© Rosalie Ann R. REYES Like sardines both in the smuggler´s boat and UNHCR truck
MSF provides medical and psychological support to Somalis and Ethiopians crossing the Gulf of Aden from Somalia to Yemen.
Refugees pointed to 49 year old Abdullah and declared that he had gone mad. Irritable and overzealous about his health, he was reluctant to tell his story to the counselor in the beginning.
He recalled, "[We were] overloaded like goods, not humans". The situation grew tense when the smugglers disagreed on their next course of action. Some smugglers did not want to go near the shore fearing that the military might catch them. Others wanted to maneuver closer to the coast knowing that if other potential passengers back in Somalia hear that the current passengers were made to disembark far from the shore, they would look for the services of other smugglers. A heated argument ensued and for a moment, the passengers feared a shootout between the two opposing parties.
The conditions became unbearable for Abdullah and he started experiencing the events as a dream.
The boat arrived on the shore around 9 pm. He tried to rest but couldn't sleep the whole night. He saw heads, legs or arms without hands floating around him and kept remembering the traumatic boat trip. Though already on land, he thought he was still on the boat and crawled, instead of walked, to try to maintain his balance. He also felt like crying whenever the sea caught his attention. He started walking towards nowhere in particular until people asked him to sit down and rest. Thinking that these strange events were caused by something evil, he turned to reading the Koran to give him some consolation.
After listening intently, the counselor explained that these experiences were a reaction to the trauma that he had experienced on the boat and not a permanent sign that he had lost his mind. Upon hearing this, he cried in relief. He lamented, "I was feeling thirsty, hungry and hopeless…[and] would have gone mad if you didn't come". But because he understood what had happened to him and how he could cope better with the circumstances, he felt more confident. Filled with gratitude, he whispered "You saved me from death, madness is death."
Rosalie Ann R. Reyes, who is a Filipino psychologist, worked as a mental health officer in this project from August 2007 to January 2008. She offered counselling to the survivors as many had lost more than one close relative or friends and traumatized by the terrible experience in the journey.