Voyage of the damned

Published by The Mail on Sunday (19th July, 2015)

Shortly after breakfast I spotted a blob on the horizon across the sparkling Mediterranean sea. Within minutes came confirmation: it was another boat packed with terrified migrants, 30 miles off the Libyan port city of Zuwara.

I pulled on protective clothing, and after the first load of 15 women and children were taken off, I found myself skimming across the water on a high-speed inflatable boat.

Before me was a scene from hell: agonised faces from Africa, Asia and the Arab world, begging for help on a decrepit wooden fishing boat as it spewed petrol fumes and took on water.

A boy just four months old was handed through the melee, then his mother tumbled on to the inflatable followed by men, women and another young child.

The experienced rescue crew shouted to stay calm. But the panicking passengers ignored them, putting their vessel at risk of capsizing as they surged to escape their 40ft-long deathtrap.

This was a nightmarish glimpse of Europe’s migrant front line: desperate people chancing their lives with callous human smugglers as they flee poverty, repression and war.

There were 414 people stacked like sardines on this stinking boat’s two decks – most of them, it transpired, escaping the chaos engulfing Libya.

I clambered aboard and spent about four hours helping them off – the first reporter to assist an entire rescue operation of one of these lethal migrant boats. That same day another similar cargo of human beings sunk, the corpses washing up later on the Libyan coast.

The search and rescue mission was run by Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), set up last year by an American insurance millionaire and his Italian wife, who have since spent more than £5 million saving migrant lives, with support from the international aid organisation Medicines Sans Frontieres (MSF).

After 36 hours travelling from Italy on a converted fishing trawler, we spent a day scouring the sea with drones and discussing emergency procedures with the Italian navy, which was providing military back-up. Then we found the migrant boat on Monday.

Hands reached down to help me and a photographer on board, the rescue team warning we should jump into the sea if it seemed the vessel was going down or over.

‘The most dangerous time is when we pick them up them since the boat can tip over,’ said John Hamilton, a former Maltese navy officer who has helped save 28,000 migrants.

It was baking hot, almost too crammed to move, and the smell was intense. One man said they were ‘knitted together’ by the smugglers, having to be sick and go to the toilet where they sat after leaving the Libyan coast about eight hours earlier.

I looked through a hatch and saw people below in the most pitiful condition: drenched in sweat, breathing in fumes from the engine beside them, and watching water rise as the pump became clogged by clothes discarded in the stifling heat.

Hamza Aslam, 31, a former Unilever salesman from Islamabad, paid $1,000 (£640) to travel on the boat. He tried to sit on the top deck, but Libyan smugglers beat the migrants with sticks to force them into the lower area.

‘There were more than 200 crowded in there. You cannot even move your hands or your feet – I thought I would not get out alive,’ he said. ‘Everyone was vomiting – I vomited five times in the first 20 minutes. There was no hope, no sound, just crying and praying.’

The traffickers threw in only one five-litre container of water, which was seized by a burly man. ‘There is no sharing because down there everyone is just thinking about themselves and wanting to survive,’ said Aslam. ‘When I saw your boat I wept with happiness.’

I tried to calm people as they waited to escape, urging them to sit down with shouts and hand gestures. Most did so, despite their fear and thirst – but each time the inflatable team returned to throw on lifejackets and remove another few migrants, some stood again.

Old men begged for water; I could only beseech them to hold on a little longer. As I tried to reassure people, I picked out those wilting fastest to ensure they got off.

A young Ghanaian wearing a Liverpool FC shirt helped marshal the disembarkation, shouting at people who were pushing, while assisting the sick. Later he told me his name was Kassim Bamba and he was seeking to play professional football in Europe.

Two men collapsed before me. Then, as the throng began to clear, I found another man unconscious and barely breathing after inhaling petrol fumes; he was rushed to the rescue ship and thankfully recovered.

Down below, a large man in a blue sweatshirt looked blank-eyed and utterly exhausted. Another lay prostrate, wearing just trousers and barely able to talk.

One migrant showed me a flimsy, torn and useless lifejacket that he paid an extra $25 (£16) to buy from the smugglers. Most were forced to jettison possessions before boarding; others kept telling me: ‘Libya bad, they shoot you, they steal.’

Suddenly, with about 100 migrants still awaiting evacuation, the vessel tilted sharply to one side as too many people sought to get off. Once again, I urged them to take time and stressed they would be safe.

By the time the boat was cleared I could barely see for sweat streaming down my face. All around lay soggy clothes, shoes that had fallen off in the struggle to survive and – rather poignantly – three pink Disney Frozen baby floats that fearful parents bought for their infants.

The rescue crew joined us on board to kill the engine and remove parts that might pollute the sea. Then the Italian navy almost certainly destroyed the boat under the European Union’s latest futile effort to stem the human tide.

Unfortunately, this is leading to boats in even worse condition being used, along with more migrants despatched across the Mediterranean on dangerously overloaded dinghies by smuggling gangs earning up to £300,000 for each load of human misery.

This was the 13th MOAS rescue operation this year – afterwards its leader said the boat was barely an hour from sinking.

Vella Mimmo, the inflatable’s driver, told me it had been one of their toughest operations. ‘They wanted to come immediately on to our boat,’ he said. ‘They were rushing us and frightening us – thank God none ended in the water.’

The Maltese father of three thought some of the 32 children looked especially afraid. ‘Usually they start crying when they come to us but their faces just froze,’ he said. ‘It still gets me to see the kids. I feel such relief to see them sitting on our boat safe.’

Already 137,000 people have crossed this 300-mile stretch of water in 2015 – nearly double last year’s number. Almost 2,000 are known to have died. The majority are refugees from wars in Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan or fleeing barbaric regimes in Eritrea and Gambia.

Regina Catrambone, who set up MOAS with her husband, admitted the venture has soaked up most of their savings. But this passionate Calabrian believes there is a moral imperative to save people from drowning. ‘Even if just one person is dying something should be done to help,’ she said.

‘What else should we do: let them sink because they are running away from war?’

Talking to those rescued during our two-day trip back to Sicily, I heard a stream of horrific personal stories: women raped and enslaved, men kidnapped and beaten, families making journeys in unimaginably hostile circumstances.

Typical was the 22-year-old mother of that four-month-old boy. A priest promised to help her into education abroad after she turned to Christianity as a teenager in a Muslim community in Cameroon – instead he colluded with traffickers and she ended up a slave in Libya.

A 60-year-old Syrian, travelling with her daughter and teenage grandson whose parents went missing in the country’s civil war, told me she escaped a besieged area of Damascus to Libya without knowing there was fighting there too.

More than two-thirds were fleeing Libya, many of them guest workers from Bangladesh and Pakistan. This was the first time Will Turner, the Briton leading the onboard MSF team, had seen people from these countries attempting the crossing in such numbers.

He said: ‘Most have been there for several years but indiscriminate violence and risk of beatings make it untenable to stay. And the only way out is to board the leaky boats to Europe.’

One said they became unnerved after the video of a Bangladeshi shopkeeper being shot dead was posted on Facebook. Others spoke of constant fighting, of foreign jihadis driving around with black Islamic State flags, and of bodies piled beside a roadblock.

A grey-bearded Pakistani showed me scars where he had been punched, beaten with an AK-47 and slashed across the foot. ‘They took my money, my mobile phone, my passport,’ he said. ‘I had blood everywhere and my nose was broken but no one would help me.’

Usman Mukhtar, 24, was born in Libya when his father worked there. After returning to Pakistan he went back to work as a plumber with a British oil firm in 2007, then saw the country spiral out of control in the past two years.

‘You work hard all day but when you ask for money they slap you, point guns, even kill people,’ he said. ‘You see Islamic militants on the roads and when they see an African or Pakistani they rob them. People are being killed everywhere.’

Last week he was shopping in a Tripoli market when a thief pulled a gun on him. His life was saved by an old man nearby – but his assailant pledged to shoot him the next time he saw him. ‘I had to leave by any way possible – I would have been killed,’ he said.

Unlike most of the migrants, Mukhtar plans to return home once he has earned some money for his family in Pakistan. ‘This is my mission – it is not a big mission in life,’ he said.

My straw poll found Germany the most popular destination, followed by Sweden, Italy and then Britain. Yet all seemed naive about the reality facing them in Europe.

Abdullah Adam, a gangling Sudanese 18-year-old, decided to become a doctor when his father died last year of blood poisoning – and so set out on the 3,000-mile journey from Khartoum to fulfil his ambitions in London.

The friendly teenager had no idea how he would reach Britain, let alone fund his studies, but thought it made sense since he spoke good English. ‘I think it is a beautiful country but I don’t know since I have never seen it,’ he said.

After we arrived in Sicily to be met by riot police, health officials and at least nine local, national and global agencies, it felt strangely emotional to bid farewell to these battered and bedraggled people filled with such innocent hopes.

Some stepped on to European soil without shoes and socks, shorn of all possessions. The 36 Moroccans were taken to one side to be sent straight home, while others began being processed by the authorities; some would be out on the streets within hours.

As I shook hands with Kassim Bamba, still wearing his Liverpool shirt after a seven-month odyssey involving beatings, kidnap and sheer terror on the seas, I wished him good luck. He smiled, thanked me and said: ‘Until next time.’

I told him I hoped there would not be a next time. Yet many more will follow him on to those deadly boats until Europe gets its act together to resolve this crisis of inhumanity.

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