Zarzis, Tunisia - A Bangladeshi farmer watched dozens drown beside him in the Mediterranean before “God sent us the fishermen”, who saved him from the cold waters and took him to Tunisia.
Ahmed Bilal was one of 16 survivors of the shipwreck, in which an estimated 60 people died on Friday while trying to reach Italy.
“I can’t stop myself crying,” said Bilal, who lost two younger relatives in the accident, from a Red Crescent emergency centre in the southern Tunisian coastal town of Zarzis.
The 30-year-old said he began his journey to Europe six months ago, flying with three others to Dubai and onwards to Istanbul in Turkey.
From there they took another flight to the Libyan capital Tripoli, Bilal said, where they joined around 80 other Bangladeshis and were held in a room in western Libya for three months.
“I already thought I would die in Libya,” he said. “We had food only once a day, sometimes less. There was one toilet for 80 people. We could not wash - only our teeth - and we were crying, begging for food.”
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) estimates 6,000 migrants in Libya are being detained “in conditions that generally fall well below international standards”.
The situation has worsened since eastern commander Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive to take Tripoli last month, with more than 450 people killed due to fighting linked to that military campaign, according to the World Health Organization.
Bilal had no idea what he would face when he embarked on the journey from Bangladesh’s Sylhet region, where he had seen villagers with relatives in Europe live a better life.
After his family sold their land, the father of two paid a Bangladeshi smuggler nicknamed “Good Luck” around $7,000 to arrange the trip.
“He said we would have a better life and we believed him. I am sure most of the people he sends die on the way”, said Bilal.
He and the other migrants left northwestern Libya on a large boat, before being transferred to a smaller one.
Manzour Mohammed Metwella, an Egyptian who was on board, said the boat “started to sink almost immediately.”
“We swam all night,” said the 21-year-old.
Survivors said all the passengers were men, with 51 from Bangladesh, three Egyptians, several Moroccans, Chadians and other Africans.
After seeing people drown in front of his eyes, Bilal said he “was losing hope myself, but God sent us the fishermen who saved us.”
The fishermen were able to rescue 14 Bangladeshis, one Moroccan, and the Egyptian Metwella.
“If the Tunisian fishermen hadn’t seen them, there wouldn’t have been any survivors and we would have never known about this” boat sinking, said Mongi Slim from the Red Crescent.
The survivors now have 60 days to decide whether to return home, seek asylum through the United Nations refugee agency, or try their luck in Tunisia.
But there is no asylum law in Tunisia and residents are already facing high unemployment and overstretched public services.
“We lost so much, I have nothing now,” said Bilal, admitting he still wants to reach Europe to earn money.
“But I don’t want to go on the sea like this again, I am done with this risk.”
Humanitarian organisations have faced hostility from governments for running rescue missions in the Mediterranean.