Sea of tears: life and death on board the boats in the Mediterranean
There are no ordinary days for the search-and-rescue boats off the coast of Libya. Adam Alexander spends five days on a Malta-based aid vessel that sees both relief and grief
“My God,” says 19-year old Miriam from the Gambia, holding her hands over her face and shaking her head. “I wouldn’t wish that journey on my own worst enemy.”
She has just been rescued from a crammed rubber dinghy in the middle of the Mediterranean, and it has taken her two months to get here – on a journey through Senegal, Burkino Faso, Mali, Niger and finally Libya.
Given away by her father at the age of 13 to be married, Miriam says she now has four children, plus she has left behind six younger sisters. “I need to help them,” she says.
Of her journey, “Bani Walid is the worst,” she says, naming the town in Libya where human smugglers locked her up for several days in a boiling hot container – including three days without food or water. “They take everything from you there – money, phones, clothes, everything. And then they take the women and rape them.”
We are sat together on the open deck of a humanitarian ship belonging to the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) some 20 miles or so off the Libyan coast, where Miriam and 132 others have just been snatched to safety from a pathetic rubber dinghy fit for 20 or 30 at most. None were wearing life jackets, and some are in nothing more than their boxer shorts, everything else having been lost or stolen.
This is how they arrive in Europe – with nothing but their underwear, and a remembered phone number in their head, with which to start a new life.
The lucky ones anyway...
Many on the dinghy are fleeing war or persecution from countries such as Sudan, Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia. The majority are men, but there are also plenty of women and children – some just infants. A disturbing bronchial cough ripples through them, which our doctor on board puts down to the result of being sat in the cold and wet all night.
More than 3,000 people are thought to have died in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean already this year, according to the EU border agency Frontex. Some 85 per cent of those deaths have been here, in the central Mediterranean, where Libyan people smugglers are increasingly pushing people out in unseaworthy boats.
Of more than 7,000 children who reached Italy this year via this route, an incredible 90 per cent were unaccompanied, according to a Unicef report in June, leaving them vulnerable to sexual exploitation – including once they reach Europe, where the exploitation often continues.
Meanwhile, the International Organisation of Migration estimates that some 10,000 refugees have disappeared on this journey in the past year alone.
Everyone’s story on board the MOAS ship is different.
Adam Muhammad is 35. Painfully thin, he tells our interpreter that it has taken him 20 years to get here – first leaving his native Somalia at the age of 15, and spending the next two decades in refugee camps, working his way north to make it to Europe. He has lost half his bodyweight in doing so and his legs show the signs of the torture he says he received in a prison in Sirte, in Libya.
But there are constants among all the harrowing tales. All have all been through a traumatic journey – with many falling victim to robbery, imprisonment and rape. (“Many of the women disappear,” Miriam tells me). And on one thing they are unanimous: Libya is the worst place they’ve been; it’s where they’ve received the worst treatment.
“The stories these traffickers tell them: that they’re going to go on a nice big boat, that it’s going to have a kitchen where they can do their own cooking, that it’s going to have containers on it that they can go in the middle of – it’s all lies,” says John Hamilton, search and rescue operation officer for MOAS, tells me.
Miriam confirms this, saying she believed her two-month journey would be just “one week. I thought the journey would be easy. But if they ask you for money and you say you don’t have [any], they will beat you and lock you up. Even if you talk, they beat you.”
The next day, after handing the rescued boat people over to the Italian navy, any sense of relief at witnessing 133 lives saved has already gone as I am woken at 4am in my cot next to the ship’s morgue, and told by Hamilton that there is another boat. MOAS uses drones and communicates with other vessels to identify distressed boats. “It’s a wooden boat this time,” Hamilton says as we steam towards it. “Lots of people.”
Eventually, it appears dwarfed in the darkness next to us like a ghost ship, lit up by a halo of searchlight from our own boat, the aptly-named Responder.
We are only 17 miles from the Libyan coast, close enough to see the lights of places such as Zuwara and Misrata – two of Libya’s major smuggling hubs. But the tiny, two-tier fishing boat packed with people is already rocking perilously in a growing swell, and looks like it would struggle to make it back to Libya, let alone all the way to Italy, where it was supposed to take those on board.
MOAS handles all this efficiently and impressively, like a military operation (in fact, many of its crew are ex-military). They pull people off the boat in the dangerous, choppy water, one by one, using a smaller craft known as a “fast rescue daughter”, and then transport them back to the safety of Responder. But it’s a careful process that takes hours, and with the fishing boat bobbing around helplessly, all I can hear are cries and screams coming through the dark.
As the first women arrive on board they throw themselves on to their knees and kiss the deck. Others arrive exhausted, collapsing, vomiting... many of them having been so crammed in their legs fail them and they cannot walk . One woman is so overcome she sits down and slaps her legs repeatedly in glee. I soon learn why. She’s glad to be alive – messages coming in over the radio are that not everyone has survived the short journey.
The dead have suffocated below deck, due to the heat of the engine and the fact they’ve been packed in like sardines. Later, I will see that many of the living have swollen faces, which one 44-year-old woman tells me they received from the smugglers when they were being beaten into the boat with fists.
For this, they will each have paid anything up to $3,000.
But it is not until dawn that the four dead people, among them a 17-year old, finally make their appearance.
As the 352 survivors – including 150 women and 20 children under the age of five – who all hail from Eritrea, spread out on deck they wail and cry and beat their own heads in grief at the sight of the bodies being brought on board.
A mother grabs hold of her daughter and begins to hug and squeeze and kiss her repeatedly, pinching her cheeks over and over again with joy, having survived.
Gabriele Risica, the Italian doctor on board the ship, offers a simple diagnosis for what he believes is causing this migration crisis. “Western countries are responsible for this,” he says. “They start wars and sell weapons everywhere, and then they wonder why a few people want to escape these wars. It’s crazy.”
“Only a few people gain from all this – only a few – but they’re so powerful,” he says.
It’s an opinion shared by many of the crew on the boat. Numbering at least a dozen, the two NGOs working together on this ship – MOAS, and the Italian-based medical organisation Emergency – include staff from Tunisia, Burundi, Italy and Malta. Along with some tough professionalism, especially in the rescues, there have been great moments of tenderness too. Not least in the close camaraderie between the two teams, working day and night, to provide rescue and medical care.
Yohanes Ghebray (26) is a cultural mediator working for Emergency. An Eritrean, and therefore countryman of the 352 refugees on board, he has survived crossing the Mediterranean himself on one of these dangerous odysseys.
“This is very, very emotional for me,” he says, “to come back here, and do this. When I put my hand out to take them into the boat, I feel so good.”
But what about today?
“That was especially hard for me,” he says. “Because I had to put those dead people into the body bags and I’ve never done anything like that before. I’ve never seen my people like that before.”
A death toll of four is lower than it could have been though, and he knows it. If people were already dying from the heat and exhaust fumes on the first night, what would it have been like even an hour or two later when the sun had come up?
The survivors know it too, and as we set off now on a two-night voyage to Sicily, the look of shell-shock, of bewilderment, of exhaustion on the pinched, half-starved faces of the 352 on deck has begun already to give way to smiles, prayers (most Eritreans are orthodox Christians) even singing; children play and blow kisses at the crew.
Many Eritreans are fleeing a regime so brutal and suffocating that it is known as the “North Korea of Africa”. Many are forced to spend their entire lives conscripted into the army, in slave labour, or at best to try and eke out a living on impossibly low salaries. Any dissenters are imprisoned or murdered, Ghebray tells me. “They have no future there,” he says. “This is why they say it is better to die here in the Mediterranean than to go on living there.”
More than 400,000 migrants have reached Italy from northern Africa since the beginning of 2014, the year MOAS was founded by millionaire Christopher Catrambone. An American of Irish and Italian descent, he and his Italian wife Regina founded the rescue mission in a flurry of international headlines, as it was the first private initiative of its kind. Catrambone had made his considerable fortune through wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing services such as insurance for conflict zones, medical care for amputees and emergency evacuations – money he has since poured into this rescue operation.
Fast forward to 2016, and after claiming to have rescued almost 20,000 people (including the almost 500 I witnessed in just two days) MOAS is now a public foundation, relying entirely on donations.
Neither is MOAS the only privately-funded search-and-rescue operation anymore. There are now about a half dozen NGO ships operating simultaneously in the central Mediterranean, including Médecins Sans Frontières, Méditerranée SOS and the German NGO Sea Watch. MOAS now operates two ships, whose combined running cost is almost $1 million a month.
With more than 84,000 people reaching Italy along this route already this year, the government-run operations struggle to keep up with the demand for search and rescue operations. On July 21st the Irish Naval Service vessel LÉ James Joyce recovered 16 drowned migrants off the coast of Libya, while two days earlier it rescued 128 migrants 37 nautical miles northwest of Tripoli.
“We are private,” says Ahmed, a Tunisian member of Emergency working on board Responder with the MOAS team. “We’re not popular. Nobody wants these solutions. We are doing the work the governments should be doing. It’s crazy.”
As we finally reach Sicily, the 350 Eritreans on board stare excitedly at a new land – and hopefully a new beginning and a new life; most Eritreans will secure asylum.
Before we dock, I ask a 20-year-old woman if she managed to get any sleep at all on the rough journey.
“No,” she says, “I was thinking. All night, I was thinking.”
Nervously she answers, “The future.”