20 June 2021

Suspended dreams

When Kidane jumped into the water, neither his friends nor he knew it would be his last dive into Lake Zürich. Like his friends, Kidane was an asylum seeker from Eritrea. They had all met in the asylum house of this peaceful countryside town in central Switzerland. Patiently waiting for the decision of the immigration authorities, they spent their days walking around the empty streets or along the shoreline of the lake. At barely eighteen years old and not speaking the local language, they couldn’t go to school; their temporary status didn’t allow them to be employed either.

Cigarettes could at least be bought with the minuscule stipend the Swiss state gave them. Kidane and his friends would silently smoke, facing the sunset, feet dangling over the pier. The smell of tobacco and the smoke of cigarettes were the only elements left that would remind them of home. Kidane wasn’t nostalgic of Eritrea – the situation there was bad on all fronts – but he missed his younger siblings and his mother. He had been able to send a single message back home, for his family had no Internet connection, let alone a smartphone.

Kidane was puffing on his cigarette, trying to remember the faces of his sisters and of his mother. His eyes were squinting at the rays of the sun reflected on the surface of the water like thousands of pieces of broken glass. His asylum-seeking friends had laughed at him without malice the first time he had seen the lake: wide-eyed at the immensity of the calm lake, he had formed a cup with his hands and drank water collected from the lake.

How ironic, thought Kidane, to see so much water, drinkable what’s more. It was ironic indeed: Kidane had spent most of his younger years walking every day from his village to the nearest well, two kilometres away. This was the only way to get fresh water for his family. His sisters were then too little and his mother was rearing them when she wasn’t digging in the small plot of land their family owned. Every day, just as the sun rose and before it got too hot, he would walk, barefoot, on the arid trail leading to the well. Every day, he would walk with other small boys and girls, just like him, fetching water in jugs, pots and jerry cans too heavy for their frail bodies.

As a result, Kidane would inevitably find himself unavailable to attend school. When his water duties were over, other chores would be awaiting him: helping his mother out to harvest sorghum or feeding the goats. Kidane’s parents had always wanted a better life for their children, but what could his mother do? Her husband had been taken away by the military for “insidious activities threatening the security of the State” – and had never been heard of since. Her husband, who was the only one in the village possessing rudiments of English, had merely welcomed volunteers from an international NGO, explaining the most urgent improvements the village could benefit from. This was perceived as a criticism of the failings of a government of a country ruled by the same man since the nation’s independence in 1991.

As Kidane’s mother would often tell her son afterwards, her husband had in fact listed access to water as the top priority for the village. Without direct access to water, too many children couldn’t go to school, fields were not irrigated properly, and water was often contaminated when it remained in jars too long. It would take several years until one of the very few NGOs permitted to operate in the country would realise Kidane’s father’s dreams: pipes and pumps were installed, faucets set up in multiple sections of the village. At age ten, Kidane could finally go to school. Water had changed his life.

Six months prior to that fateful jump into the waters of the Swiss lake, his mother had one evening told him he would have to leave the very next morning, well before the sun rose. Leave for the promise (“Kidane” in Amharic) of a better life. She had waited until the last possible moment to tell him of the secret plans she had made for him. She was too afraid of the country’s corrupt military: nobody could know of her plans, except those who would help her son out of the country. Not even Kidane could know: he was such a caring son and brother, his mother knew he would have refused to leave. It’s only when she told him that all the family’s savings had been already used up to pay the intermediaries that Kidane understood he had to comply.

Kidane remembered those last moments with his mother very well. He extinguished his cigarette and quickly wiped the tears off of his face. His new friends had equally dramatic stories, there was no need to dwell on the past when their families had paid so dearly the price of their freedom. They all had been smuggled out of the country, a country whose border force follows a shoot-to-kill policy. All of them were about to turn eighteen years old, the age at which the Eritrean army enrolls everyone for an unlimited period of time. Enrolled in an army that tortures and kills. Enrolled in an army that had taken his father away.

The first middleman of Kidane’s escape was a childhood friend of his father’s. He had driven Kidane through the night in his pick-up truck. Both knew that they wouldn’t end well if they were caught. To conceal his nervousness, his father’s friend shared dull, likely apocryphal, memories of Kidane’s father, a father Kidane had barely known. Kidane didn’t say anything. He wanted to remember a land he would never see again. But there was nothing to see: the night was pitch black; he closed his eyes and inhaled the scents coming through the truck’s open windows. The distinctive smell of the sycamore trees, of the dust flying from the dirt trail.

Days passed in various hiding places. Sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of other equally-silent teenagers, a look of sadness and quiet resolve on their faces. They would never know which night would be the next one to be vehicled to another secret location. A couple of weeks passed. Kidane had by then exhausted the little money his mother had given him. He had traded everything he had been carrying in his bundle, so he could buy something to eat: an old knife his father had owned, a worn-out poster of an African footballer famous in Europe, a leather box, two packs of cigarettes, and a change of clothes.

One day, the smuggler told him he had arrived in neighbouring Ethiopia and that he would be flying the next day to “Europe”. Instructions were hurriedly given to him on what to say to the border officers. The most important word to remember was “asylum”, a word Kidane hadn’t heard of before.

Those days now seemed like an eternity into the past to Kidane. When his skin had felt too hot back home, he would have found some shade, and drank water from the ubiquitous faucets of the village. Here in Switzerland, he could simply take his clothes off and relax in the waters of the lake. It hadn’t taken long for Kidane to learn how to swim, despite some frightening moments when Kidane thought he was drowning. But his new friends had been patient and showed him the technique they had themselves learned from other asylum seekers who had by now obtained refugee status.

On the long summer night of that ominous day, he couldn’t fall asleep as he was reminiscing about his past life. He quietly crept out of the asylum house and went to the public lido by the lake. Everybody, everything was asleep at one o’clock in the morning. Nobody feared any loud banging on their door in the middle of the night, the military coming to arrest someone for no reason, dragging them away as the rest of the family was screaming. It was a moonless night. The scents of the lake were nothing like the scents he remembered from the drive in his father’s friend’s pick-up truck.

Kidane undressed and jumped into the lake. He stayed under water as if to wash away bad memories from the confines of his mind. When he came back up to the surface, a small yacht in the distance seemed bizarrely brightly lit. He swam closer to it. The boat was on fire and the fire was rapidly ravaging the entire structure. There didn’t seem to be anyone on board though.

As Kidane swam away, the strong, blinking red lights of the fire truck could be seen approaching the lake shore, closely followed by the blue lights of a police car. The sirens had been turned off just as he had made it back to his clothes. It didn’t take long for the fire brigade to put the fire out. Neither the firemen nor the police had spotted Kidane who had been observing the entire operation.

While Kidane had been surprised at how “things just worked” in Switzerland, he could never feel he could quite belong. Oh, the Swiss people of the immigration services were always professional, some even friendly, with him. But there was something in the looks of passers-by. He had noticed half of them wouldn’t greet him with the customary “Grüezi” they would otherwise greet any other person they would encounter. He knew he looked different: his dark skin colour and his African hair stood in sharp contrast to everyone around him except his new friends.

Later that day, his friends told him about the boat, that it had sunk in the lake. They rushed to the lido and saw the boat being ferried on a barge. Yellow oil spill buoys had been set up, but the swimming area had been left intact. Kidane and his friends changed into their swimming suits. He folded his pants and T-shirt next to his branded shoes, the same brand that he had seen on the shirt of the footballer in the poster he had to trade for food on his way out of Eritrea. All those clothes had been given by the asylum centre. Some weren’t new but he was not one to complain; in fact he had been delighted when the pair of branded sneakers had fit him perfectly.

Kidane and his friends swam to the floating, wooden platform. One after the other, they jumped into the water. Kidane ran on the small, square  platform and jumped as far as he could. When he emerged at the water surface, Kidane felt unwell. His legs were no longer esponding. As he started to sink, he screamed for help. His friends initially thought he was messing around. But when Kidane didn’t come back up to the surface, they understood something was wrong.

One of them tried to lift Kidane’s unconscious head which was slowly becoming purple. Another swam as quickly as possible to the shore to call for help. Yet another stopped a man on a stand-up paddle to get Kidane on it and back to shore. The entire lido fell in a deadly silence, just as the weather had turned cloudy and thunderous. Children stopped playing and sat in row as they saw a man trying to resuscitate Kidane. At the same time, the lido attendant was pushing away the beach-goers who had voyeuristically approached the scene. Paramedics arrived a couple of minutes later. Drapes made of beach towels were lifted by Kidane’s friends to give some privacy.

An hour passed. Anxious looks covered the faces of people in the vicinity. Kidane was evacuated on a stretcher, still hidden behind drapes. A police report published later that day would soberly mention that an eighteen-year-old had passed away at the hospital despite immediate rescue.

The water had killed Kidane. The same water that had changed his life as a ten-year-old boy.

PS: this story is, sadly, based on true facts.