26-year-old Eritrean Merhawit Tesfamariam gave birth prematurely to twins on board a rickety boat off the Libyan coast in late August. Her twins, Hiyap (1.6 kilos) and Evenezer (1.3 kilos) are currently in incubators in Palermo’s Cervello Hospital, Italy.
CNN’s Ben Wedeman spent the day with Merhawit in the hospital, trying to learn her story, how she escaped from Eritrea to Libya and managed to get to Italy.
So far this year, 3,165 migrants and refugees have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, often in overcrowded boats and rafts. More than 110,000 others have arrived in Italy, where another 145,000 wait in reception centers for their statuses to be decided upon. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 275,000 people are waiting in Libya to attempt the perilous journey.
Merhawit, like so many other Eritreans, she fled her country to escape the open-ended mandatory military service that made life in the small East African country unbearable. She served in the military for three years working as a clerk. Fed up, she deserted, but was caught and sentenced to five months in prison. After her release last year, she and her husband paid human traffickers 50,000 nakfa, about $3,300, to be smuggled across the border into Sudan.
Merhawit and her husband managed to scrape together enough funds, around $5,000, for her to continue the journey to Libya, but not enough for him to join. He stayed behind in Khartoum, and once more with the dubious assistance of human traffickers, the expectant mother went to Tripoli. There, Merhawit recounted, she stayed for five months in a walled compound, sleeping on the floor of what sounded, according to her description, like a warehouse.
“The water was dirty, dirty,” she said.
The only food she and other migrants and refugees there were ever given was pasta. She never saw a doctor or take medicine. Eventually, she and the others were herded onto a bus and driven to the Libyan coast, where they boarded a boat. They had no food or water. Despite being eight months pregnant, Merhawit assured me she felt no discomfort. But after just two days at sea, labor set in. She was in pain, and her cries drove many of the passengers in the flimsy vessel as far away as they could get.
“I was in such pain I wasn’t embarrassed by what was happening to me,” she said. Merhawit recalls that women on the boat were supportive through her agony, and helped her deliver her twin boys.
After they were born, however, she was gripped by fear that the infants would die as they drifted aimlessly on the Mediterranean. “I was worried the twins wouldn’t survive, that we wouldn’t be rescued.”
Rescue did arrive, however, when their boat was spotted by the crew of Dignity 1, a vessel operated by Medecins Sans Frontiere (Doctors Without Borders). Merwahit and the twins were soon transferred to the Italian Navy, which helicoptered them to Palermo. The infants were suffering from malnutrition, dehydration and hypothermia, according to doctors at the hospital in Palermo. Merhawit was also suffering from anemia. Their rescue, and rapid recovery since then is nothing short of miraculous, doctors say.
“If they had been on the boat much longer,” Dr. Giorgio Sulliotti said, “they would have suffered much more than they did. Merhawit was “very lucky. It was a premature delivery of twins in a crowded boat in the Mediterranean. Any complication could have been grave, with the risk of death for both the mother and the twins. It’s the first time I’ve seen a premature delivery with such a rapid recovery by both the mother and the babies,” said Perino.
Once the twins are healthy enough, she will be released from the hospital to a reception center. There she will have to either apply for asylum or seek refuge in another country. She told me she wants to be reunited with her husband as soon as possible — how, she doesn’t know. Then she would like to move to the United Kingdom or, if she can, to the United States, where she says she has relatives.