Facebook Twitter



Some of the scars borne by the Cuban refugees who fled on ramshackle rafts are visible: blistered hands from days of rowing, purple gashes on arms and legs from being jostled by ocean swells.

Others are psychological, such as the memories of corpses in the water, circling sharks or the desperation felt after days without food or water."I just thank God I survived," said 21-year-old Jorge Reyes Mesa, one of more than 300 Cubans undergoing medical checkups upon arrival at a huge U.S. military detention camp seven miles west of Panama City.

"Please tell people back in Cuba that it's just horrible, a terrible journey. And don't take your children."

Many of the refugees said they remain haunted by their harrowing days at sea and only now were beginning to shake the sense of fear.

Jose Antonio Perez, 40, said sharks shadowed his raft for several days.

"I saw these empty rafts and one corpse drift by," he said, resting on an aluminum cot. "There was even this severed forearm of someone who no doubt had been eaten by the sharks."

Reyes Mesa said his raft consisted of two inner tubes with a piece of canvas tied to the bottom.

"I still shudder to think about those sharks brushing up against my legs through the bottom," he said.

He had the misfortune of heading out to sea Aug. 22, just before a powerful storm hit the Florida Straits.

"At one point I saw hundreds of rafts bobbing in the ocean," he recalled. "But then these big clouds came up and it was stormy all night. By daybreak many of the rafts were empty or overturned."

Despite their ordeals, many seemed to be happily adjusting to life behind an 8-foot cyclone fence in a jungle clearing overlooking the Panama Canal. Up to 10,000 refugees are expected to arrive from the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by the end of the month.

Some of the Cubans were being treated for injuries suffered at sea, including cuts and cracked and blistered hands. Many had had nothing to eat or drink for days after carefully hoarded supplies of bottled water and hard rolls washed overboard in stormy weather.

"We didn't have the strength to row after three days," said Perez, who suffered high fever, dehydration and hallucinations. His foot was bandaged by the U.S. Army doctors at the camp here.

People on one raft told of seeing visions of buildings looming across the sea.