An unforgettable ordeal

Yohannes' journey across the Sahara


Yohannes’ story

It’s a sweltering August afternoon in Milan, Italy, and the Porta Venezia District is teaming with newly arrived Eritrean refugees. Among them is Yohannes, an Eritrean refugee in his 20s who has been in the city for less than four hours. He has just spent the whole night on a train from Rome, and is contemplating his next move. Sitting in a pharmacy, shivering in a hot summer afternoon, he suspects he may have Malaria.

Like many young Eritrean men, Yohannes first sought asylum in Ethiopia and lived in a refugee camp there. Nine months later he was granted the opportunity to study at Mekelle University in Ethiopia, majoring in a three year Business Management Program. Upon graduation, unable to secure a job as a refugee, he was forced to go back to the refugee camp where he stayed for a year. Frustrated over waiting, he decided to embark on the journey to Europe.

Yohannes left Ethiopia by paying smugglers, who would hand him off to a series of different smugglers over the course of the journey through Sudan and Libya. Throughout the journey, he witnessed women getting raped, and people collapsing and dying from thirst following a four-day continuous drive through Libya. Many of the people he traveled with were left behind in remote locations in the desert, their fate unknown, simply because they were unable to pay for the next leg of the journey.

Listen to Yohannes recount his journey.

Once he paid, Yohannes was placed on a boat, along with approximately 200 other people; a number too big for its size.

Yohannes was located on the lower deck where there was a shortage of fresh air. “The engine room is there and it heated the place,” he says. “The moment I got in there, I felt suffocated. There was no breeze; you had to inhale so hard. A man who was with me just fell unconscious right away.”

Luckily, they were rescued by a Norwegian ship.

Once in Italy, Yohannes went to Rome and from there traveled on to Milan. “After I arrived in Rome, I saw everyone leaving for Milan,” he says. “Because everyone goes through Milan to reach other countries.”

Listen to Yohannes reflect over his journey.

Date of interview: 28 August 2015  |  Last modified: 15 April 2016  |
Interview by: Khaled Abdu Mohammedsaid  |  Written by: Christa Awuor Odinga  |  Video by: Viktor Nordenskiöld