Friday 28 August 2015

Drowning in Droves

Zuwara docks last night
 The death toll of migrants at the borders of Europe just keeps on rising. More than three hundred thousand have tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea this year, already 40 per cent up on 2014. The International Office of Migration has confirmed 2,432 deaths ‘associated with the sea crossings’ in 2015. Many more people have disappeared. ‘Associated’ deaths and disappearances mean DROWNINGS, of which more anon.

When we do get serious information about conditions in Syria or Eritrea it becomes obvious why so many are leaving. Faced with barrel bombing, starvation and homelessness, let alone arrest or compulsory conscription,  I would be the first to risk death in exchange for some hope of a decent life for myself and my children.

Papyrus of Timotheus' 'drowning barbarian' poem
As I write, the TV screen witnesses to the despair of people rescued from the boats which capsized yesterday off the Libyan coast. Scores of orange body bags fluoresce on the Zuwara docks. The estimated fatalities from Thursday already amount to two hundred. I just can’t understand how the drownings can keep on coming while the world looks on.  We may try to wash our hands clean of the toxic fallout from 500 years of colonialism plus 25 of ill-considered ‘western intervention’ in sovereign states. But posterity will despise us to a man and woman for our pathetic inaction now.

Nor are we hearing enough about the horror of death by drowning. Each one of those body bags contains a story of a terrifying and excruciating individual death. Drowning survivors report extreme pain in the upper chest, spreading down the lungs and arms, compounded by cramps in the legs, choking, and searing pressure on ear drums and eye balls. This agony can last for up to eight minutes before consciousness is lost.

Drowning is so vile that it has been used as a form of punitive capital punishment and in Guantanamo as a method of torture. The earliest extended description of a drowning comes in a triumphalist ancient Greek poem by Timotheus celebrating the death of a member of Xerxes’ forces who couldn’t swim and suffered terribly before expiring at the battle of Salamis. I.e. drowning is a death you do wish on your worst enemy.

Unimaginable suffering
In an obscenely first-world way, in Greece on Tuesday I experienced the terror that comes before being overwhelmed by the Mediterranean. As a privileged touristic swimmer, I stupidly assumed that I could front-crawl my way through some huge waves in a high wind against prudent expert advice. I did win my battle with the sea, just, but have a badly strained shoulder muscle as a reward for my hubristic recklessness. Feeling chastened in every sense.

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