On Monday 20th April, Elyud drowned along with his mother, Selemawit Amanuel Issack (37), a few meters from land at Zephyros, Rhodes. They had travelled from their home town of Asmara, capital of Eritrea via Sudan and Turkey.
"I spoke to them on Sunday, the day before they died," Yonas Amanuel Issack said. He is Selemawit’s brother who moved to Hitra in Norway last year.
Adresseavisen met with Yonas in Athens, along with his friend Filimon Gebrgergishe Tedros who had accompanied him to Greece from Norway.
"We talked about how they were and my sister said it was all ok. She was in Istanbul and said nothing about having a place on a boat from Marmaris."
Delivering the message
He also rang his sister on the 20th. He’d heard that that a boat with refugees had gone aground on rocks near Rhodes. Selemawit didn’t answer her phone.
He heard two days later from Filimon that his sister and nephew were amongst those who died. Filimon had spoken to a friend in Oslo, the capital of Norway, who knew that a boat with 92 refugees and migrants had run aground and three people had drowned. The friend in Oslo was certain that two of the three were Elyud and Selemawit. The third victim was a Syrian in his 20s.
"I was shocked and had to decide what to do. Whether I should tell Yonas his sister and nephew were dead. I didn’t have a choice, he had to know. I couldn’t lie to him," said Filimon.
The same day, with only the clothes they were wearing, the pair drove to Trondheim, a city in central Norway. Early on Thursday 23rd they flew via Copenhagen and Athens onto Rhodes.
Friends through thick and thin
"Yonas couldn’t travel alone," said Filimon who had been given leave instantly by his manager.
Filimon is 29, Yonas 33 and they grew up together in Asmara. They say they are more like brothers than friends.
Filimon moved to Hitra in Norway in 2012, after arriving in Norway in 2009. Yonas arrived in 2013, and a year later, moved to Hitra once he had a residence and work permit. Now Yonas is learning Norwegian and works part-time in a savings bank. Most of all, he’s learning Norwegian from his friend Filimon, who talks non-stop.
When Adresseavisen met them, they were tired, hungry and stressed. They still had a final task ahead of them, accompanying Elyud's and Selemawit’s coffins to Athens airport before they were flown onto Asmara. They had sat in a café and waited for the undertaker’s vehicle to arrive, an old, black, lorry. Inside the lorry, the caskets were stacked on top of each other. Two simple, unpainted boxes made of chipboard and sealed with wire. The sight brought Yonas close to collapse. The undertaker’s driver tried to comfort him, patting his shoulder.
Memorial on Rhodes
Yonas and Filimon showed us the photos they had taken on Rhodes. With other fishermen and Babis Manias, who carried Elyud ashore, they took part in a memorial at the boat wreck site. They lit candles and lay flowers. Some of the photos showed boat wreckage still on the beach.
"Elyud was still alive when Babis carried him ashore. The doctors confirmed he was still alive when he reached the hospital but he couldn’t be revived and died in the hospital," Yonas said.
Whilst on Rhodes, Yonas heard that Elyud had fallen in the water. Selemawit tried to save him, but drowned because she didn't know how to swim.
Not everything is sad on Rhodes. At the hospital, Yonas and Filimon visited an Eritrean woman, one of the 89 people who survived. A few days after landing, she’d given birth to a son. The baby is named Anthony after the man who had saved them. When Yonas and Filimon realized the woman had no possessions, they bought her clothes.
Expensive and dangerous journey
The journey Yonas’ family had taken started in Asmara, onto the border town of Tesseney, to Khartoum in Sudan and then to Istanbul; thereafter to the sea port of Marmaris where they started the fatal boat trip. Yonas estimates the journey cost them around 13 000 US dollars. In addition to the smugglers’ and transport costs, the false passports and travel papers are also expensive.
He doesn’t think they were necessarily heading for Norway, despite the hat. “They just wanted to leave Eritrea. Any country with freedom would have done, they didn’t know where they might have ended up,” said Yonas.
He knew the hat Elyud was wearing was typically Norwegian but not where it came from. Selemawit might have got it in Turkey he thinks.
Two of the 92 people on board are now in prison, suspected of people smuggling and in charge of the boat. The two prisoners are Syrian, their claims of refugee status are not being taken credibly by the Rhodes authorities.
Now there is a childless widower in Asmara. Yonas and Filimon assume he wasn’t with his family because there wasn’t enough money for the three to travel together but also because he’s a soldier, which in Eritrea means being a virtual prisoner of the military services.
"If a man doesn’t fill his military duty, others in his family will be either subject to extortion or imprisoned," explained Yonas.
No young men get to leave Eritrea, the only way out is to run away. Both Yonas and Filimon started military service, they didn’t want to discuss their escape, just saying it took longer and had more stopovers than Elyud and Selemawit’s journey.
So far this year, 150 Eritreans have come to Norway. Many of them gambled with their lives crossing the Mediterranean. Last year 2882 Eritrean’s applied for asylum in Norway, forming the largest group of asylum seekers.
“The majority say they are evading military service or that they’ve deserted. In Eritrea men are forcibly recruited into the military and large parts of the male population spend their lives in a situation of combined enforced work and military service,” said Hanne Jendal, Head of the Asylum Department at the Norwegian Ministry of Immigration. “Virtually all Eritreans seeking asylum in Norway, get it.”
Abuse, torture, execution and abductions
"Deserters are considered traitors. Risking torture, abuse, detention and eventually, even worse conditions during military service. Which are already extremely bad conditions," said Jendal.
Eritreans seeking asylum in Norway report the ways they get across the Mediterranean. From Eritrea, they travel via Sudan, Libya and onto Italy, according to UDI information. Some travel via Egypt. The Organization for Asylum Seekers (Noas) have talked to Eritreans who tell of very difficult conditions in Libya. Refugees are being kidnapped by armed groups that force them to buy their freedom, with smugglers demanding up to 10,000 euros for transport to Europe.
"The consequences of abuse, arbitrary detention, torture, executions and disappearances in secret prisons, is that between 2000 and 4000 Eritreans are fleeing the country each month - despite the Eritrean border guards having orders to shoot to kill," writes Noas on their website.
Yonas is dreading telling his family. There were nine siblings, now there are eight, including a brother in Oslo.
He can’t accompany the coffins to Asmara. He’s a deserter and therefore considered a traitor. If he returns he at best risks prison, at worst, his life. He is one of thousands of young men who have left Eritrea, a country of about 5 million people. Yonas and Filimon have Eritrean friends in many countries.
Now they’re happily settling into Norway and Hitra. In Eritrea they helped their fathers with their respective businesses, Filimon’s father is an electrician and Yonas is a car mechanic. Yonas would still like to work in a car workshop. Each hopes for their house, home and own family. Most of all, they want peace in Eritrea.
All of Europe’s responsibility
The black lorry followed the signs to the cargo area of E. Venizelos, Athens’ international airport. The coffins will be weighed before going into cold storage.
Security Chief George Zorbanos has seen coffins like this before. When he’d heard that these two were being transported from Rhodes he knew instantly who the dead were.
"Greece is a border country with many thousands of islands. The flood of refugees was a known catastrophe; we know they come here in spring when the air and water are warmer. Refugees pay dearly, and for what, for nothing. People smugglers knowingly sail towards the rocks and let the boats sink. What’s happening in the Mediterranean is not just a Greek problem, but a responsibility for the whole of Europe," Zorbanos said.
He wants the tragedy to be known and allows us to photograph the coffins.
There’s a lot of traffic in in the cargo department. Goods are moved around at high speed and the noise is intense. In the middle of the chaos Yonas says his last goodbyes. The coffins are still in the lorry but half shielded by the lorry doors, he has a final moment alone with Elyud and Selemawit.
«Closer to one another»
Prime Minister Erna Solberg used the picture of the fisherman who carried the little boy ashore when she opened the Norwegian parliament's discussion of the Syrian crisis, Mediterranean and North Africa on Thursday. But she didn't know it was 6 year old Elyud Dawit from Eritrea, nor that he was most likely on his way to Hitra, that she was talking about.
"This proves to me how close we are to one another in the world today," Solberg said.
The picture of the fisherman and boy has become an iconic image around the world of the crisis in the Mediterranean. The story of the tiny boy leaves a strong impression.
"No matter where a child is going, it is equally dramatic when it goes wrong. But it seems much closer to know he had family in Norway, and that maybe he and his mother wanted to come here," said Solberg.
She wanted to show how close the global links are today.
"We are closer to one another in the world today. What we think is far away is actually close. There are many people with ties to Norway. Friends and family are affected."
- Does this change how you make decisions?
"It proves to me how tightly connected we are to the world. For better and for worse," the prime minister said.
On Thursday Parliament announced the contribution of a rescue boat to the EU's Mediterranean border police. Parliament additionally increased existing financial support to the force by another 250 million kroner, to a billion. It was also suggested some of the refugees already in the EU could come straight to Norway. There was no agreement however for Norway to increase the total number of refugees to be settled in 2015.