted to stay alive, Nosa told himself, he must be steady when the sharks came up from the depths of the sea. But he found it difficult to  imagine himself being steady in the presence of ferocious fishes. He thought about how to solve this problem for a long moment then nodded his head after he figured out how to get around it. He closed his eyes and wore a stubborn look on his face. He pictured himself gazing at the sharks without fear. He held the image in his sight for several minutes and told himself he must exorcise the shark incident of two years ago from his mind once and for all.

But he couldn't shake off the fear of the sharks, and he wore a helpless  expression on his face for several seconds. He then opened his eyes and thought about the problem again. After several minutes, he took a long breath, bit on his lips and told himself again and again that he had  to maintain calm in the presence of the sharks. He then  steeled his heart, tightened his stomach muscles and vowed to forget the past when they came up. After the vow,  he tightened his grip on the buoy of the giant net and watched the water of the sea tumble past him.

Two hours later while Nosa held onto the buoys,  he saw bubbles rise up to the surface of the water. Nosa suspected this meant the sharks would soon make an appearance, and he stared in the direction of the sky.

There was no sign of the helicopter, and the sun was low in the March evening. Nosa stared away from the sun and saw dark clouds make their  stealthy approach from the East. Nosa worried about this, because it meant rain was about to fall.

He remembered what happened earlier in the day when rain fell. Waves came from the sea, slammed into him and washed him into the water. Though the incident occurred hours ago, Nosa still felt his stomach heave from the salty water lodged in it. Apart from the water, he also recalled being entangled in the giant net after the waves threw him against it. Wounds opened on his skin, and he felt pain when water touched them. All these made him pray against the coming of the rain.

But Ohene, the Ghanaian migrant, shouted: "The fishes again! They've come up! We’re going to die." Though Nosa had steeled himself against being fearful of the fishes, he still felt his heart miss a beat. One of his hands slipped from the buoy, but he grabbed it again. As he positioned himself to stare at the net, he felt it being pulled all of a sudden.

"The fishes are angry!" Ohene shouted. "Oh, my God! They want to eat us."
"Will you shut up and pull yourself together?" Taiwo told him.

As Nosa stared away from Taiwo, he saw two sharks struggle against the net. With horror painted on his face, he saw one pull away from its companion and head in his direction. Nosa felt the urge to leave the buoy, fall into the sea and drown in the water. But he remembered his vow, held onto the buoy and told himself not to move away. When the shark pulled at the net with its teeth, he shouted at the top of his voice, but he didn't leave the buoy.

"Where's the helicopter?" Ohene shouted by his side. "We're going to die in this crazy sea.".
"If you don't shut up, I'll slap you!" said Odartey Lamptey, another Ghanaian migrant. 

Thunder rumbled in the sky, and the rain began to fall. Nosa tightened his grip on the buoy so he wouldn't fall off it if the sharks pushed against the net with all their might. He heard the sound of a wave as it came towards him, and he looked in its direction. The wall of water slammed against his body, and he fell into the sea. For a moment, he was adrift, but since the wave was not followed by another, he was able to grab at the buoy again.

But the waves had not finished with him, as another slammed into him. Its force was so strong it swept him away from his position by the buoy, and he tumbled into the depths of the sea. As he floated to the surface, he saw lots of dirty and decomposed materials fill his sight, and he swallowed some of them. To expel them, he gasped and spat out the materials from his mouth. While he drifted about in the water, he felt the net touch his hand and grabbed it. He worked his way to the buoy and saw Ohene a few meters away.

"Just when we're about to be saved," moaned Ohene, who struggled against the tumble of water.
"The fishes again," Taiwo said in a quiet voice.

Nosa looked into the water and saw a fish float less than two metres from him. It was over twenty meters in length, and it was the biggest fish he had ever seen. It pushed  its snout against the net,  opened its mouth, grabbed the net with its teeth, shook it with vehemence and then thrashed its tail against the sea. 

The water of the sea rose high in the air and then splashed down below. Nosa wiped his face of the water that landed on it. Before he could look in the direction of the shark, he felt the net being pulled against his shoulder as the fish rose out of the sea for the second time. Nosa heard the sound of the splash of water as the shark fell back in the sea. Nosa spent the next few seconds struggling to maintain balance in the surge of sea water. While he did this, he saw a small wave head towards him, but he rode it by thrusting his upper body forward and up above it. 

As  water rose and fell around him, Nosa felt panic grip him. The sharks of two years ago acted the same way just before they attacked him and his fellow migrants. Was he about to experience the same situation? Was he about to have his calf muscles bitten by the deadly fish? And he felt the urge to work his way from the buoy to the steel cable. But he remembered his vow,  gritted his teeth and told himself he had to  hold on. He would manage his fear and stay put. Though the fish's body touched his arm as it battled to get out of the net, Nosa didn't let go of the buoy, as he allowed himself to be tossed about in the violence of the water.

After a moment, Nosa felt the sea become calm. He thought the shark, unable to get out of the net, was resigned to its fate. But Nosa was mistaken, as the net was thrown upwards while the shark tried to leap out of the sea. Nosa felt his hands fly off the buoy due to the violence of the movement. As he fell against the net, he heard Ohene give a frightened cry. Nosa grabbed the buoy once again.

"We must be calm," Taiwo said a few yards away from him. "This fish can't eat us."
"It's a lie!" Ohene shouted. "Their teeth can cut through the net." And he pointed into the sea. "Look at the beasts! Look at the beasts!"

Nosa looked in the direction to which he pointed. He saw the sharks as they twisted underneath the net. Nosa felt they were angry at not being allowed to roam free in the sea. While he stared at them with horror, he remembered the sharks that attacked him. He was convinced the ones in front of him  would act the same way  if they got too angry about being trapped in the net. He felt another urge to leave the buoy and work his way to the steel cable. But when he remembered he almost got drowned twice before while he made the effort, he told himself he would hold on.

"The helicopter!" shouted Ohene. "It's coming! And a ship too."

Nosa turned, stared at the sky and saw the helicopter.  Underneath it on the sea, a ship ploughed through the water and headed in the direction of the migrants. As this took place, Nosa noticed the tug boat no longer moved.

"God has answered our prayers," said Odartey.

“I knew the helicopter will come back!” shouted Ohene. “I knew it.”

At that moment,  Nosa felt an alien body touch his skin. He looked away from the helicopter and the ship and stared at his hand. He saw the biggest shark near him at the other side of the net. The shark opened  its mouth wide, and Nosa panicked because he imagined himself being grabbed by it and swallowed into its belly. As he attempted to move away, he remembered his promise not to do this, and he remained motionless. Rather than move away, he closed his eyes, held onto the buoy and waited for the shark to attack him through the net. The fish didn't attack, but Nosa kept his eyes closed until Ohene tapped him on the shoulder. When he opened his eyes, he found that the fish was gone. While he looked towards the helicopter, he saw its pilot drop life jackets into the sea.  He looked away from him and stared at the rescue ship. It had stopped about twenty yards from the migrants, while its sailors  began  to make rescue preparations..