On 18 April 2015, an overcrowded trawler sank off the coast of Libya with 800 migrants on board. There began the lengthy task of identifying the dead and finding their families. Among them, PM390047. With the European Union now pushing its borders beyond the Mediterranean, Les Jours goes in search of these migrants with no name. From Italy to West Africa.
I - PM390047, a Death in the Mediterranean
18 April 2015, 800 migrants perish at sea. Les Jours retraces the journey taken by these anonymous passengers.
Sicily, special correspondent
The Nokia telephone is bright yellow, almost shiny. The case has broken off, the black paint on the battery is flaking, and rust has worn traces around the SIM card, but the keyboard is intact and the brand logo clearly visible. It’s a simple model, the kind you use to make calls, send texts, stay in touch. In the zip lock bag that holds the object now in three pieces, there is also a small plastic bag encrusted with orange spots left by oxidation: protection for someone’s worldly goods against splashes of salt water during the crossing.
That’s all that is left of the deceased. Now they bear the code name “PM390047”– “PM” for post mortem – an identity written in black marker on the bag and on the box that contains it. A case the size of a shoebox, tucked away on a shelf in the morgue of the Labanof forensics institute, in the basement of the pathology department of the University of Milan, in Italy. The shelf, which reaches all the way to the ceiling of the small room, holds around a hundred other boxes, stacked one on top of another. There is PM390052: two Libyan ten-dinar notes, a SIM card, an empty packet of Votrex 50 (a painkiller sold in North Africa), a telephone number written on a scrap of squared paper ripped from a schoolbook. PM390016: two small amulets containing a pinch of earth collected over there, before leaving home; a strip of torn red cardboard inside a pack of American Legend cigarettes on which five phone numbers are scribbled in blue ink, the multiple sevens in the last number traced over several times, so as not to confuse them. PM390010: two twenty-euro notes. PM390037: a toothbrush. PM390017: a black rubber bracelet.
These boxes also hold other things that belonged to the deceased: bone samples, an impression of a jaw, perhaps a tooth, hair. Every detail is a precious indicator of the gender, age, or ethnic origin of PM390047, the owner of the bright yellow Nokia phone. But none of them answer the most important question: who was PM390047? That question can only be answered if their relatives contact the Labanof Institute and say a bit more about them: their fractures, tattoos or build, their smile, hair, or shoe size. For now, all we know about PM390047 is the date they died: 18 April 2015. It is the same for all the deceased whose boxes fill the shelves lining the red walls of this room.
18 April 2015 was a Saturday. At dawn, PM390047 boarded the boat moored eight kilometres off Sabratha on the Libyan coast. The vessel, an old 21-metre fishing boat, deemed unseaworthy, should have been sold for scrap. A boon for smugglers, prepared to offer the owner a slightly higher price, to then make a profit on the purchase with a single crossing to the Italian coast. An even higher profit this time, since the larger than average trawler allowed them to maximise the number of passengers.
PM390047 reached the packed ship in a zodiac with dozens and dozens of other people. It took several return trips for almost 800 passengers to embark the trawler originally intended to hold around 30. A spot on deck would set you back 800 dollars. To travel in the hold, the price was fixed at 300 dollars. For this crossing, the smugglers’ income is valued between 250,000 and 500,000 dollars, a sum from which they only had to deduct the purchase price of the boat. The smugglers gave the helm to Mohamed Ali Malek, a 27 year-old Tunisian, and appointed as his deputy Mahmud Bikhit, a 25 year-old Syrian. The two men received a satellite phone with the number for Italian maritime rescue.
PM390047 might have paid for a place on deck, up where the crossing would be safer, where they would be a little less cramped. They had their Nokia phone in their pocket (that’s where it was found), parcelled up in their little plastic bag.
At 19:35 on 18 April 2015, a first distress call came in to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome. The trawler had been spotted in the Libyan rescue zone – in maritime language, they talk about “SAR (search and rescue) zones”. According to international maritime law, in the event of an emergency, the closest vessel is assigned to carry out a rescue operation. That night, it was the King Jacob, a 150-metre cargo ship flying the Portuguese flag. On orders from the Italian authorities, received by satellite phone at 21:00, its Filipino captain, Abdullah Ambrousi Angeles changed course to head towards the trawler, at the same time as the Italian military vessel Gregoretti, patrolling further out.
Two hours later, the captain of the King Jacob said in his statement to the Italian investigators, “visibility was virtually nil, the radar showed the presence of a small vessel six nautical miles away, most probably a trawler”. The King Jacob advanced towards the dot flashing on the radar screen. “At three nautical miles from the trawler”, Abdullah Ambrousi Angeles explained in his account, “we spotted a little light in the middle of the sea. I gave the order to turn on our vessel’s right beam, but I couldn’t see where the little light was coming from. At around one mile I realised that it was coming from a boat with so many people crammed on board that I decided to change course to avoid a collision”. He repeated the manoeuvre four times in eight minutes, but each time the trawler diverted towards the King Jacob. At 23:20, the captain gave the order to stop the engines and called all his crew on deck to carry out the rescue operation. It was then that the trawler, now just a few hundred metres away, suddenly veered to the port side and accelerated, heading straight for the King Jacob. The crash was brutal. The 21-metre boat was no match for the container ship, it pitched under the impact and the movement of its crowds of passengers. It turned onto its right side and sank within the space of five minutes.
Of the 800 passengers, only twenty-eight would survive. Among them Mohamed Ali Malek and Mahmud Bikhit. PM390047 and his yellow Nokia telephone were swallowed up by the Mediterranean.
Catania’s courthouse is an imposing building in the centre of the city on the east coast of Sicily, a labyrinth of staircases, corridors lined with paper-filled cupboards, and offices one after another. Andrea Bonomo’s office in is the wing reserved for state prosecutors, guarded by a police officer. Most of the time, the deputy prosecutor handles anti-mafia cases; the rest of the time, human trafficking. His job is to find the people responsible when a boat is intercepted at sea and the passengers are disembarked in his jurisdiction, as was the case with the survivors of the shipwreck on 18 April 2015.
This time, the investigation is simple, of the twenty-eight survivors questioned on arrival at the port of Catania, twenty-six named Mohamed Ali Malek as captain of the ship, the one at the helm at the time of the collisions, and Mahmud Bikhit as his assistant. The majority of witnesses had made the journey on the deck of the boat, relatively close to the steering cabin. Those who were in the hold are no longer here to give evidence. They didn’t have time to get out when the boat capsized. Three days after the shipwreck, Mohamed Ali Malek was charged with multiple counts of manslaughter, involuntary shipwreck, and false imprisonment. Mahmud Bikhit was prosecuted for aiding illegal immigration.
When I meet Andrea Bonomo for the first time, in July 2016, he is preparing to call for eighteen and ten-year sentences for Mohamed Ali Malek and Mahmoud Bikhit. On 13 December 2016, the two men would be sentenced to eighteen and five years’ imprisonment, respectively. Were they, then, human traffickers? In his office at Catania courthouse, Andrea Bonomo sighs. In the eyes of Italian law, the answer is yes. The person at the helm is considered a smuggler and judged accordingly. But the reality is often more complicated. “In general, the captains are migrants just like the others, with no way of paying for their crossing. So they take the helm in exchange for a free place on the boat”. That was, indeed, the defence given by Mohamed Ali Malek and Mahmud Bikhit in their trial. The witnesses described the two men moving freely around the boat and giving orders. Hasan Kasan, a survivor originally from Bangladesh, explains that the captain was equipped with a satellite phone “which he used to keep in touch with people in Libya” and that he was armed with a gun and a baton “to keep order on board and make sure everyone was sitting down, sometimes threatening people with his weapon”.
In any case, Andrea Bonomo knows that these two men are not the ones pocketing the fortunes represented by human trafficking. Yet they are the people to prosecute, for lack of anyone better. “We regularly have proof of traffickers’ identity”, he explains. “Videos, telephone recordings, mobile phone numbers. There are Libyans and other nationalities in this business. Eritreans especially”. In the case of the trawler, too, familiar names came up. Survivors told that they had been shut up for hours, sometimes months, in farms close to the towns of Gasr Garabulli, Zouara and Tadjourah, guarded and beaten by armed men who then transferred them to the beach for departure. Andrea Bonomo knows the story by heart. “But who do you want me to contact in Libya? There’s no state or legal system that works. Who am I supposed to collaborate with for an investigation or a request for extradition?” Neither he nor I have the answer. The question sits there, hanging in the suffocating summer air.
The day after the shipwreck, Sunday 19 April 2015, Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, arranged a press conference and called for an exceptional European summit to be held. That spring, there was no drop in arrivals via the Mediterranean. In general, the rough seas at this time of year reduce the number of crossings. Not this year. In March 2015, the number of arrivals was 8,866. The following month, it tripled, rising to 27,936, according to calculations by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The sea rescue operation Mare Nostrum, directed and financed by Italy alone, ended in early 2015, and was replaced by the Triton operation run by Frontex 1. But this, with a budget three times lower (9 million euros per month) and patrolling a much more restricted perimeter, had a mission consisting only of surveillance, not rescue. The number of deaths immediately increased. In the month of April 2015 alone, the IOM counted 1,222 missing people.
Greece and Italy raised the alarm once again. Being the gateway to Europe: fine. But on the condition that the gateway did not become a cul-de-sac on the pretext that, under the Dublin regulation 3, asylum applications must be handled in the first country where the applicant is registered. A rule that suits other member States, which prefer to accuse Italy and Greece of bypassing it by letting new arrivals through unregistered.
A few weeks after the shipwreck that killed PM390047, when the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees 2, Antonio Gutierrez, warned the European Union of the number of Syrians who had fled their country – 3.9 million – European interior ministers mentioned the possibility of creating reception centres not in their respective countries, but in transit countries, like Niger, Egypt, Turkey or Lebanon. The first signs of this approach of externalising borders were visible from 2001, and its implementation stepped up a gear in November 2015, at the Valetta summit with African countries, and in March 2016 in the form of the agreement with Turkey. Then, the European Union set the condition that part of its aid must be used to improve the fight against unlawful immigration. France began negotiations with Niger so that asylum applications could be handled in the transit country.
It was during this spring of 2015 that politicians began to talk about the “migrant crisis” and the press followed suit. But what was the real crisis? The increasing number of arrivals or the row raging in Europe about how the situation should be handled?
At the press conference on 19 April, Matteo Renzi looks drawn. The shipwreck is now the worst his country has ever seen. He hammers home the need for solidarity in Europe, a coordinated fight to stop trafficking, which he compares to slavery. On several occasions, he mentions human dignity and ends by spelling out: “We cannot think of these as numbers that have died. These are human beings”. He seems to be weighing his words. Then he announces that Italy will make every effort to recover the wreck, “out of respect for the dead”. “We want to give them a proper burial”. It is the first time that a European state has tried to restore the humanity of migrants lost in the Mediterranean, forcing the public to see them, to count them, one by one.
This is a first for me, too. This spring, I have written a number of pieces about shipwrecks, with an approximate number of victims, the kind that appear in the newspapers almost every day in 2015. I’ve been writing about migration for fifteen years, but this particular year, the figures have started to haunt me. Why do these dead people never have names, while the living are registered as soon as they arrive, their fingerprints stored in shared databases, accessible to all European police forces?
For the dead, there is nothing in Europe. Bodies that wash up on shore become the problem of those who have to collect them, autopsy them, bury them – a situation that everyone manages as best they can. I meet the mayor of a small Sicilian village who tells me about the day he had to find space for 45 bodies removed from a ship’s hold. There were only eight places in the morgue, so he called on the town’s florists to lend their refrigerated lorries. I listen to the fireman who directed operations that day. He tells me about the emotion that hits once the job is done, the feeling of being the guardian of these lifeless young men’s memory.
That summer, in Sicily, I learn to count the dead. I learn that one is too many; that when you get to three you want to stop, and that forty-five is an unspeakable sadness. I still cannot count to eight hundred.
I don’t know where PM390047 came from. Many victims on the trawler were originally from countries in West Africa, survivors say. I decide to retrace their journey, in reverse.
The European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders was replaced in October 2016 by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, but retains the name ‘Frontex’. It continues to coordinate the border and coast guards of Schengen Area member states.
The HCR publishes statistics each year on the number of displaced people in the world.
According to the ‘Dublin III’ regulation, asylum applications must be handled by the country where the applicant was first registered via fingerprinting.
II – The Coroner and the Body with No Name
The wreck is raised from the bottom of the Mediterranean. In Italy, Cristina Cattaneo is tasked with identifying the bodies of 675 migrants.
Italy, special correspondent
Resting on a frame under a large white canvas, the blue trawler has the abandoned air of a boat stranded on dry land. The sun beats down on our heads, the slight breath of wind making its way from the sea could almost be coming from an oven. Behind the boat sits the dazzling horizon of the Mediterranean. It is July 2016. Italy has kept its promise. The wreck in which almost 800 migrants perished on 18 April 2015 has come here, to the NATO Military base in Melilli, Sicily, after over a year of searching and operations at sea. First, they had to locate the trawler, found 85 nautical miles from the Libyan coast, in international waters, at a depth of 370 metres. The Italian Navy visited the site five times between July and December 2015. During these missions, 169 bodies found alongside the wreck were recovered with the aid of the robot Pegasus. One of them was PM390047, whose Nokia telephone has since been lying in a box in the Milan morgue.
On 18 April 2016, exactly one year after the shipwreck, five Italian navy vessels began the operation to salvage the trawler. Any openings in the boat were sealed to prevent bodies falling out during the ascent. Then, a frame specially designed for this purpose was positioned on the seabed and fixed onto the wreck to transfer the 150 tonnes on board one of the vessels. Operations at sea were delicate and delayed on several occasions by swells and bad weather. It was two months before the wreck reached the NATO Military base in Melilli. The cost of the operation, financed by entirely by the Italian government, came to nine million euros.
Sitting on the canvas, the wreck seems almost intact, except for two large holes under its left side: one with smashed edges of twisted metal, and the other square and straight cut. That’s where the firemen brought the bodies out. Bundled up in protective suits from head to toe, under the scorching Sicilian sun, they spent two weeks going in and out of the trawler’s hold. They brought out 458 body bags. It is now 14 July 2016, and they have just finished their work.
In the military base’s canteen, the tables have been pushed back and the chairs lined up to welcome the press. At the front of the room, sitting behind a long table, are representatives from the Syracuse Prefecture, civil protection, Navy, Red Cross and fire brigade. Chief fire officer Giuseppe Romano begins a PowerPoint presentation. He was the one directing operations on the ground. His teams were composed exclusively of volunteer firefighters from all over Sicily. The work in the vessel’s hold was far beyond anything any of them had experienced before. Many of them were men in their early twenties – the same age as most of the victims they were carrying out of the wreckage. The heat of the suits and the foul stench of death reduced the length of time they could spend in the hold to a maximum of twenty minutes.
For the press, Giuseppe Romano shows a diagram of the boat, a chart with the number of bodies – “body bags”, he clarifies – recovered from each part of the trawler. “Here, we have calculated the density of people per square metre. So we could tell that in the engine rooms, there were 1.35 people per square metre, while in the hold, the figure is 5.11 per square metre”. He pauses, and then goes on. “In the hold, there were therefore 203 people crammed into 45 square metres. I don’t know how that’s even possible.” The chief officer’s face shows that this is not easy for him. His colleague steps forward, carrying a folded piece of paper. He unfolds it slowly. “This is one square metre. There were five people on there”, repeats Giuseppe Romano. Five people standing on there, that’s a crowded metro. If the five people sit down, one of them has to sit on top of the others”.
Listening at the other end of the table is Cristina Cattaneo. She is a coroner and head of the Labanof Institute. Sunglasses resting on her blonde curls, she is the only woman on the panel facing the media. The firefighters’ work is now done, but hers is just beginning. For Italy has decided not just to recover the bodies, but to try to give them back their identities. “We cannot think of these as numbers that have died. These are human beings”, pleaded the then Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Cristina Cattaneo will spend the coming months on the military base, heading up a team of volunteer anthropologists and forensic pathologists from thirteen Italian universities. They are all there, standing against a wall in the canteen, dressed in green surgeon’s gowns.
Their work will consist of opening every body bag and examining the contents to determine whether they came from one or multiple victims. Then they must perform an autopsy, make 3D x-rays of the skull, take a sample for DNA analysis, verify and photograph the clothes and personal effects found in the pockets. For each victim, they must enter every tiny detail into a form several pages long. The more detailed the report, the more information there is, the easier it makes the task of identification. A simple DNA profile is not enough. Tattoos, missing teeth, scars and traces of old fractures are all just as important. Once the coroners and anthropologists have finished on site, the DNA samples and personal effects found on the bodies will be sent to the Labanof Institute in Milan. There they will join the remains of the 48 bodies recovered from the sea at the time of the shipwreck, and the 169 bodies recovered from the seabed – a total of 675 ‘units’ that will be in the hands of Cristina Cattaneo and her team. The cost of DNA analysis is estimated to be between 200,000 and 300,000 euros, all covered by university budgets.
For now, the body bags are waiting, stored in huge refrigerated lorries belonging to the Italian Red Cross, parked in a hall on the military base. The smell of death is everywhere. Cristina Cattaneo and her team have been living on site for several days, in a camp set up in the middle of the military base, close to the wreck. Their working day starts at 8am and finishes at 7pm, Monday to Saturday. They don’t know for sure how long their mission will last. Cattaneo talks about three months, but that’s just an estimate.
One month later, in August, I am in Milan at the Labanof Institute. Cristina Cattaneo’s office is above the morgue storing the boxes belonging to PM390047 and the other bodies recovered from around the wreck, at the bottom of the Mediterranean. The mission in Melilli has been paused for a few weeks, to give everyone some breathing space. Officially, therefore, the Labanof’s director is on holiday, which means she can meet me in the office she shares with two colleagues. Books and folders are stacked high on tables. On hers, there is a pen pot that says ‘The Boss’.
Cristina Cattaneo has twenty years of experience under her belt, a career in which she has explored the darkest recesses of the human soul. She is a court expert in murder, child abuse and child pornography investigations. She is also the person they call when an asylum seeker has to provide forensic evidence of the torture they have suffered. “Each case is a different story. All these stories pile up in me, like layers of sediment”. Her voice and her eyes hold real sadness. She shows me a book that she wrote in 2006, “after ten years of sediment”: Morti senza nome (‘The Dead with no Name’). In the book, she tells some of these stories: from the Bulgarian immigrant who died in a fire, to the victims of the Linate Airport disaster in 2001.
Cristina Cattaneo has already been working on the Melilli wreckage operation for one year. She has taken part in the mission at sea, recruited volunteers so that a team of twelve to twenty forensic pathologists and anthropologists could be permanently assigned to work on the base. She was also the one who told the firefighters what was waiting for them in the hold. Most of them had never had anything to do with drowning victims. “My work doesn’t have a happy ending. My young colleagues are convinced they’re doing valuable work, and they’re right. But after twenty years, I also know that this work takes its toll”. The older she gets, the harder it is to open the wallet from a victim’s pocket and come face to face with a child’s portrait, its edges worn away by the ocean.
Now, she would like to save the wreck from the destruction planned by the Italian authorities, and transform it into a museum. “You only need to look in there and imagine the people who were inside. Kids with their school reports in the pockets”. For her, this hulk is the symbol of all the other less spectacular shipwrecks, without a nine-million-euro mission to recover the bodies. “Lots of people think nobody goes looking for the bodies of migrants. But that’s not true.”
In 2012, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) contacted the Italian authorities. For years the organisation, normally responsible for searching for missing people in cases of conflict or natural disaster, had been receiving more and more requests from families worried about disappearances in the Mediterranean. A brother who said he was leaving Libya on this date, and hadn’t called home since. A wife and children who were meant to board a boat, but had never been heard of again.
In October 2013, two shipwrecks occurred just a few days apart, off the island of Lampedusa. 387 bodies were recovered, of which 192 were recognised by survivors. Nobody knew the other 195. A number far too high for the limited resources available to the small island’s prosecutor, responsible for the autopsies. So the ICRC called in Cristina Cattaneo. She had previously collaborated with the international organisation in working groups about missing people around the world. She flew out to Lampedusa and contacted the Missing Persons Unit in Rome. This public institution attached to Italy’s interior ministry had never dealt with migrants in the Mediterranean before, focusing only on cases of missing Italians and investigations into anonymous corpses. “I asked them to give it a try”.
Commissioner Vittorio Piscitelli had just been appointed head of the missing persons unit. He and Cristina Cattaneo developed a procedure for trying to give the dead a name, surname and date of birth. First, all the information gathered in the autopsy was collated in a shared database. Then the families had to be found. They are the ones who can describe the missing person’s tattoos or scars, show a photo of them giving a toothy grin, say whether they had ever had any fractures. If all that corresponds to the post mortem information from the database, a sample of saliva, hair or blood will be requested from the relatives, to confirm the identity by DNA analysis.
But how do you look for families when you can’t even be sure which country the victims were from? How do you find relatives in a dictatorship like Eritrea, where emigration is considered a crime? And how do you make it possible for the database – which so far is only for Italy – to be expanded to other countries? “Victims from a single shipwreck could wash up on the territory of several different countries. Without a central European file, the work gets very complicated. And the relatives should be able to give the information and DNA samples wherever they are. The European Union should have a role to play”, Cristina Cattaneo explains. Then she sighs: “Europe is deaf to all that. Sometimes I get the impression they don’t even know what’s happening in the Mediterranean”.
For now, Cristina Cattaneo and Vittorio Piscitelli are looking for the families through associations, consulates and social networks. After the shipwrecks in Lampedusa in October 2013, just over 70 people contacted Piscitelli’s unit to give information about 61 victims. From that, twenty bodies could be identified. That may not seem many, compared to the 175 still waiting, just for the two Lampedusa shipwrecks, not to mention the hundreds of victims from the blue trawler. But for the families of those 21 people identified, confirmation of the death and place of burial changes everything. “Knowing what happened is essential for them to grieve. But identification also has administrative consequences”, Cristina Cattaneo points out. Relatives will then receive a death certificate which officially confirms their status as a widow, widower, or orphan(s). Without this piece of paper, it is impossible to benefit from the corresponding rights in the country of origin or country of residence. For example, an orphan cannot seek family reunification with a relative resident in Europe.
The cemetery in Catania, on the east coast of Sicily, is vast, a town within a town, crossed by paths wide enough to drive around by car. A cemetery employee hops on his scooter to take me to the graves of those he simply calls “the immigrants”. He shows me a plot of land around ten metres wide, hidden behind some small chapels. Tiny signs planted on iron rods mark the location of 53 graves. The majority contain three bodies, to save space. Here lies PM390047, in grave number 27, with PM390022 and PM390024.
In 2015, the year of the trawler shipwreck in which PM390047 died, 3,673 people perished in the Mediterranean, according to figures from the IOM (International Organization for Migration). The vast majority, 2,794 people, died on what is known as the central route, trying to reach Italy. According to the IOM, Europe is now the most dangerous destination in the world. The majority of the dead will never be found, swallowed up by the sea. Those whose bodies are recovered are buried in anonymous graves. There are hundreds of them in Sicilian cemeteries, but also in Greece, Turkey, Spain, Libya, and Tunisia. No one knows the exact number. In July 2016, at the cemetery in Catania, only one sign bears a name and surname: “Muyasar Bashtawi. Syria 3.9.1954. Dead 30.6.2015.”
III – In the Land of the Missing
Arrival in Senegal, the origin of many migrants who died in the Mediterranean.
Yarakh, special correspondent
A dozen people busy themselves around the large pirogue, painted yellow and green, sitting on wooden stilts on the fine sand of Yarakh beach, in a village on the outskirts of Dakar, in Senegal. By no means too many to bring the boat twenty metres out of the water. It jerks along the sand, one metre at a time, to the rhythm of the phrases the men chant to spur themselves on. Standing on the beach, Tidiane Ndiaye points out the canoe-like boat to me. “It was in a pirogue like that that I left for the Canaries. There were 77 people on board, a tarpaulin was stretched over part of the pirogue to protect us from the sun and waves. The journey lasted 7 days. I was so afraid”. This was in June 2006, nine years before PM390047 set sail for Italy from the Libyan coastline, on the other side of Africa, in the little blue trawler, barely any longer than the pirogue being pulled onto the beach by the fishermen in Yarakh. People were already disappearing en route.
A few days after the shipwreck of 18 April 2015 in which PM390047 died, the Senegalese and Malian press confirmed that 200 citizens from each country – or 300 in total, according to sources – had perished at sea. The figures were then refuted by the Senegalese authorities, who opened a crisis centre for families. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) received over 70 files from Senegalese families concerned about the shipwreck.
As I listen to Tidiane, I stare at the ocean that I spent my whole childhood 1, alongside, here on the beaches of Senegal. I learned to dream of elsewhere by watching the fishermen’s pirogues set out into the open sea, my eyes glued to the horizon where the water touched the sky. The burning sand slides between by toes, I know that feeling, it’s just as familiar to me as it is to the children running up to us, with their mischievous glow, playing at who will be the first to speak to the foreigner I have become.
In Senegal, people have been emigrating for decades. The first departures were bound for other West African countries, then to Europe as the French car industry recruited cheap labour in the 1960s.
Officially, for France, immigration ended in 1974 – not for Senegal. As time went by and border controls tightened, it simply took more and more dangerous routes, until it forced would-be emigrants to risk their lives. “Barça walla barsakh”, “Barcelona or the afterlife”, the expression dates from the time when Tidiane Ndiaye took to the seas. That was also the time when people started to go missing, swallowed up by the Atlantic.
“People left from this beach. The big pirogue was moored further out, we reached it on smaller boats, like those”, Tidiane explains, pointing to the smaller pirogues, carefully lined up on the sand, waiting for the fishermen’s next outing to sea. In 2006, they weren’t yet taking the route via Libya. The voyage began on the beaches of the Atlantic coast, in Senegal, or a little further north in Mauritania. With fish stocks dwindling due to European boats, the fishermen of Yarakh and the local area had been forced further and further out to sea. Guided by a GPS set in advance, the pirogues travelled all the way to the Canaries, the gateway to Europe, 1,700km away. The route was opened by the first boat to safely reach port. The fishermen became captains, sometimes organising the crossing themselves.
Tidiane Ndiaye left on a boat chartered by a childhood friend. That same friend drives us through the village. He is from Yarakh, too, but wants to stay anonymous, “I’ve stopped all that now”. Now a public works contractor, he is still proud of having enabled people to leave for Europe. “At the time, I had a cybercafé. After I overheard conversations with a customer from Saint-Louis who came to sort out his passengers there, I realised that we could arrange everything ourselves. The crossing cost 400,000 CFA [around 600 euros, ed.] per person, and there were at least 80 passengers in each pirogue. At that price, we could buy a pirogue, two motors, 200 litres of petrol, two or three GPS devices and the sacks of rice for the journey, which took around a week. I made some of the passengers pay for the crossing and gave free places to thirty young people from the neighbourhood who wanted to leave. I wanted to help people”.
In the space of a year, hundreds of young people left the village. Tidiane Ndiaye didn’t think about leaving. He had already been to Europe, ten years earlier, for a football tournament and trials with Unione San Remo in Italy. That was a plane journey. So, for him, going to Europe in a pirogue seemed like utter madness. But Tidiane did end up making the trip himself, when his dreams of being a professional footballer vanished, when he could barely find work, when the departures around him kept multiplying. “It was all anyone could talk about: getting the pirogue. I worked for Tata bus, at first I was a controller, then a conductor on the buses. But my salary wasn’t paid, it was a bit here, a bit there. One day, when the Korité holiday was coming up, I had to go and collect my salary. The boss gave me what he had in his pocket. That’s when I thought: why not give it a try, like everyone else?”
Tidiane reassured himself with the fact that there had never been a shipwreck among the departures from Yarakh. The deaths were in Thiaroye, Saint-Louis, Nouadhibou in Mauritania – but not here, in Yarakh. “Here, we had people who worked on the big European boats and who were used to the sea”. But once they were on the high seas, there was nothing but fear, a “terror” that Tidiane doesn’t like to remember, and makes him shake his head. “You do everything in the pirogue, you sleep, you eat, you wash. Everyone was praying to God, we were all pleading with Allah. That’s all there was to do: pray. Here they say that if you have the love and prayers of your parents, nothing can happen to you”. Tidiane no longer had his parents. But he was leaving behind his young fiancée. He was convinced that he was only going away for two years, long enough to work and save some money, before he came back.
In the end, Tidiane never did reach continental Europe. He arrived safe and sound in Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands, and after one month in a reception centre, he was repatriated to Senegal with a hundred of his compatriots. A failure. Today, he says that return was “his lucky chance”, but he knows that his is the minority view in Yarakh. Since then, some of the friends who shared his misfortune have made it to Europe. They are security guards, mechanics, they work in agriculture, “wherever there is work”. Tidiane never considered it again. He got married, had a child, “I wasn’t lucky enough to have any more”. His seven-year-old son is a boarder at a Koranic school. “I wanted to get him out of the neighbourhood, give him a good, religious education”. At home, in the room reserved for him and his wife in the family house, he shows me a photograph of his son, standing beside his mother with a certificate in his hand, both dressed up for a special occasion. “That was the end of year party at nursery school”. He takes out another photo: himself dressed in a football kit. And there, on the wall, is his wife, “when she was young”, he says, smiling.
The television is tuned to a football match on Canal+, the sounds from the yard drift softly into the darkened room. The bleating of sheep taken out of their pen to be washed, water splashing from the laundry basin, children squawking. It’s Sunday and everyone is at home: Tidiane’s two brothers, their wives, the children, the young women of the family who have come from the village to work in Dakar. In all, that’s 25 mouths to feed every day. The family clubs together for meals, the four women in the household each take their turn to do the cooking. On the roof, the men are laying bricks to build a second floor for the family home where space is getting tighter. “My brother is a builder, so that helps a lot. We’re getting there, bit by bit, when we have the money”. But money isn’t that easy to come by. Tidiane works as a PE teacher in a private school, six hours per week, paid 1,300 CFA per hour. When there are no holidays, or strikes, that makes him around 31,000 CFA per month (approx. 47 euros). He supplements that with night shifts at the pharmacy at the village health centre, to make ends meet. With that, he earns between 50,000 and 60,000 CFA per month (75-90 euros).
Tidiane shows me the house next door with its many floors. “That house belongs to someone who’s in Spain”. There are many houses like this in the narrow, sandy streets of Yarakh. Here, emigration remains synonymous with success and a better life, if not for those who leave, then for those who stay. So young people continue to leave. Now, they travel to Morocco by plane, pirogue or bus, and from there they try to reach the Spanish coast. A few months ago, a group of young people from Yarakh disappeared trying to make the crossing. The boat capsized, the bodies have not been found. When I walk through the village streets with Tidiane and his friend the former smuggler, they show me the houses that belong to people in Spain, and to the people who have disappeared. We meet an old man; he lost his son in that shipwreck. I shake his hand, feeling deeply uncomfortable. Tracing the route back to the living crying over their lost ones: the very purpose of my investigation suddenly seems obscene.
The next day, I follow the route to Tambacounda, in the east of the country. It is in this region – which has been particularly affected by departures to Europe for years now – that I hope to find the families of those who disappeared on 18 April 2015. Preparing for this trip, I stumbled upon the names of villages in the local press: Makacolibantang, Missira, Goudiry. Names that meant nothing to me, they were simply points on the map, and sometimes not even known to Google Maps. One week before I left, I had a telephone call with the Secretary General of the Tambacounda County Council. Hubert Ndèye remembers that shipwreck well, and the communities particularly affected by it. He promises to put me in touch with the mayors of those places who might, in turn, be able to point me to the families. A few days later, I call a young man from Tambacounda, the younger brother of a friend of a friend, who also remembers the shipwreck. He tells me about another village in mourning. He will take us there and be our interpreter.
On the drive to Tambacounda, my hair ruffled by the scorching wind blowing through the open windows, I want to turn back. Sometimes, it is easier to travel thousands of kilometres than to step up to that final door.
The child of missionaries, I lived in Africa until I was 15, and spent nine years in Senegal.
IV - Mamadou Seydou, the Family Volunteer
In Kothiary, Senegal, our reporter meets the relatives of migrants who died in the Mediterranean
Kothiary, special correspondent
Just twenty kilometres separate the village of Kothiary from the town of Tambacounda, in the south east of Senegal, but the holes that pepper the road force drivers to take care. Tankers bound for Mali cut across the laterite verge, throwing clouds of red dust into our eyes. The National 1, resurfaced on the 460 kilometres separating Dakar from Tambacounda, is sorely lacking maintenance outside the regional capital. As if that’s where the resources suddenly ran out, creating the impression of a region abandoned.
In Kothiary, the mayor Abdoulaye Kanté is waiting for us. He has drawn up a list of six names: these are the families from his village affected by disappearances in the Mediterranean. Some of them lost a relative in the shipwreck of 18 April 2015. The list includes the family of the village imam and one of the mayor’s sisters-in-law. “For this family”, he says, pointing to the sixth name on the list, “it’s more delicate. They haven’t really accepted their child’s disappearance. It might be better not to go and ask them questions, it would be very difficult for them”.
Counting the dead. I think back to the Sicilian firefighters, tasked with removing the bodies from the trawler’s hold, who made me understand what that meant. I’m going to spend the next few days counting the dead myself. “My agent will go with you. He knows the families”, the mayor tells me. Issaga Cissé is little more than twenty, dressed in his local security officer's uniform. He knows all the missing people. In Kothiary, with its 3,000 inhabitants, everyone knows everyone.
Mamadou Seydou Bâ was just 18 when he disappeared. He was the second-youngest of the siblings, a lively young man in the prime of his life. He was the one the family chose to leave, in spring 2015. “When we found out that there was a route through Libya, that people from the village had left for Europe, we decided to send him. We chose for him. Mamadou Seydou agreed“, explains his father, Ousmane. Sitting on his front steps in Kothiary, a village in the south east of Senegal that has been particularly affected by disappearances in the Mediterranean, the old man sets down the Coran he has been reading. His wife Dalanda is shelling peanuts with a little girl. They are sitting on a mat in front of the hut, next to a sheep tethered to a post. “All this is in God’s hands”, Dalanda sighs.
Everyone chipped in for Mamadou Seydou’s trip. “We all gave something”, says his older brother Mamadou, who has called round to the house. He apologises for his black stained clothes, he’s burning coal in the scrubland not far from here. “Everyone helped. Even if it was 100 CFA (15 cents), it was good. Because if my brother left, he wasn’t leaving for one person, but for many.
The journey was expensive: 450,000 CFA francs (almost 700 euros) to get to Libya, then 600,000 (900 euros) for the crossing. Over a million francs in all, plus the smaller amounts sent along the way so that Mamadou Seydou could eat. For this family of farmers, it was a fortune. The older brother sold his herd of cows, another brother put up his savings. “It was normal to help”, the older brother says again. Once he made it to Italy, Mamadou Seydou would send money that would enable them to live better, to pay for the sacks of rice that feed the family, to build a solid house.
On Wednesday 15 April 2015, Mamadou Seydou called to say that he would soon be setting sail. That was the last time he sent news. A few days later, on 18 April, the smugglers’ middleman went to see one of the older brothers, the one who has a stall on the side of the national highway. “You owe me a present”, he said, “because I’ve got some good news for you”.
“No need for presents between us”, the brother replied.
“The boat left fine and Mamadou Seydou has arrived in Italy”.
But four days later, when there still wasn’t any news, the family started to worry. If he had arrived safely, why wasn’t he calling? “We went to see the family of another young man, who left at the same time”, the older brother explains. His father lives in France, they call him ‘the Parisian’ here. He told us about an accident”. ‘The Parisian’ had learned from France 24 that a vessel had sunk that day, with several hundred people on board. “He told us that if we had no news from Italy, it meant that Mamadou Seydou had died”.
Who to believe? Doubt crept into their minds. “Is he dead, or is he alive? First someone tells you one thing, then someone tells you something else. That’s what’s so hard”, the older brother says. His father tries to rationalise: “He took this journey with the Parisian’s son. If the Parisian is sure that his son is dead, we tell ourselves that our son must be, too. We have no way of searching; he does. So we take that as proof”. The family has never heard of the International Committee of the Red Cross website ‘Trace the Face’ 1, which lets you report a missing person.
“I even went to consult a marabout to find out where my son was”, his mother whispers. “He told me to make offerings of milk and kola”. But there were no more signs of life from Mamadou Seydou. Two years after his last call, the family decided it was time to give his young wife back her freedom 2. “We couldn’t keep another mouth to feed. She got remarried last year”.
Sitting on the mat, Dalanda keeps on shelling peanuts in silence. When the men get to the end of their story, Mamadou Seydou’s mother decides to speak. “I wanted to tell the story about the bracelet”. Months after her son’s disappearance, a young man came to visit her. He came from a village further away, she didn’t know him. He brought with him a silver bracelet. Dalanda recognised the object immediately: it was her son’s bracelet. “It was very difficult to see that bracelet. I was almost starting to forget… I cried. There was nothing else I could do for my child. I gave the bracelet to my youngest son, Mamadou Seydou’s little brother. It’s his now”. Mamadou Seydou had given it to the young man before he boarded the blue trawler, the one where PM390047 died. Dalanda’s hands don’t stop moving while she talks. The bowl of peanuts set down beside her is almost empty. Her husband was listening carefully. “I didn’t know that, about the bracelet”.
- “Trace the face”
In June 2018, the site collated 4,042 photos from people searching for a relative. The most represented nationalities are Afghani, Senegalese, Somalian, Syrian, Iraqi, Eritrean and Ethiopian. The number of requests exploded in 2015-2016. The photos are also published on posters updated every month in reception centres and public places in various European countries.
- Family code
According to Senegalese legislation, divorce can be pronounced by a judge four years after disappearance, on the condition that the necessary steps have been taken to for the disappearance to be legally declared. In practice, few marriages, particularly in rural areas, are recorded in the civil register. It is Muslim law (which also calls for a period of four years) and the agreement between the husband and wife’s families that prevail.
V - Ibrahima, the One Who Couldn’t Board the Boat
After leaving Senegal, he was due to board the blue trawler that sank on 18 April 2015.
Kothiary, special correspondent
The little stool is the same size as him. 4 year-old Tiémoko carries it from the other side of the yard and places it beside his father, who is sitting in a palm wood chair in the shade. “I left Kothiary one Sunday morning, on 30 November 2014. My son was two months old then”, Ibrahima Senghor begins. Tiémoko turns to look at his father, with the serious and satisfied face of a child who knows they’re being talked about. “I came back almost a year later. I’d tried to cross the Mediterranean twice”.
Ibrahima made his first crossing attempt in January 2015. The second was three months later, on 18 April 2015. Ibrahima was supposed to be on the blue trawler, the one carrying PM390047, the one that was swallowed up by the Mediterranean with 800 people on board. On the boat that started my investigation, there were other young people from Kothiary. Ibrahima isn’t the first to leave the village. This region, which suffers from poverty and drought, has experienced large-scale departures to Europe for years.
“I escaped death twice. That was God’s way of telling me ‘you shouldn’t leave’”. In his arms, Ibrahima holds his youngest son, Malick, eighteen months old, born after his return to Kothiary. Since he came home, Ibrahima has gone back to his job as a lorry driver. He’s just finished a day at the wheel. In the family’s yard, the late afternoon sunshine skims the rooftops. “I’d worked hard to save up for the journey. In total, I paid around 1.25 million CFA francs (1,900 euros) to the smugglers”. A fortune in Senegal 1. Ibrahima doesn’t blame them, the risk is part of the journey. Coming back was his decision, one he classed as a “failure”, the same word they use when the voyage is cut short by death. Ibrahima’s failure saved his life.
“It was a Thursday night, around 9pm”. On 8 January 2015, Ibrahima went to sea for the first time, on board an overcrowded zodiac, the typical black zodiac you see in all the pictures of rescues in the Mediterranean. He explains just how you cram 120 people inside. “The captain is at the back with a satellite phone, the ‘compass man’ is at the front with a GPS. On each side, there are 14 people straddling the inflatable tube, one behind the other. Then you put 90 people in the middle”. Ibrahima stands up to demonstrate the size of the boat. “When you stand up, the edge of the tube comes to here”, he says, pointing at his knee. “And when you’re sitting down inside, it comes to there, to your chest”. Ibrahima was placed on the tube. He’s tall, his feet must have trailed through the salty water.
“And where was the supply of drinking water?” asks El Hadj Faye, the driver who brought us from Dakar and sat down with us to hear Ibrahima’s story. He also knows about leaving: one of his trainees died at sea attempting a pirogue crossing to the Canaries.
“There wasn’t any. We just had a tiny little bottle of water each. The smugglers said it was too heavy”.
“What about when you need to go? Where do you do your business?”
“You do it on yourself! Anyway, since you don’t have anything to eat or drink…”
Once the zodiac is launched, he explains, there’s nothing to do but pray that it arrives as quickly as possible into international waters, and that it is spotted by the Italian MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, responsible for sea rescues) which will send a ship to carry out the rescue. “The coxeur 3 told us that this would take no more than six hours”, Ibrahima recalls. But things didn’t go according to plan. In early 2015, the Italian-run rescue operation Mare Nostrum had just come to an end; it was replaced by Frontex’s 4 Triton, with a much smaller scope of intervention, three times less resources and above all, a mission of surveillance, not rescue. Military boats were no longer approaching the Libyan coastline.
“The first night and the first day, Friday, the weather was good and the sea was calm. But on Saturday morning, it started to rain. The waves got up. We still hadn’t arrived. The captain called the coxeur on the satellite phone, he told us to keep going, that the Italians would be there soon”. All day on Saturday, lashed by the rain and waves, the passengers on the zodiac waited for a rescue that never came. The hours passed, panic took hold. “People started to get desperate. Some of them fiddled with the GPS and in the end it broke. We didn’t know where we were anymore. We were going round in circles”. I try to imagine that Saturday’s journey, on a sea with no shore, in the midst of the waves and the storm, for passengers who hadn’t slept for two nights, hadn’t had anything to eat or drink. I can’t even picture it.
“Everything in the boat was soaked. Lots of people got seasick, they were vomiting. In the end, a few got washed away in the waves”.
“Didn’t you try to save them?” asks El Hadj Faye.
“Nobody’s saving anybody! You just try not to fall in yourself!”
Twenty-nine people disappeared that Saturday, falling from the zodiac in distress. The captain, a Senegalese man who knew a little about the sea, ended up making a decision to return to the Libyan coast, navigating south by the stars once night fell. “Night at sea, it’s as dark as the grave. You can really see the stars”, Ibrahima explains. That night, the rain stopped, the sky cleared, the captain could get his bearings. All night he headed south, as slowly as he could to save the petrol and the engine. The boat didn’t make land in Libya until around 17:00 on Sunday, after three nights and three days at sea. Ibrahima remembers the paralysed feeling when he had to get off the zodiac tube. “People were lying on the beach, they couldn’t stand up after all that time in the same position. Your body can’t do anything anymore.”
All around us in Kothiary, the sun is starting to set, the heat of the day is fading bit by bit. Little Malick has escaped from his father’s arms, Tiémoko’s stool is empty. Behind Ibrahima, next to the straw fence, where washing is drying, a young girl plaiting her friend’s hair flits back regularly to listen to the story.
Ibrahima isn’t put off. “Some passengers were demanding that the coxeur reimburse them. Personally, I was never involved in that”. He simply decided to change coxeur. Waiting for another attempt to cross, Ibrahima stayed in a building in Tripoli. “A hostel”, he says, with around a hundred other candidates for departure. “There were 60 of us in one room, around 15 square metres. We slept in shifts because we couldn’t all lie down at the same time. The coxeur would bring a 25 kilo sack of rice and 5 litres of oil every day to feed 60 people. If you had a bit of money, you could manage to survive. Every day, lorries would bring new people who were put up in other rooms in the building”.
The wait lasted three months. In the same building, Ibrahima met other Senegalese men, originally from the same region as him. “There were people from Missirah, Tambacounda, Goudiry – those, you would notice because there were a lot of them and they were always very organised, they pooled their money together. From here, from Kothiary, there was me, Mamadou Seydou Bâ and Ibrahima Bâ, the ‘Parisian’s’ sons”. Ibrahima starts to list the names of everyone he knew who disappeared. “But there were lots of other Senegalese guys, too, from other regions. I didn’t know their names”
On 17 April 2015, at around 18:00, Ibrahima and the coxeur’s other clients started to walk to the beach, near Sabratha. A few days earlier, they had been transferred to the “campo” a disused military camp a few kilometres from the sea, to wait for their departure. “When we got to the beach, we were ordered into rows of 100 people. There were ten rows in all. I was in the seventh row from the left, in the fourth counting from the right”. In front of them, moored a stone's throw from the beach, was the blue trawler.
“While we were waiting on the sand, a lorry arrived, with women and children. They had come from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and there were some Ghanaians and Malians, too. Some of the women were pregnant, others had young children with them. There were maybe a hundred of them. They went on board first, then it was the men’s turn. They started from the first row on the left”. Transfers were made in small zodiacs, of different sizes. Some held up to fifty people, others fewer. From the beach, Ibrahima could see the trawler’s waterline getting lower. Today, three years later, he says it was clear that the boat would never arrive safely. But that night, sitting on the beach, he waited impatiently for his turn to embark.
When they reached the seventh row, Ibrahima’s row, the smugglers told the first five men to stand up. Ibrahima boarded the zodiac, relieved. “When we got closer to the boat, we could hear shouting. The people inside wanted to get out, they wasn’t enough room, they were yelling. They had had been crammed into every inch of space on the boat. The two Libyans organising the space on board were hitting people to make them move forward”. When they looked at the zodiac passengers and ordered them to turn around, Ibrahima despaired. “They told us there was no more room. I lost heart”.
It was 6 am. Back on the beach, Ibrahima watched the blue trawler set sail. Before it got far, the captain, Mohamed Ali Malek, called the coxeur, who stayed on the beach, to ask to offload some passengers, there were far too many, he had to reduce the weight. “The coxeur took out his gun and fired twice into the air. ‘If you come back, I will kill you’, he said into the telephone”.
News of the shipwreck came the following night, reaching the hostel where the angry would-be passengers had been taken. A few hours earlier, however, the smuggler had told them that the boat had arrived safely in Italy, and that in a few days it would be their turn. “Around midnight, the younger brother of a guy who was with us called, he’d seen the news on France 24. At the same time, the coxeur’s telephone never stopped ringing. We figured it had to be true”. 2
The news plunged Ibrahima into a different kind of despondency. Unable to alert his family, who believed he was on the boat, he couldn’t stop thinking about everyone he’d known who had got on board, about that second death he had escaped, about what he called ‘a divine confirmation’. “The news about the shipwreck was everywhere. Personally, I got the feeling that God was telling me: ‘You, you’re not going to leave, you have to go home, to Kothiary’”.The sinking of the blue trawler was one of the deadliest in the Mediterranean.
When Ibrahima was making the decision to return to Senegal, Matteo Renzi, then Prime Minister of Italy, was making a promise to the press to raise the wreck and identify its victims. I think of the blue trawler resting on its frame in the NATO military base in Sicily, back where this investigation began, I think of the anonymous graves of the victims in the cemetery in Catania, of their belongings stored in the morgue in Milan. Around us, night has fallen, I take notes by the light of a mobile phone held by Issaga Cissé, the local security officer from Kothiary town hall who has accompanied us all day. I tell Ibrahima: “It’s amazing for me, listening to you, because we’ve seen the same boat: you on the sea before it left, me on dry land, a year later. How did you manage to get home, after all that?”
“It was long. First of all I was in prison, in Misrata”.
Three days after the shipwreck, Ibrahima was woken by a Libyan police raid. He spent four months and fifteen days in prison, before he was able to escape during a transfer to another detention centre. The scenes of violence and abuse he recounts are difficult to hear. The living conditions in the hostel he was describing an hour ago suddenly seem luxurious. “We weren’t human being anymore”, he says. When the opportunity presented itself, he escaped by running into the desert in his bare feet. The story of his escape seems like a film, with its share of traps and betrayals, outstretched hands and life-saving encounters. Around us, the darkness thickens. A neon light installed above a doorway lights the courtyard, the little girl plaiting her friend’s hair has brought out a headlamp so she can she what she’s doing. The family had to pay 200,000 CFA francs (300 euros) so that Ibrahima could reach first Gatroun, in southern Libya, then Agadez, in Niger. In August 2015, Ibrahima went to the IOM centre in Agadez to be repatriated to Senegal. “When I got home, it was 5pm, I found my mother in the middle of prayer”. The journey was over.
In Senegal, 46.7 % of the population lives below the poverty line. In the region of Tambacounda, this threshold is set at 515.70 CFA francs per day (approximately 0.80 euro).
- The month of April 2015
The month of April 2015 was particularly deadly on the Mediterranean. Due to the lack of resources for the Triton operation, it was merchant navy vessels, poorly equipped for this kind of mission, that were sent to carry out rescues. This was also the case for the blue trawler, on 18 April 2015. See below for the excellent work done by Forensic Architecture to document the subject.
The person who acts as the middleman between prospective migrants and the people who charter the boats.
The European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders was replaced in October 2016 by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, but retains the name ‘Frontex’. It continues to coordinate the border and coast guards of Schengen Area member states.
VI – Three Friends and a One-Way Ticket
Papa Bouron, Vieux Camara and Vieux Sylla set off together from Senegal. They died together in the same blue trawler.
Missirah, special correspondent
There are three of them in the photograph taken in Libya, a few days before they boarded the trawler. Papa Bouron is giving the V for victory sign and a little grin. Vieux Camara is pointing straight down the lens, and between them, Vieux Sylla strikes a pose, his hand under his chin and a wry smile. The three friends posted the photo to Facebook, to announce their upcoming departure. They were all 18 to 20 years old. On 18 April 2015, in the early hours, they boarded the blue trawler, like PM390047, and sailed all day towards Italy. In the evening the vessel sank, taking almost 800 people with it to the bottom of the sea. Only 28 passengers survived.
The picture of the three boys is pinned to the wall at Nokoss photo studio on the main street in Missirah, in the middle of images of children playing ball, portraits of young women in their best clothes and young men who have come to take a “friendship photo”. The three boys were originally from this small village of 10,000 inhabitants, in south-eastern Senegal. When news of the shipwreck arrived, the Facebook snap was used as a missing poster.
I was directed here by Ibrahima Senghor whom I met two days ago, some fifty kilometres away, in Kothiary, a village particularly affected by the disappearances in the Mediterranean. On 18 April 2015, Ibrahima Senghor was also due to board the blue trawler. He was turned away – no room – but he saw Papa Bouron, Vieux Camara, Vieux Sylla and other Senegalese men he knew get on board. After being held prisoner for months in Libya, Ibrahima Senghor managed to escape and make it home. He gave me a list of names, among them these three friends. I look at their beaming faces in the photo pinned to the wall, in the pale light of the studio; I think of the other photographs I saw at the Labanof forensic institute in Milan, photos faded by a year spent underwater, blurred faces whose contours you could only imagine.
“They were really very close. They didn’t tell anyone they were going to leave”, explains Malick Sylla, one of their neighbours who knew the boys well. He’s the one who brought us to the photo studio and took us to see the families. “When we realised they weren’t coming back, the photographer had this printed, in homage”.
Like many men here, Malick has also attempted the journey to Europe – in a pirogue from Nouadhibou in Mauritania to the Canary Islands. It was in 2006, nine years before the three friends’ departure. The pirogue drifted for eleven days before it came back to Nouadhibou. “It was suicide”, Malick says now, shaking his head. He never thought about leaving again. But in Missirah, the departures continued.
“My son was 18 when he left, one Sunday, without telling anyone”. Bintouning Tounkara, Vieux Sylla’s mother, sounds solemn when Malick explains the reason for our visit. A little girl comes over to us, curious about the guests, but Bintouning is overcome by the memory of her son, her fingers tremble, her hands twist in her lap. Can five-year-old Awa 3 tell that we’re talking about her father?
“Here, that’s all young people can think about: leaving. They don’t always talk to their parents if they suspect they won’t approve. Personally, I didn’t want my son to take that route. They could leave, but not like that, not by sea”, says Bintouning. Over the years, she’s watched her house empty. The father has lived in France for twenty years. Three of Vieux’s sisters have left to join their emigrant husbands in Spain and France. Two more are waiting their turn to join their husbands, one in Italy, the other in Spain. In this family, where everyone has a link to somewhere else, Vieux’s departure was both unexpected and predictable.
The young man had saved up enough to pay for the bus to Bamako, in Mali. From there, he called his family to ask for the money he needed to continue his journey. His father didn’t agree with sending him money, but ended up doing so, on the condition that his son use the money to return to Senegal. But when Vieux received the funds, he called to say he was carrying on to Libya. He didn’t want to lose face in front of his two friends by being the only one to turn back. “That’s when I knew he wasn’t coming home. I was devastated. There was nothing I could do for him”, his mother tells us. Vieux’s father also had to face reality. He sent money to pay the smugglers for the rest of the journey: crossing the desert and then the Mediterranean. How much? Bintouning doesn’t know, the men handle all the money talk. “When Vieux called, he would tell us about the conditions he was living in. That’s what made his father decide to help him. When I found out he was going to sea, my heart was filled with fear. The only solution was to pray. God has the last word”.
Bintouning’s eyes are empty and tired. In Senegal, they say that when a child succeeds, it’s thanks to the mother. But when a child fails, that’s also down to the mother. While everything may be in the hands of God, and the men may make the decisions, it’s often the women who carry the burden of waiting and the responsibility when their son or husband stops checking in. Sometimes, they have to bear the disapproving looks from those around them, as well as the pain of absence.
When, at the start of the year, the Red Cross organised a meeting 1 for the families of missing people in Missirah, Bintouning didn’t go. Shortly afterwards, the father of one of Vieux’s travel companions finally convinced her to take steps with the Red Cross in Tambacounda, the regional capital. “Maybe this will help me find my son. So far, I still haven’t lost hope. Maybe Vieux is in prison in Libya? If I could just see my son’s body, I could be sure”.
Like many parents with missing children, Bintouning cannot convince herself 2 that her son isn’t coming home. “My husband would like to organise a funeral, he says it’s been a long time now. I’m talking myself into the idea that if he were still alive, the prayers wouldn’t do him any harm. But it hurts to see people gathered in prayer for a dead person when there isn’t a body in front of them”.
Little Awa trails behind her grandmother, looking like she’s not listening whilst taking everything in, the way that children can. Madjoula, Vieux’s sister, has come to sit beside her mother. The other sister, Fatou is preparing lunch. The family lives in two solid houses, built on either side of a yard planted with mango trees. Often, it’s a house like this that denotes the prosperity brought by a member of the family emigrating to Europe. Bintouning’s house continues to empty. Three years after Vieux’s disappearance, her eldest son also took to the road. Bintouning was deeply afraid. “I didn’t think he should. But he was so insistent that, in the end, his father agreed to it, on the condition that he took a different route”. Ousman took a bus to Dakar and a plane to Morocco. He waited there for four months before crossing the strait of Gibraltar in an inflatable boat. “He made it”, Bintouning annnounces, “ten days ago.”
The front gate opens and it’s Vieux’s father. Banano Sylla is on annual leave in Missirah and will go back to France at the end of the summer. Bintouning lets her husband take over the story. He tells us how he found out about the shipwreck from France, “It was a Sunday, I wasn’t working. I was in my room, in Pantin, watching the news on France 24. That’s where I saw the report. I thought: ‘Isn’t that my son’s boat?’ I called the coxeur 4, and he told me: ‘Your son drowned’. I cried”.
Sitting opposite his father, Bangaly, the youngest son, listens to the story. He is 18, the age Vieux was when he left.
“Do you want to go, too?” I ask him.
“Yes. To France or Spain, or Germany”.
“But not by sea!” his father cuts in. “I won’t have it. That’s sending your child off to kill themselves. No, he has to go by plane. With a visa”
This is how the father got to France, twenty years ago. But now, applying for a visa is a luxury reserved for the luckiest few, or for those with the means to buy one at an extortionate price on the black market.
Bintouning has gone into the kitchen, little Awa is chirping away inside. I imagine the silence in the house, inhabited only by grandmother and grand-daughter, if all these dreams of leaving become reality.
The family home of Papa Bouron, the boy on the right of the photo, consists only of thatched huts, no solid house. Papa was the first to venture to Europe. The family is gathered around Dignima Bouron and his wife, Aïssatou Diarra, under the canopy set up outside the parents’ hut. The family have ten children, Papa Bouron was the fourth. At 20, he lived off occasional work, like Vieux, on construction sites. “He was smart, he’d saved money”, says his father, Dignima Bouron. He’d talked about going, but I didn’t want him to leave like that, under the radar. I would have preferred him to go legally”.
“How did it feel, to see your son disobey you and sneak away?” I ask.
“You know kids, when they grow up, they’re not like goats, you can’t keep them tied to a post”.
His answer makes both of us smile. In his face I recognise his son’s grin, from the snap pinned on the wall of the photo studio.
When Papa called from Niger to ask for 200,000 CFA francs (around 300 euros) to go on to Libya, his father listened, and considered it. “He was with his two friends, who had already managed to find the money. They were just waiting for him to keep going. I didn’t want to leave him like that, but it was very difficult to raise that kind of money”. Dignima sold a plot of land, and then a second when Papa called, a few weeks later, to ask for the 500,000 CFA francs (around 750 euros) he needed to cross the Mediterranean. Friends already established in Europe helped out, too.
One Wednesday in April, Papa called home to say that they would set sail in two days, on Friday. On Sunday, with no news, Dignima called the smuggler to find out whether the boat had left. “All the parents were worried. The coxeur confirmed that the boat had left. But he didn’t say anything else”. Dignima tells us about sleepless nights, the rumours of an accident that started to circulate, the suddenly uncontactable coxeur. “We heard that the boat hit a bigger ship that had come to rescue it”.
“Yes, that’s what happened”, I say.
I explain the collision between the twenty-metre blue trawler and the King Jacob, a 150-metre cargo ship. I give the account by the captain of the second vessel, as I read it in the court order pronouncing the prison sentences for the captain of the first, Mohamed Ali Malek, and his deputy, Mahmud Bikhit. I tell them about my interview with Andrea Bonomo, Catania’s deputy prosecutor who investigated the case. Papa’s parents listen carefully. I tell myself that my two-year investigation has made this moment possible, transforming rumour into facts.
Three years have passed since the shipwreck and they have still not been able to arrange a funeral. “Between me and my son, there was a great friendship”, Dignima says. “Even when he was on the road, I tried to reach him and he did his best to call me. I haven’t been able to speak to him for three years. So that must mean that he’s dead”.
Papa Bouron’s family is the last I will meet in Senegal. Saying goodbye to his parents, I decide not to go and see the parents of Vieux Camara, the third boy in the photograph. Since I arrived, I have counted to 7. Seven stories that are alike, in that they all end with absence and grief. Seven stories that are different because each death is different, even when it happens at the same moment as hundreds of others. I have counted to 7 and, that day in Missirah, I can’t count to 8. I understand that I will never be able to count to 800.
I don’t know who PM390047 was. They could have been Vieux Camara, Papa Bouron, Vieux Sylla. Or Mamadou Seydou Bâ. They could have been Bourama, the 23-year-old whose father broke down remembering his son. He had encouraged him to leave to help feed the fifty mouths at home. But where had he sent him, if not to his death? The pain uncovered by my questions was too much, I apologised and we stopped the interview. They could have been Bady, an 18-year-old, who left to follow in his big brother’s footsteps, to be independent and help his father. Bady left with his friend and never returned. “My son drowned”, his father told me. “They could save his friend, he’s in Spain. He called to send me his condolences”. They could have been any of the names listed by Ibrahima Senghor, the one who couldn’t board the blue trawler and went back to his village, to Kothiary, taking with him the memory of all those he watched heading out to sea at first light.
PM390047 was one of the 700 men sitting in the first seven rows on the beach near Sabratha on the night of 17 to 18 April 2015. Or maybe one of the hundreds of women who arrived in a lorry. Like Bady and Bourama, like Papa and the two Vieuxs, like Mamadou Seydou, like all the men and women who disappeared before them, who disappeared after them, PM390047 had a name, parents, a family, who were waiting for a call from a yellow Nokia telephone.
- Support for the families of missing people
Since 2014, the International Red Cross (CICR) and the Senegalese Red Cross have been carrying out support work for the families of missing people, offering psychosocial support through talking groups and individual consultations. A second, economic, component allows the wives of missing men to set up projects using microcredit. Days of commemoration are also organised. These activities complement the restoration of family ties, a service that both organisations also offer to families of missing people.
- Ambiguous loss
The theory of ‘ambiguous loss’, developed in the 1970s by American psychologist Pauline Boss, refers to the situation in which the families of missing people find themselves, plunged into uncertainty: is the missing person dead or alive? This situation can involve psychological suffering and isolation that make it impossible to grieve.
Vieux Sylla had his daughter very young. She is being raised by her grandmother.
The person who acts as the middleman between prospective migrants and the people who charter the boats.