Migrant boy swam 16 hours to shore after smuggling boat left him to drown in the Aegean

The boat would wait for him. It had to wait for him.

Amjad had dived into the Aegean waves only because the dinghy was sinking, and he and 14 other Syrian guys wanted to lighten the load. If they just got in the water, grasped the rope along the side and held on tight, they could save the women and children on board. It never occurred to Amjad that he was a child himself. So over the edge he went, into the water.

But Amjad dove too deep and drifted too far, and missed the rope along the side. The 16-year-old from Ariha, Syria, thought the boat would wait.

“Wait!” Amjad screamed. “Wait!”

It didn’t wait. When the boat’s engine roared, its 60 passengers and hangers-on screamed. Not everyone in the boat would have left him behind in the early hours of August 29, and one guy who noticed Amjad bobbing in the water tossed an inflatable donut his way.

Earlier that night, after a Turkish smuggler had dropped the refugees at a Bodrum beach, a Syrian doctor declared himself captain of the dinghy. Amjad had laughed at the doctor when he couldn’t start the dinghy’s engine. A few minutes later, he caught his breath when the doctor scraped the motor along the rocks. And an hour after that, at 3 a.m., he flailed in the waves when he heard the doctor call out, “We’re all going to die, so let’s let one of us die!”

With that, the boat left Amjad to die.

Shannon Gormley / Postmedia NewsShannon Gormley / Postmedia NewsAmjad and Bashar.

The computer whiz kid quickly assessed the situation. He had an inflatable donut around his waist. He had the flimsiest life vest that 40 Turkish lira (about $17) can buy. And there was the cold, hard fact that he was about halfway between Bodrum and Kos, and the waters were churning, that the waters were freezing, and that he was in the waters alone, in the dark.

Back in the dinghy, many of the Syrians screamed. Everyone knew that someone had been left behind, but not who.

One passenger, 20-year-old Bashar, was quiet. Of course, Bashar had thought of Amjad, but underneath Amjad’s sweet smile, lithe build and aw-shucks slouch, the kid was strong. It couldn’t have been him left behind. He would have held on to the boat.

Bashar wasn’t Amjad’s friend, exactly. Amjad was the friend of Bashar’s little brother. Amjad was always messing around at Bashar’s house, playing soccer or video games. When the walls of the home shook with bombs, and it was time for them to leave, they left together, leaving their families behind in Syria and Lebanon. As they travelled, Bashar made sure they stayed together. This kid who barely had hair above his lip was his responsibility. They had become brothers.

I will take God as my witness, if God’s wish allows, he will be found

“Amjad! Amjad!” Bashar cried out across the sea. “Amjad!”

It wasn’t long before Bashar’s dinghy entered Greek waters and the Hellenic Coast Guard intercepted the boat. Bashar wouldn’t call it “rescued.” Not when he saw a coast guard official hitting the refugees.

“Everyone,” Bashar says. The coast guard hit “everyone.” According to him, they slapped a 12-year-old girl, just a few years younger than Amjad.

But at least the kids on the boat lived. It wasn’t for them that Bashar cried as he reached Greek shores. It was for Amjad, lost at sea.

Under the moon that lit up the waves that night, Amjad was trying not to swallow water. He’d floated on his back for a bit, but water flooded over his face. So he huddled over the front of his donut instead. With his face down toward the waves and his eyes shut, everything went dark. In the darkness, he panicked. He prayed. And after an hour, he made peace with dying.

“God will appreciate my death,” said the 16 year-old boy to himself. But then Amjad thought he felt his heart say something different.

Swim.

Swim.

Swim.

So Amjad lifted his face to the moon and started swimming.

He had decided Turkey was a little closer than Greece so he headed backwards. But closer was still far. And free-style strokes were too slow. The donut got in the way. Better to use a breast-stroke. Nothing made it easy to get over the waves though. He had to move against those, and only for 10 minutes at a time. For the next 10 he rested, head down.

Resting or paddling, the sea was scary. Amjad jerked away the first time a fish brushed against his stomach. Remember, he told himself, “the fish are more afraid of you.” Besides, it was the waves that made him panic as he swam through the night. He saw only waves. He feared only waves.

At last, the sun came over the Aegean. When it did, Amjad lifted his face. And he felt hope.

But Amjad’s hope was fragile and he took care not to break it himself. Now that it was light out, he could see the mountains of Turkey’s Bodrum Peninsula beckoning more clearly, but he looked at the shore only rarely. He knew that if he looked too often, he’d think he was just treading water. As he swam, he faced the waves. Only when he rested would he face the elusive hope of the slowly approaching shore.

Swim, rest, look up. Swim, rest, look up. Swim, rest, look up.

Whenever it came time for Amjad to raise his head, he saw the mountains getting closer. Just not close enough.

On dry land in Greece, Bashar was inconsolable. He blamed himself. He should have saved Amjad. But the doctor shouldn’t have left him, so Bashar blamed him too.

“I killed one man,” he says the doctor told him on Kos. “But I was trying to save us all.”

Amjad had a biological brother who was worried about him too, Eyad. Eyad tried to get a hold of Bashar through Ahmad Mahlob, another guy traveling with them from Ariha. Ahmad had thrown Amjad the donut without knowing who he was throwing the donut to. But Basher couldn’t face what might have happened to Amjad, and couldn’t face Amjad’s family. Ahmad didn’t return Eyad’s message. But Ahmad did respond to a text from his mother at 10:15 am when she asked what happened.

Shannon Gormley / Postmedia NewsShannon Gormley / Postmedia NewsAhmad Mahlob, who threw the life ring to Amjad when he went overboard from their dinghy en route from Bodrum to Kos.

“The boat drowned and someone is lost,” Ahmad replied.

His mother was horrified. But not despairing.

“I will take God as my witness, if God’s wish allows, he will be found,” she said at 10:22.

Get the coast guard to find Amjad, the boys told the dealer. It’s not my job, the dealer told the boys.

The person Bashar really had to call was Eyad. But Bashar, so stoic and so strong, just couldn’t dial.

Amjad was growing weaker. His biceps hurt. His wrists hurt. His stomach hurt. The hunger set in around breakfast time. By lunchtime it seared. That was nothing to the thirst. He couldn’t always keep the seawater out of his mouth. Wetness all around him, yet his mouth was dry, dry, dry.

The water taunted him almost as much as the fishing boats. They weren’t close enough to see him. Just close enough to make him hope for a saviour. Hour after hour after hour passed, and it didn’t come.

Until it did. There. On his right. About a kilometre away. A pristine, white, glorious yacht.

Amjad’s throat was so dry he wasn’t sure he could scream. But he managed.

“Help me!” he cried. In English. They had to understand. The boat had to wait.

“Help me!” He waved his arms.

The yacht glided on, cutting through the waves that Amjad had to climb. He needed height.

Amjad got out of the donut and sat on it. Screamed. Waved. Waited. Nothing. He’d need to get higher. He gripped the sides of the donut and tried to push himself on it to stand. Instead, he sank. But in those seconds, he earned a bit of height. Faster and faster, over and over, Amjad gripped, pushed, stood, and sank. For ten minutes he did balanced over the water and plunged into it, until another boat had left him behind. He hated that boat. That boat must have seen him too, he thought, and that boat had room.

But Amjad couldn’t think of abandonment, or hunger, or pain, or thirst, or even of family members, the ones he had to leave in Syria and the one who had to leave him in the Aegean. He could think only of the shore, that was now so close he could almost touch it.

Shannon Gormley / Postmedia NewsShannon Gormley / Postmedia NewsFrom left to right: Bashar, Amjad, Ahmad Mahlob, and Omar Hajabdulaziz, under the bridge where they have been sleeping for a week in Kos

And then his foot touched it. Land. Touched it again. Land. With one step Amjad threw the donut off his waist. With another step he pulled the jacket from his chest. And when he sat down at last on the beach at around 6:30 p.m., too tired to even cry, he didn’t sit down long. After more than 16 hours alone and adrift in the Aegean, the kid walked through some trees, caught a bus to Bodrum, contacted his dealer, and demanded that he be taken on a boat again. He wanted to be with Bashar.

Sometime after 9 p.m. in Kos, Bashar and Ahmad heard Ahmad’s phone ring again. It was Eyad, again. But Bashar didn’t have to tell Eyad that Amjad was dead. Eyad was telling him that Amjad was alive.

Shannon Gormley / Postmedia NewsShannon Gormley / Postmedia NewsTents under the bridge in Kos, where Syrian refugees are sleeping as they try to find out where to go next. Amjad and Bashar's tent is here.

On the early hours of August 31, Amjad took to the Agean for the second time that week. When he stepped inside the dinghy, he was terrified. When it picked up speed, he was terrified. And when he passed the spot where he had been left behind, he thought he saw his own body flail in the water. But this time he stayed in the boat. This time he got all the way to Kos. And this time, as his feet touched ground, Amjad had the strength to scream with joy.

Close to the waters edge of Kos lies an ancient stone bridge. Under and around this bridge, hundreds of
refugees sit and sleep and wait in blue nylon tents. On the Monday he arrived, Amjad walked to the tents, peered inside one with an open flap, and discovered his friends fast asleep. Bashar hadn’t quite believed that his beloved Amjad was alive until he jumped on them.

One week later, the boys packed the tent up and boarded yet another boat: a passenger ferry to Athens. Amjad isn’t afraid of it. He’s afraid of what comes after, along the long road to Germany. The border guards. The men with knives hiding in the woods. The dark.

Life was horrible in the water, but it’s still hard on land.

Shannon Gormley is a Canadian journalist based in Istanbul.

About Shannon Gormley, Special to National Post