Three migrant youths are spending their third Christmas waiting for justice, as they remain accused of terrorism.
Amara turned 18 on Christmas Eve, but he says his plans and dreams for life are constantly clouded by a looming 30-year jail sentence.
“We cannot celebrate... we cannot plan our lives and we cannot dream, because our freedom was taken unjustly,” he said.
Amara was 15 when he was arrested. Kader was 16 and Abdallah was 19.
Times of Malta has been following them ever since they were accused of hijacking a ship in 2019, and has created a video documentary about their life and struggles in Malta.
“It feels like the authorities are playing with our lives,” said Kader.
“I try to hide my despair from my wife and daughter. I try to look happy but the truth is I feel worse every day,” said Abdallah.
The three young men were among 108 migrants who boarded a nine-metre dinghy from Libya in March of 2019.
They recall how the rubber boat started to lose air and sink in the middle of the sea, driving the migrants to panic and despair as they realised they were all going to die.
Fortunately, a helicopter spotted the boat in distress and sent signals to a merchant vessel which was close by, to save the migrants.
The ship was called El Hiblu 1, and was on its way to Libya.
The three youths said the migrants boarded the ship hastily and the captain tried to understand what they needed, but they could not communicate well because he was speaking Arabic and the migrants were speaking French.
That is when 15-year-old Amara offered to translate.
“Back in my country, my mother had worked hard to send me to an English school, so I knew how to speak English well,” Amara said.
“I feel embarrassed for people who struggle to communicate, so I volunteered to help them understand each other.”
Amara said the captain promised him and the migrants that two other boats would come and take them to Europe before he continued his journey to Libya.
But the boats never came, and one night when the migrants were asleep, the captain resumed his voyage to the Libyan coast.
“As we woke up at dusk, we could see city lights on the horizon, and we soon realised that it was Libya, not Europe,” said Kader as he remembered how his fellow migrants panicked at the thought of returning to Libya.
We were hungry, thirsty and tired... and we could not afford to go back to Libya
“And some of them turned furiously to Amara, accusing him of colluding with the captain to take us back to Libya.”
That is when Abdallah and Kader, who were among the migrants, stood up for Amara.
“We tried to calm the people down, telling them that Amara was one of us and that there must have been a misunderstanding,” said Kader.
“Amara was a victim of the situation, just like us.”
“We were hungry, thirsty and tired... and we could not afford to go back to Libya. It would have been torture there,” said Abdallah.
The youths said that when the captain saw the three of them trying to calm the migrants, he asked them into the cabin to help the crew resolve the situation.
“He told us that he would try to take us to Valletta, Malta,” Amara said.
“We did not know where Malta was, but we agreed to it when he said it was in Europe.
“I was taught back home that Europe is one of the fair continents where injustice doesn’t exist. But it was all lies. I also feel like I have been used as a weapon to fight their political battles and my rights were ignored because of my social status.”
On March 29, the Maltese authorities received a call reporting that migrants had taken over the ship and were forcing it to Europe.
As the ship approached the island, the Armed Forces of Malta stormed the vessel and arrested the three boys, who now stand accused of hijacking the ship.
“Why do they only believe what the captain says? Why is the captain believed but we aren’t? Is it because we are black?” said Abdallah desperately.
Away from home, from freedom and from justice, Amara, Kader and Abdallah are once again spending the holidays hoping for the authorities to understand that all they did was try to help their fellow migrants survive and make it to Europe safely.
“I truly believed I saved those people. Not with my strength, but with the little words from my mouth,” said Amara.
“When we were arrested I thought it was just a misunderstanding between the captain and the Maltese authorities and that it would be resolved within a couple of days. But it wasn’t. We spent almost eight months in prison and it is still far from over,” he added.
An international freedom commission has been set up and is joining several international organisations in urging the Maltese authorities to drop charges against the youths.
Times of Malta will release the video documentary about the El Hiblu boys in the coming days.