An estimated 11 million Syrians have been forced to flee from their homes since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. Depp Mattock is one of the lucky ones, who made it all the way to safety in Europe. This is the violent and sad account of his voyage from Syria to Denmark (originally published by Information on July 15th, 2016: www.information.dk/dødsrejsen)


I remember Al-Sharqawi, the human trafficker, shouting, just before we enter the truck that’ll take us to the boat towards Europe:

”Come on! Only 30 minutes till take-off!”

Except for the clothes we are wearing, he’s not allowing us to take any belongings with us.

I’m in a hurry. Packing my passport, my papers of identification and what money I have left in a nylon bag, to prevent them from getting wet, in case we sink. I put them in my pockets.

It’s late summer 2014, and it’s a year ago since I was forced to run from Damascus in Syria, where I’m born, where I have my family and friends, where I studied at the university.

Al-Sharqawi has shooed us into a covered cargo space, which was meant to transport chickens. There are about 50 people in the car. People are having trouble breathing, and we’ve started pushing each other. We feel that we’re about to choke. The truck is driving down what feels like an uneven road, and we’re beginning to feel the humidity from the sea pouring in through an opening in the roof of the car; it’s a stark contrast to the dry air we’ve grown accustomed to from the desert.

The truck is probably still in Libya, but we don’t know where. Neither do we know where it’s taking us. All we know, is that it’s taking us on travel that people call the voyage of death. The smell of the sea intensifies. Knowing that soon we’ll have to cross the sea, so do our fears and worries.

The truck comes to a halt, and the silence is broken by a child crying. The trafficker opens the doors, and the first thing we see, are the blue colours of the ocean. It is beautiful. But once I step out onto the beach, the only thing I feel, is terror.

There are about 600 of us, I believe, each being transported to the ship in small, inflatable boats. The first group of women and children get onboard, and my friend Mohammed and I are asked to help people from the inflatable boats and unto the ship. We asked for this job, because we don’t want to be the first to come aboard – the first to come aboard are thrown down into the engine room, and we want a spot on deck.

But our plan falls through. By the time we’ve gotten all the passengers onboard, there are no longer any vacant spots. The old trafficking ship is designed to transport 300 people, but it’s already loaded with roughly twice as many.

We try to hang on to the ship, and beg Al-Sharqawi not to send us back to the coast, even though we fear that staying on the ship will end in both of us drowning. But he shouts and hits us, and shortly after we and 50 others stand on the Libyan beach once again.

We find shelter in a house, where we wait for the next boat that can take us to Europe. Only a few days after, we meet the traffickers again. They immediately demand us to leave the house, since the boat on which we didn’t get a place, has disappeared not far from the Libyan coast. Now Libyan police are searching for Al-Sharqawi and the other traffickers in the town of Zuwara, where the inhabitants woke up to the sight of hundreds of bodies of drowned men, women and children, who’ve been flushed onto the beach from the ocean waves. Some of them are partly devoured by fish.

The voyage of death

But even though we feel sad for the friends who drowned at sea, we have to concentrate on hiding from the villagers and the police, who’ve started detaining both Syrians and Africans. Suddenly we’re in the middle of a war between the trafficking mob on the one side, and the police and the villagers on the other. There is no way out anymore – except for the one that leads to the sea, where the risk of drowning is so damned high. Only one out of ten passengers are rescued when a ship goes down. But it is our only option.

Foto: Depp Mattock

We are relieved, therefore, when we get in touch with another trafficker who’ll sail out at night. It costs a 1.000 dollars more, but before we know it, we’re on our way to a new boat. From the North Libyan coast, not far from the border of Tunisia, we’re once again transported to the trafficking ship by inflatable boat. This time it carries approximately 350 people.

When everyone are in place, the trafficker makes to abandon the ship, despite the women onboard pleading with him to stay. We have no idea where we are, and if he leaves us, there is no one to steer the boat. But he’s unaffected by their pleading, and hits one of the travelers with the handle of his gun. And then he’s gone. He has taken our money – 350 times 1.000 dollars – and has jumped into the sea. Now he’s swimming towards another boat, which is waiting for him. That is the last time we see him.

The voyage of death has begun, and it preludes with the sound of screaming. Each wave makes the boat rise abruptly and violently fall down again. The passengers stagger and move around in a desperate attempt to keep the vessel in balance, all the time dreading that the boat will succumb to the waves and the wind. Later, we change tactics, attempting to regain a sense of calmness. At the same time, one of the Eritrean passengers assumes responsibility for steering the vessel, but he’s not doing a very good job, and we remain without sail or direction. Meanwhile, we feel more and more lost. Food and water supplies are running out, women and children are getting seasick, and the rays of the sun are burning our humid bodies.

Fights are beginning to break out at the bottom of the ship. We are surprised to find that 200 people reside in the engine room. They have neither water, nor any oxygen, and they all wish to escape the room confining them and get up on deck. With our hands and feet, however, we try to keep them where they are, because we know that the boat will tilt and we’ll all drown, if they succeed in getting up on deck.

The boat starts to sway, and the sound of fighting spreads over the quiet ocean. We try to make peace and compromise, and after sometime we manage to make a deal with the primarily African refugees who reside in the engine room. We agree to a principle of rotation, meaning that we’ll continuously switch places. That way, everybody has at least temporary access to fresh air, and we keep the boat in balance.

Taking advantage of the relative calm now onboard, we attempt to get in touch with the Italian coast guard and the Red Cross, using a Thuraya satellite phone. We get through, and tell them that water has penetrated the bottom of the boat, and that we’re not sure how long it’ll last.

Watch Depp present his article

But we can’t tell them where we are, because we have no GPS and nothing to indicate where we are. No stars on the sky, no land in sight. The call is cut off, desperation onboard increases, and stories are beginning to circulate between the passengers.

Some of them say that Europe has no more room for refugees. Others say that they will open fire against us and try to sink the boat. There are those who believe, that the waves will be so steep that we’ll never make it. Still others say that we should not wait for help – because none will come. At this point, the fragile sense of order ensured by the rotation policy, breaks down, when one group refuses to go down below deck again. New fights arise, and once again I feel fear and doubt.

On a windless night in Ghouta

I feel like someone drowned, without a grave, or witnesses who’ll be able to show my family where to mourn. Without friends who can carry my casket on their shoulders, without tears, without a final salute as parting words, without a ceremony. I wonder whether my father can ever forgive me for what I have done to myself.

I look to my friend, Mohamed, and I can see how weariness, exhaustion and thirst has affected him as well. I can tell that he’s thinking about his child, who was killed on August 21st, 2013, in an attack with chemical weapons in Ghouta in Damascus. That date is important to me, because it is on that day disaster and cruelty struck what once was my city. It’s one year ago, to the date, as we sit on this boat, but I remember every second of it.

Everybody was asleep in Ghouta that night. It was a windless night. And then came Assad’s sarin gas. In the course of five minutes, at least 500 people were killed without being able to do anything about it, as they were asleep when it happened. Most of the victims I saw, were women, children and the elderly. Many of my friends, acquaintances and family members were killed that morning. I myself was fortunate enough not to suffocate. I wasn’t exposed to a sufficient amount of gas for it to take my life, but it was enough to knock me unconscious for a couple of hours.

I awoke to the noise of the street. A woman was screaming, and I went outside. I asked her if there was anything I could do to help. She said there was an entire family up in a building. I didn’t understand what she was trying to tell me, but I went up there to see if I could help. I broke down the door to a flat, where I came upon an entire family still in their pajamas. Children and grown-ups alike. They were dead. They all had a white fluid around their mouths.

I heard a sound from somewhere else in the building and went on. I found a little boy, lying on the floor. He was in apparent pains. The boy in my arms, I went to the hospital, and it wasn’t until I had gotten him to safety, that I realized that my eyesight was failing me. I felt dizzy again, had a hard time breathing, pains in my stomach. Before long, I lost sight on one eye completely. When I fled from my home country and my occupied city, I was hoping to find someone who could give treatment to my eye. So when I reached Lebanon, I waited a long time for help, but Lebanon too was a country in mayhem – and there wasn’t much help to be found.

The attack on Ghouta was the beginning of a year on the run. When I’d reached Lebanon, I travelled illegally all the way to Algeria, moving still closer to the coast of Lebanon. I wanted to get to Europe, and I had heard that there might be a passage through Western Libya.

In Algeria I was arrested and detained for two days by officers of the border patrol, as I was trying to cross the border to Libya illegally. I had though that once I got away from Syria, I’d be safe, but I was mistaken. After being released in Algeria, I attempted once more to cross the border, and this time I succeeded. For two hours I walked through the Libyan desert, until the group I was part of reached the place, where trucks could pick us up and take us away from the binoculars of the Algerian border patrol. The group consisted of 400 refugees, and we were led through the desert by a smuggler called Sultan, though that wasn’t his real name. He was a marihuana smuggler and human trafficker, and part of a local mob.

He installed us in a tent next to a water well, in the heart of the desert. There were plenty of insects in the well, rather than actual water, and the temperature easily exceeded forty degrees. We gathered in front of the tent and he informed us of his power, of the number of men that he commanded and of his wealth – as measured in valuables and firearms. Then, he demanded that we pay 1.800 dollars for the journey to Italy. This would be in addition to the 800 dollars it had cost us getting transported to the Libyan coastal border.

Wielding a gun, he threatened to shoot us if we didn’t pay him the money. He released a few rounds into the ground where we stood, and a canvas bag was soon thrown to him, containing – by my count – 600.000 dollars.

On the following morning the trucks, normally used for transporting sand and cement, began to move, and even in these early hours the sun seemed to be blazing at its peak. We were carrying only our bags, our solitary possesions.

A tire blew and three hours were spent repairing it. Above and below, the sun and the sand schorched us. Not a trace of shadow, nor water. Women and children in our company started fainting and they were quickly disposed of by the traffickers, who could afford them no help. Three, having lost consciousness under the desert sun, were abandoned to their fate.

Most of us, however, were able to continue, and one evening we arrived in the town of Zuwara. One of the traffickers took us to a market place and we were put up for sale. It was like an auction. I realized, finally, that I had become a commodity. We were as slaves, sold and bought – we were pure currency.

“Noah the trafficker will take 40 Syrians at 40.000 dollars,” someone yelled.

Another one got 50 Syrians for the same price, and so our unit was traded to a young Libyan man by the name of Alexander Al-Sharqawi.

He left us in a deserted house and ordered us not to go outside. Each person was allowed a single loaf of bread and a glass of water as their daily food ration. We were put in a room with a group of people for the most part made out of Syrians. One of them, having spotted a small notebook in my pocket that I kept for recording small accounts of our journey, asked me what my profession was.

“I’m a journalist,” I answered in a low voice.

“Keep quiet! If the traffickers find out, they’ll kill you and dump you in the desert,” whispered the guy next to me.

I took his advice, hid the notebook and kept silent about my profession for the remainder of the journey.

One day, the traffickers declared that the men were to be separated from their wives. By all appearances they abducted the women for a week or so, with no explanation as to what would happen to them. If asked, the traffickers would reply that the women were in a safe, far-away place.

A week later the women returned, in a state of desperation. They broke into screams and began hitting their husbands, soon tiring with the effort. One woman sunk her nails into her man’s face, weeping, cursing and swearing at everybody. Of the abducted women, the youngest, most beautiful ones, I never saw again.

“Her eyes are full of sorrow”

Onboard the trafficking boat, I’m disengaged from my thoughts as, once more, screams fill the air. The boat has been labouring through the waters for more than thirty hours now, and the motor has broken down. Again the boat begins to flood.

We try to counter the leakage with our bare hands, with our clothes, with empty bottles. But the water gets in all the same. As I work, the feeling of exhaustion begins to settle in my body. It is worn out by the prolonged escape, the rigorous heat and the moisture.

Foto: Depp Mattock

Again, we establish contact with the Red Cross and alert them of the danger we’re in. They promise to dispatch a vehicle to search for us. We still don’t know where we are, and they are unable to determine our position by radar.

I’m Syrian and in desperate times – at all times – I seek refuge in poetry; in a poem of Jalâl ad-Dîn Rumi, the Persian 13th century poet:

How do I know
Who I am or where I am

How can a single wave

Find itself
In an ocean

Our attempts to repair the motor are in vain. The darkness grows dense as we enter our second night at sea. Two days that feel like an eternity. There is no water, no medicine and no food. The boat, too, has grown weary from the journey – it’s an old vehicle, and it could sink at any moment. Then, all of a sudden, a flicker of hope. We catch sight of a large ship on the horizon. Possibly it will always appear to be at the last moment, that one sees what one hopes to be the salvation?

As the ship moves closer, we see that its colours are red. It comes to a halt, still at some distance, and we’re unable to reach it by swimming. We stand on the deck, raising the children over our heads and screaming:

“Bambino, Bambino!” Others are shouting: “Water, water!”

From the red ship a life boat is coming toward us. There are two people on board, and they tell us to keep calm while we wait for the coast guard to arrive, as they have successfully located our position.

They let us have some water, and after a few hours wait, the Italian coast guard arrives with life jackets, which they start throwing into the boat. Again, fights break out – this time over who gets a life jacket first. About four hours go by before the boat is completely vacated. We leave the boat behind us in the middle of the sea, where it drifts out of sight. It will drown out here, along with the soul of a man who died from a blow he received to the head, during the struggle for a life jacket.

Once aboard the Italian military ship, our names are taken down. There are more than 2.000 people aboard the ship, which also carries refugees picked up from other ships.

I join a doctor, helping him by translating from English to Arabic. A young woman is feeling very faint. Her lips are blue, her face is pallid and she’s running a fever. Her eyes are full of sadness and sorrow. It is as if she is not present at all. I ask her mother what has happened to her daughter, but she merely says that she doesn’t need help. I insist on getting an answer.

“I was in the house with you, before you and your daughter disappeared with the other women. And then I don’t see you until now,” I say.

She starts to cry, and then she explains:

“They put us in an abandoned house. They broke into our rooms. The smell of alcohol and marihuana still has not gone away. They were armed. All three of them. I tried to deny them access. I begged them to leave, but in vain. My daughter turned 17 this spring, she was just a girl,” the woman tells me.

“The men hit her and took her into their car. A week went by before she came back. She was wearing the same clothes, but now it was covered by traces of blood. She hasn’t said a word since that day.”

I join the woman in crying, and can no longer translate a single word for the doctor.

After arriving in Italy, I follow the route through Europe and end up in Denmark. I haven’t had the nerve to write this down before now – almost two years later.

Now the EU have made a deal with Turkey, in an attempt to seal off the safer route that runs through Turkey. That deal has reopened ‘my’ route to Europe.

The death ships sail again.

TRANSLATION BY: Jarl Viktor Schultz & Daniel Marslew


  1. Jeg vil dele Depp Mattocks artikel med de af mine bekendte der tror, at flygtninge flygter på grund af luksusproblemer
  2. Jeg vil blive frivillig i Venligboernes Flygtningehjælp – klik ind på https://www.facebook.com/groups/1496153803995409
  3. Jeg vil hjælpe unge flygtninge sammen med Dansk Flygtningehjælp: http://www.dfunk.dk