Jemal Damtawe: A stowaway survivor’s story
Strolling down the street after school one day, fifteen-year-old Jemal Damtawe never imagined his life was going to change so much he would not even remember civil life anymore.
As young teenagers in Ethiopia, Jemal and his friends were walking down the road home when a van pulled up. A few gunshots were fired in the air and the other kids who attempted to run were shot.
‘I froze. I wanted to run but my legs would not respond, so I was just stuck there. We were put into the van and over the next couple of months, we made stops at what seems like camps along the way.’
Jemal and his abducted friends eventually ended up in the country now called Eritrea as it was fighting for its independence from Ethiopia. The young men were handed over to militia groups and were forced to fight against their own country.
It was during one such raid when one of Jemal’s friends found the body of his brother who had died. This friend was so broken because he thought he had killed his own brother and watching the heartache and pain his friend went through, Jemal and a couple of the boys decided to escape.
‘I sat there and said, look this life is not for me. I cannot keep up with this. So, we saw a group of people passing on their camel and we asked them to help us escaped. We traded our guns for the transport and they gave us some of their clothes to help us disguise ourselves.’
These young men managed to find themselves at the shore of Djibouti -this was where the camel men were headed.- Here, the tired young boys thought it wise to stowaway on a boat in the bid to escape the harsh life of living at the port and doing menial jobs.
They swam from the shore and hang on to anchor of the ship, and later found their way into the ship. After many days of staying in hiding, the young men got hungry and this was when they were found out and thrown off the ship.
‘When we looked out we saw nothing. It was just darkness around us, but we kept swimming till we came to land. Two of the boys got tired whilst we were swimming and they gave up. So, We just stood there and watched them drown just like that.’
Jemal Damtawe and his friends had found themselves on a volcanic island between Eritrea and Yemen and they lived here hoping to find a way back home.
After a few months, a boat came by and they pleaded with the owner and this was how he transported them back to their home in Ethiopia.
‘When I got home, my dad was the first person to see, because he worked as a manager at the port. He saw me and just burst into tears. He took me home and my mum could not believe it. She just kept crying and crying the entire time. She would not allow me to go anywhere, she will keep looking at me the whole day.’
Apparently, the family thought Jemal was dead and hence had already gone on to have a funeral for the young lad. Jemal Damtawe had been away from home for nearly two years and news of his return was unbelievable for anyone.
On returning home, Jemal says he found it very hard to settle in and took to drinking just to be able to sleep at night. This went on for awhile and then he decided he wanted to go back to see due to the continuous nightmares he had while at home.
‘My father once again was the first person I told and he said he did not mind. My mother, however, had a very tough time. My father due to his work at the port, helped me get onto another ship and I was out of Ethiopian again as a stowaway, headed for an unknown destination.’
Once again, Jamel was discovered by the captain of the ship, but instead of being thrown off the ship, he was given some work to do to earn his keep. Jemal Damtawe lived on this ship until it docked in Montreal, Canada.
‘We arrived during winter and it was so cold. At a point, I told immigration to allow me go home because the cold was not for me. I nearly burnt down my flat one day. I had turned up the heat all the way up and turned on the gas and everything because the cold was just too much.’
In Canada, Jemal tried to start a life. He found a woman, got married to her and had a beautiful daughter and even started a restaurant. However, the addiction to alcohol had taken a great toll on the family, and his wife constantly reminded him of it, but Jemal could see no way out of this – He relied on alcohol to even fall asleep at night.’
Once again, when he thought he was being a burden to his family, Jemal took off, this time to Oregon, in the United States. He lived on the streets, sleeping under the bridge and doing drugs to survive. This went on until an incident that woke Jemal up from his life dream.
‘I met a young lady with a lot of money and we went to a hotel. We stayed there for 2 to 3 days and had a good time drinking alcohol and doing drugs. She went out to get something one day and she did not come back. I heard people screaming outside, I looked outside and there she was, dead! Apparently, she had overdosed.’
This was the awakening call for Jemal as he left the hotel and went straight to a rehabilitation centre to get help.
Jemal Damtawe, has since been sober for 14 years and is married to a beautiful young lady. The two have been together for 10 years and have been blessed with a son of 10 years.
Jemal’s daughter has also attempted to reconnect with her dad. He left her at the age of three and he says, ‘She called one day and introduced herself, but immediately dropped the call after that. I called her back and she said she had run out of words and simply did not know what to say.’
Jemal Damtawe has since written a book, ‘Forced Paths, Ordered Steps’, and says he hopes to open his own recovery centre in the very near future.