LESBOS, Greece (AP) — Delal Zaxoyi left his career as a pop singer in northern Iraq for a chance to make a new life in Europe — but he barely got out of the Aegean Sea alive.
Three weeks after his journey began, he was herded onto a boat in the middle of the night by gun-wielding smugglers in Turkey. Hours later, he nearly died after strong waves smashed the rickety vessel to pieces near the Greek shore. His few possessions, including a book of his songs, were lost in the rescue.
Zaxoyi has no idea where he and his wife Ali, a radio journalist, will end up but still has no regrets about leaving home.
"The boat was very old, maybe for 100 people, but not for 300," Zaxoyi, 44, told The Associated Press outside a refugee camp in the Greek island of Lesbos.
"When we said there are too many people (for the boat), the driver fired his gun in the air," he said. "They are not people. They are a mafia."
As the boat neared the north coast of Lesbos, large waves cracked it open.
"The waves were 2 to 3 meters (6-10 feet) high. It just broke," he said, gesturing as if snapping a branch. "We stayed in the water for two hours. I saved my wife and friends and children. But there were so many people. People died in front of us."
Zaxoyi spoke while preparing to leave Lesbos, the island at the heart of Europe's massive refugee crisis. He obtained travel papers Friday as the death toll in the Aegean Sea rose after two more deadly shipwrecks overnight sent more bodies of children and adults to wash up the island's beaches.
A separate deadly wreck off Lesbos late Wednesday prompted the Greek government and relief agencies to demand faster European Union assistance to improve Greece's search-and-rescue efforts. Unlike previous years, the number of those risking the short but dangerous crossing from Turkey is continuing unabated deep into the fall despite the worsening weather.
Zaxoyi, a Kurd from the northern Iraqi town of Zakho, said he decided to leave as work dried up and he grew increasingly fearful that Islamic fighters would single him out for his western-style music.
In one video for the song "Cana Min" or "My Sweetheart," the singer is seen on an outing with friends in a car, enjoying female company and drinking wine, in a song that uses traditional instruments in a pop-music style.
"Nothing is allowed," he said referring to areas of Iraq and Syria held by Islamic State militants. "I am Muslim, but like to have a drink and to be free — not to live that way."
More than 300,000 people have arrived on Lesbos since the start of the year, with numbers surging in October, as fear grows about the approach of winter and harsher measures at European borders.
After a long wait in Lesbos' main town of Mytilene — where migrants sleep outside on the ground or in tiny tents around the port — Zaxoyi bought the first available ticket to the Greek mainland. On Saturday, he and his wife will begin the next stage of an uncertain voyage across the Balkans to central Europe and beyond.
"I hope we can go to Germany or the Netherlands," he said. "I hope I can sing for people there."
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