“The only way we’re going back to Cuba is feet first,” declared Yosnel Sardinia Diaz, one of 20 refugees who landed on Roatan yesterday. (see related article)
Sardinia, aka “Pharoah,” aka “Animal,” and his 19 compatriots fled their native island in a homemade boat 12 days ago in search of a better life. They are currently in detention behind the police station in Coxen Hole awaiting news of their fate. A police official said they would be taken to La Ceiba and handed over to immigration authorities there, perhaps as early as this afternoon. Meanwhile, they are sleeping on mattresses on a concrete floor on an open-air patio. But they say it’s like a six-star hotel compared to what they went through over the last two weeks.
The 18 men and two women, aged 26-43, set out in a seven-meter wooden boat because they could no longer tolerate life in Cuba. “Every day it was getting worse,” said Fernando Benitez Fonseca, aka “Samurai,” the group’s leader. They passed through five storms, twice hit rocks and nearly sank, lost their bearings several times and ran out of food, water and fuel. They all knew of people who had similarly set out and were never heard from again. They calculated they had at best a 70 percent chance of survival. But they would all do it again. “Even at 50/50 it would have been worth it,” said one, a bartender.
“We had it hard all our lives,” said Reulise Gonzalez, 41, a circus magician. “We want our children to have a better life.” About half of the group left children behind in Cuba, with whom they hope to reunite one day in a better place. One had arrived in Honduras once before but was detained in Mexico, en route to the US, and sent back to Cuba. Now they say they don’t care where they end up, as long as they can find work.
Samurai, a 29-year-old dentist from Camagüey, said he started putting the group together about two months ago.
“I was in a bad situation in my country, and I decided with two or three friends to get a group together, pool our money and start buying the materials to build a boat,” he said. “I did it with trusted people who I knew well … Some of them don’t know each other. But I knew all of them.”
The group included three sets of brothers and a couple of cousins, but the rest were unrelated. Among them were a psychologist, an economist, a cook, a gardener, a carpenter, a mason, two circus performers and a butcher. Only one had any previous seafaring or navigational experience. They had only a compass to navigate.
Samurai included two women in the group – Yadira Fonseca and Niurca Aleman – against the advice of some male Cuban friends. But he said at the points where the odyssey was most treacherous, the two women held their composure better than the men.
“During the storms, the men were jumping about screaming, and the women stayed calm,” said Samurai. They just bailed out the water.
Samurai assigned each member of the group a different task to assemble the needed materials and supplies without drawing suspicion. They assembled the boat together in three days in a wooded area to avoid detection. Then they pushed it over rolling logs over the sand about a kilometer to the beach in the dark of night. “It took a tremendous effort,” said Samurai.
They reached water at first light and fired up the engine. “When we got out to sea, I asked that we all say a prayer to God,” said Samurai. They did the same at each subsequent stop on the voyage.
About 4 p.m. the first day, still within Cuban waters, they were hit by the first storm. It blew them onto the rocks on a small cay, breaching the hull and causing the boat to flood with water. Several recalled they thought they were going to die at that point. But they managed to repair the boat on the cay and wait out the storm. The next day they encountered some Cuban fishermen who helped them get their bearings and plot a course for the Caymans, where they planned to stop for provisions.
They reached the Cayman Islands the following day, where locals helped them out with food, water and fuel (they had lost most of their food in the storm). They remained only about four hours, then set a heading for Honduras. Honduras was the objective because they had heard Honduras did not send Cuban refugees back to Cuba.
But just hours after leaving the Caymans, they hit another storm, which once again blew them off course. They did not see land for the next four days. Then on day five they came ashore on a tiny cay of Belize. There were some fishermen there who helped them cook some fish they had caught at sea. They spent that night on the beach, then set out again.
However, Samurai said the Belizean fishermen gave them bad directions, and they found themselves surrounded by rocks, sandbars and coral reefs, unable to find a channel to the open sea.
“It was impossible to get out of there,” said Samurai. They once again struck rocks and once again had to repair the leaking boat. They ran out of water. Sardinia resorted to drinking his own urine. “That’s why we call him the Animal,” his shipmates laughed. Nobody else tried it.
The group lucked out again when they encountered another Belizean fishing boat, the crew of which told them how to get back to deep water and head toward Honduras. But no sooner did they get out than they were hit by yet another storm, once again blowing them off course.
They came aground again on another Belizean cay, where they stopped briefly for water but had to depart quickly because Belizean police were coming.
The fifth storm struck them the night of September 24, not far off Roatan. “It was a really bad storm, we thought we were going to lose our lives,” said one of the group. They saw some lights they thought were coming from the Honduran coast and headed toward them. But they were from a passing cruise ship, which lured them further out to sea. By morning they had run out of fuel. But hey spotted land – Roatan. They began paddling toward it. Around noon they were spotted by some people who were out trying to spot whale sharks, who notified the Roatan Marine Park, which sent boats out to bring them ashore.
The 20 Cubans arrived mostly tattered and shoeless. Several sustained burns from coming into contact with the boat’s engine, which sat uncovered in the middle of the boat. They had survived mostly on water and biscuits the last 11 days. But their spirits were high.
“We just want to work,” they said. “We’ll do anything. We just want to survive and make money to support ourselves.”
The refugees were briefly interviewed by Honduran authorities when they arrived on the beach in West End September 25. The authorities took their names and their photos, then transferred them to the police station in Coxen Hole where they spent the night. They said they had been told nothing more about what will happen to them next. They say they don’t care, as long as they are not sent back to Cuba.
“I’m only going back to visit family,” said one of the women.
“Para Cuba no mas, nunca,” said one of her shipmates.