On 6 August 2015, a fishing boat with around seven hundred migrants on board sank off the Libyan coast. Around half of these people died, even though rescue was imminent. Here is the intimate eyewitness account of one survivor.
There are two different ways we know of for refugees to reach Europe “illegally”: through Turkey or over the sea from Libya. My story begins in Libya. I had been living and working there for many years before the revolution against Qaddafi. Once this revolution had been stolen by extreme radical Muslim groups, it became difficult for me—an atheist—to continue living in the country. I decided to flee persecution and torture at the hands of the Islamic State and other radical militias.
The Egyptian-Libyan and Tunisian-Libyan borders would have been exceedingly difficult to cross without permission at that time—especially since I had lost all my documents, including my passport, in a bomb attack on the hotel where I worked as a chef. So the only way to leave the crisis behind me was to look for someone who could get me out of the country by boat to Europe. That had already been a dream of mine, which I had never been able to pursue in my home country of Morocco because of visa limitations and my financial situation. The dream had stayed alive inside me: I was looking for a place where I could think freely and say openly that I am an atheist. Nonetheless, it took another year before I could scrape together the money for the trip to Europe and find the smugglers who would get me on a boat. Then, finally, it was time.
On the morning of 4 August 2015, I received over secure channels the plan for a trip from Benghazi to Zuwara, where smugglers were stationed. One of them was a police officer who was abetting his brother’s smuggling operation. He and a few others drove me and my best friend to an old house, where we would wait for the weather conditions to improve at sea. The first thing they did, of course, was take the money: 1,500 euros. Then the police officer told us to wait until he got the call from his brother. We waited in this tiny room for two days before the call came through.
The first day was extremely difficult, because of the high temperatures in Zuwara. It was especially hot that day. I spoke with my friend about our trip and about this man we had met. Is he trustworthy? Will he even come back? What should we carry with us? A telephone, personal things? To be honest, we were both afraid of what awaited us. We told ourselves again and again that half the journey was getting to Zuwara; now we just have to wait for this phonecall and then get on a boat. That is all.
After two days, the driver finally called. “Let’s go. We have to be there in an hour.” We packed up our scant belongings and were whisked into a vehicle with tinted windows, blindfolded so we couldn’t see where we were being driven. In this moment I was struck by the most terrible feeling I have ever had in my life: I thought we were going to be killed, just as in the countless stories we had heard about migrants being murdered by militias in Libya. Most of them had been from Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali…
But we arrived in one piece at a building that the smugglers called the “gathering house,” where they were bringing everyone who had paid for the trip to Italy. When we arrived, there were already around two hundred people there, of all different nationalities. Two men were standing outside, counting their money, offering lifejackets for seventy euros apiece. Inside sat families with children, many young people. No one knew what was going to happen next. I recognized at least ten different languages, from Bangladesh, Palestine, Pakistan, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Cameroon, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia…there were many different dreams, problems, and fears swirling about in whispers. But one thing was on everyone’s mind at that moment: European land as the destination for us all.
During the wait, I found out that some of the migrants had already attempted to reach Italy with these same smugglers before. I spoke for a few minutes with a man from Morocco who told me about his trip from Benghazi the previous year. The Italian police had found his passport, and immediately deported him back to Morocco. Now he’s trying again—clean of any documents. My friend looked at me and said, “I think we’re going to be alright; this guy has already done it once. Don’t worry too much!”
I recognized at least ten different languages, from Bangladesh, Palestine, Pakistan, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Cameroon, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia…there were many different dreams, problems, and fears swirling about in whispers. But one thing was on everyone’s mind at that moment: European land as the destination for us all.
Water, cigarette after cigarette—that’s all that mattered for the moment. I observed a Syrian family, with a small child cradled in the arms of her mother. The woman had sad eyes and was trying to fan her daughter’s face. “How much longer?” her expression pleaded. The suffering of this little girl…her parents were taking this risk not only for their own future, but for hers.
No one had an appetite or even noticed their hunger; we simply waited for the next step. Around six in the evening, a large group of 120 migrants, all packed into a refrigerator truck, pulled up. Around eight, the same truck arrived again with another load, another 120 people from a different safehouse. At nine there followed a third group: two hundred migrants from Bangladesh. Two hours later a fourth group, eighty people, arrived in another truck. Around midnight, finally the last group, another 120 people. So we were all gathered: six to seven hundred migrants meant to set sail in a fishing boat with a maximum capacity of fifty passengers. We won’t realize this until we are packed on board.
First, we are divided into groups of fifty by armed smugglers, to be placed one after another in a small rubber raft that will take us out to the boat. My friend and I are in the fourth group of fifty. While we’re waiting, I see new faces coming and going. They have guns, bags of money, and cases whose contents I can’t discern. One of the smugglers speaks with the captain from time to time, telling him to kill the lights at certain moments or to move from side to side, to be careful of the Libyan and Italian coast guards. Other smugglers ask around about leftover dinars or items like cellphones, heavy bags, jewelry. It is another two hours before my group is taken to board the raft. My friend says confidently: “Here we go!” Two smugglers behind us are kicking and hitting people with their Kalashnikovs if they’re moving too slowly.
Families were taken with a smaller ten-person craft to board the fishing boat from another side; there was sitting space reserved for them in order to make it safer for women and children. One of the families was Palestinian, two more were from Syria, and another was from Chad or Somalia, I’m not sure. They took their places at the rear of the boat near the engine, along with some other migrants from Morocco and Algeria. I ended up not far from them, crammed in with a hundred other people on the main deck. Behind me came another two hundred people, and another hundred perched atop the cabin. The first migrants to board had been the two hundred young men from Bangladesh, who were stuffed belowdecks, where they squatted in a big dark room whispering to each other in their language.
We were all shocked at the condition of the boat. Regardless how many people were aboard, it was old, small, and dilapidated.
The dreams of seven hundred migrants who wanted to get to the other side of the ocean were all on board by three in the morning, 6 August 2015. We began our journey to find freedom, peace, and safety, everything that had been missing from our lives. I was sitting near my friend. A beautiful sight opened before us: the moon coming up out of the sea, all red and orange, the colors of the future in the darkness of night. It signified all the hopes we had for our destination, Europe.
* * *
The boat was moving forward very slowly. There was a gap in its hull, and I could see that water was getting into the engine room. My friend and I watched as others started to worry about this, and someone called a smuggler to let him know that we saw a big problem. The smuggler came over, masked and weapon in hand, and asked, “What do you want?”
We answered, “Take a look down there—water is getting inside!”
“We’ll be there soon,” he retorted. “It’s fine, don’t worry.” He added that we should stay in our places and not move. No one could move anyway, we were crammed so close together. I had already tried and failed to find a way to extend my legs. Some people tried to sleep, others wanted to stay awake in case something unexpected should happen. But no one could really nod off—as soon as someone did, they would wake up from falling over on someone.
If you try to move, we’ll shoot you on the spot!
We imagined how every minute was bringing us closer to our destination, and we tried to forget our hunger and thirst. Most of the migrants had already finished their food and water while waiting to board, it had been so hot on the coast. But we could hold out until we reached the peaceful coast of Italy.
Our journey across the Mediterranean would take twelve hours. We were already fatigued, exhausted—then the sun came up. As it rose, each hour in the heat sapped our energy to stay focused on our way. The smugglers themselves were open about their own depleted condition, using it to threaten us: “We just picked this boat up in Tunisia; we haven’t slept in three days. Don’t make us mad! We are already stressed enough. If you try to move, we’ll shoot you on the spot!”
That was the first warning. I thought about what sleep deprivation does to people. Three days without sleep is definitely too much! So I kept listening in on the smugglers. They talked about the guy they bought the boat from, and how he’ll want his money immediately once this journey to Italy is complete, or else he probably won’t provide any more vessels for them. It seems they had more plans for more migrants.
As we moved forward, more and more water was coming through the gap in the hull. I could tell when the pump motor broke down once the water level got high enough. The pump could have helped remove the water, but another smuggler only repeated, “It’s fine.” He stayed nearby to keep his eyes on us—red, fatigued eyes in need of sleep. Then another one came out of the cabin and approached his comrade. He looked like he could have been a captain. He looked at the water and said, “What the fuck is this?” He started yelling, “This is not good! This is not good!” I realized that the smuggler we had spoken to before was just a stupid asshole and hadn’t relayed our message to the captain, who now set about rounding up helpers to start bailing water. He brought a bucket and gave it to a Syrian guy who volunteered to be the one to start. Later, this young man would drown, stuck under the heavy boat. He was a hero for us.
Imagine a boat that was made for fifty people, carrying 650.
It was nine o’clock when he started bailing water. Any one of us would have liked to be in his position, just to be able to move our bodies and get our blood circulating, now that we had endured six straight hours of sitting. But we waited until he got tired and passed the mission on to someone else. A friend from Morocco replaced him after about an hour, then another did the same. We considered whether we should form a chain in order to be as fast as possible. During this time the captain curses out the smuggler who hadn’t informed him of the leak, and tries to fix the pump, without success.
* * *
Three hours of bailing, and the water situation only looks worse. The boat’s shitty old gas engine has been running slower and slower as well—a wonder it hasn’t given up entirely. Still, in the meantime we had also crossed Libya’s sea border into international waters. The captain takes out a Thuraya phone that can communicate from anywhere via satellite.
I watch as he tries again and again to place a call. Everyone is hoping that someone in Italy will pick up, but for a long time he has no luck—until eventually we hear him speaking into the phone, giving our coordinates, reading them off a small GPS device. Then he cries out: “Everything’s going to be all right! An Irish marine ship is only an hour away from us, and will take us all to Italy. So don’t move and stay calm until it gets here. Again, no one moves from his place!”
The smuggler was getting angrier and angrier, and suddenly he pulled out a screwdriver and lunged at the refugee with it, trying to stab him in the head.
Aah, that was the best message of the whole journey for most of the migrants on board. Nonetheless, we still had this leak in the boat that could make all of us drown in the sea. People were exhausted, and thirsty for water and freedom.
A guy from Senegal spoke in French to the smuggler who was guarding us, asking if he could help bail water until the warship reaches us—in reality he couldn’t stay stuck in his place any longer. The asshole smuggler took his gun and shouted, “Sit back down right now or I’ll shoot you!” But it was too late for the Senegalese to sit back down. Because the space was so tight, his place between his neighbors had instantly been squeezed up.
“Okay, no problem,” the man pleaded, “but I cannot sit down. I cannot sit down!” He said it again and again. Imagine a boat that was made for fifty people, carrying 650. There was no chance he was going to be able to squeeze back in among us.
The smuggler was getting angrier and angrier, and suddenly he pulled out a screwdriver and lunged at the refugee with it, trying to stab him in the head. The refugee put his arm up, to keep the screwdriver from entering his brain—I saw with my own eyes as the screwdriver plunged into the hand of our Senegalese friend, and blood gushed from the wound like a fountain. Seeing this behavior from the smuggler made us all really mad. The Senegalese was so mad he wanted to beat the fucker up—he was really offended. But we were all scared of the smugglers’ guns.
I took off my t-shirt and said to our friend in French, “Take this and wrap up your hand. And don’t talk to the guy for the moment, he is crazy and stressed, he could easily shoot you!” My friend and other migrants around him were telling him the same thing, but he was really angry and kept glaring at that asshole, right in his eyes. I think he was in shock from the injury, and from all the blood everywhere.
The best thing the smuggler could come up with to say was, “That was a lesson for all of you. Don’t make a move! I will shoot you next time!”
We managed somehow to make an impossible space for the Senegalese man to sit, so that there wouldn’t be a killing out here on a boat in the middle of nowhere.
The captain and everyone else was busy with the water. After forty-five minutes, the satellite phone rang. The Irish marine ship will take us to the coast of Italy! The captain told us that the ship would be here soon and that the most important thing now was to stay calm and not move until we all had lifejackets. Everyone was excited by the news—finally we will be rescued! Many began to pray. Most of them were Muslim or Christian. I prayed to my freedom, since no god could allow his followers to suffer like this, and because I won’t know the outcome until we are on board that beautiful warship. My savior is that ship, not god.
* * *
Emotions of happiness, and stress, and fear about the leak in the hull (which was still letting in more water), were mixing together in all of us. Then suddenly the boat stopped moving—the captain had shut the motor off, after seeing the Irish ship from far, far away. Then the catastrophe happened. When people realized that the ship was approaching, they started moving. Some of them wanted to look around and see for themselves that it was really coming. If we consider the weight of seven hundred migrants, with all their emotions and excitement, and the hole in the boat—these factors are enough to cause a catastrophic accident in the middle of the sea.
First we see that the warship is coming towards us from very far away. There is a smaller boat with soldiers on board that has been let down and is heading in our direction. I feel water at my feet—and suddenly everyone is standing up, panic breaks out. Of the two hundred migrants belowdecks, we know nothing. The three hundred on the main deck start to worry about the stability and balance of the boat. People behind me start screaming and shouting as the water reaches a critical level on their side. The smuggler and the captain keep shouting: “Sit down! Sit down!” But obviously the boat is full of water and no one is going to sit down, and in all the commotion and shouting, no one is thinking clearly.
The boat is slowly sinking, and the rescue team from the Irish ship is still a long way off, at least two minutes away. I can see, through the spray of the sea, that it is coming as fast as it can. But it is too late for us.
Some of the refugees, about a hundred of them, had started moving to one side of the boat when the water had reached their feet. I remember how they all moved at once; they desperately wanted to see how close the rescue boat was. This caused the boat to lean to its left side, and I remember seeing people automatically moving to the right side, trying to reestablish equilibrium. But there was already too much water on the deck—and the boat’s tilting had only brought on more water. Five seconds of impatience, fear, and panic, and we were capsizing in the middle of the Mediterranean.
One of the smugglers shouted, “Fuck it, we’re all gonna drown!” and was the first to jump overboard. The migrants who were near the edge of the boat started jumping too, one by one. For many others, there wasn’t enough time to escape going down with the ship.
The weight of my fellows was taking me down in the water.
To this day I can’t stop crying when I remember this catastrophic moment, even now, as I write. Families, young people, children drowned—they were killed by the greed of smugglers. This is the image that is still in my mind. The boat capsized to the left. I was in the middle, my friend close to me. I got stuck between other migrants. I could not jump into the sea. The weight of my fellows was taking me down in the water. I tried to catch hold of something that could lift me up from the water, but the boat was pulling me down with its own massive gravity. With my hand I caught my friend and somehow together we cleared the boat, but the weight of people on top of him pulled him from me. Underwater, I can see him slowly drowning, with all the others. When I saw that there was no chance to save him, I swam upwards, fighting gravity, and got to the surface.
In a shock, the first thing that hit me was the taste of gasoline. Oil from the sunken boat was floating on the surface—it will be one of the day’s main causes of death. At first I can’t see because it’s burning my eyes, but in a few seconds my vision is filled with the most horrifying scene I have ever witnessed in my life: hundreds of migrants screaming and suffocating from the gasoline on the surface of the water.
All this happened in thirty seconds.
The rescue boat arrived after many of us were already at the bottom of the sea. Others continued to struggle to stay on the surface as long as possible. I saw one frantic migrant pull another under water, because he couldn’t swim. Death after death. Someone swam towards me, but I could not help him; we would have gone down together. He tried to grab hold of me, but I fought him off, I hit him. He finally found someone else, and I saw them both die. What a disgusting memory.
I looked for a piece of wood or some other object floating on the surface. At some distance, there was a Moroccan man hanging on to a big door from the boat. I made my way towards him, swimming between the bodies of dead people. Together, we tried to rescue as many people as we could; eventually there were ten of us. Two minutes later, the rescue team began pulling women and children out of the water.
* * *
Those who could swim had to wait until the crew had rescued those who could not. It took an hour until they rescued me and the others on that floating door. By then, there had been a few of us who had gotten so tired that they gave up and sank. In the meantime another ship arrived to support the rescue. But: to rescue whom? Almost half of the migrants died: two hundred gone with the boat, another hundred or so from the gasoline or simply from being too tired to keep swimming. Altogether there were 350 people who were victims of this tragedy. Later I will see all the rescued migrants on board the warship and realize that there were only about three hundred of us who survived.
Before I was rescued along with the five others still hanging on to the door, the team had come to us and asked if we were okay. We replied, “Yes, but we are all so weak, we have no strength left!” They told us to hang in there, they’d get us on a raft soon enough. That meant about an hour. We were the last to be rescued. We hurried on board the raft. Only then could I say to myself, “Don’t worry, Badr, take a deep breath.”
On the raft, I search around for something to drink, and I spot a small child, a one-year-old baby girl, dead in the sea. I pull her out and cradle her in my arms, crying for her and her family from Syria. I had gotten to know them before we left the coast of Libya. Her father also died in the sea. I don’t know how to feel in this moment. I am angry at the family: how could they take such a small child on such a dangerous trip across the ocean? But to blame them won’t bring the child back to life. It was the dictatorship in Syria that forced them to risk the deadly trip to Europe. It was sad, and I still dream of it at night when I sleep. I have to take medications prescribed by my psychiatrist so that I don’t wake up three times a night from these dreams—I have not been able to sleep normally since that day.
“Is that your child?” I said no, I found her dead. “God have mercy on her,” he muttered.
The second ship that showed up had a helicopter on board. It flew over us and our death. There were two people with cameras sitting inside, documenting the scene, the chaos of corpses, bags, money, clothes, shoes all tossing in the water. Dreams of life and hopes of reaching European shores went down in the sea that day. None of the migrants who survived the tragedy could believe what had happened until we were aboard the warship.
We spent fifteen minutes on the raft with the rescue team on the way to the ship. They had an Arabic interpreter, who asked us if we spoke Arabic. “Yes!” we cried. Then he asked only me: “Is that your child?” I said no, I found her dead. “God have mercy on her,” he muttered. Then he explained to us step by step how we would be getting onto the big ship.
* * *
We were transferred first to a rescue boat, and at two o’clock we were finally on board the Irish marine ship. My entire body, covered in oil and salt, was burning from the sun and heat. The rescue team started giving us water every couple of minutes. All the people on board were in shock and many had injuries. I approached one of the ship’s crew to ask about the bodies they had pulled out—where were they on the ship? He didn’t want to tell me. I had hoped to at least see my friend one more time. Finally he told me I could look for him as soon as we arrive in Sicily. I didn’t really think I’d find him, but I just wanted to see if he were among the corpses—or if he were perhaps still alive…
Then I went around to the other survivors, speaking to them and trying to calm down after everything that we had just been through. Water and only water was our drink for the next four hours. A nurse attended to acute injuries, first and foremost the Senegalese man whose hand had been stabbed with a screwdriver. When they asked what happened, he pointed out the smuggler on board the ship. I turned around to see, and saw the whole group of smugglers together, hiding among the migrants. Fuckers! They all survived. Four sailors came up to us, and we started explaining right away: “Those are the scoundrels. They killed us!” The crew arrested them on the spot, and asked if there were other smugglers with us on the ship. We said no. They took them inside, and we didn’t see them again until we got to Sicily. They would be the first to get down off the ship, led by Italian police officers.
The warship sailed on and on. It was another day before we finally made port. We were heading for Sicily, but we stopped for some hours to meet the other ship that had come to help; they had fifty more migrants on board, rescued at the same time as us, and had decided to put all the migrants on one ship. In the end, we were 350 migrants—out of seven hundred—who survived.
People had teary eyes and broken hearts, all of us weak and sad. We talked to each other. How are you? Are you okay? The answer was always, “I lost my friend,” or “I lost my wife,” or “I lost my children.” People like me, traveling alone, lay down and tried to sleep, despite the gasoline and salt all over our bodies that we couldn’t wash off because there wasn’t enough water for showers. We received small bowls of unsalted pasta—we were so hungry, but the crew said they did not have enough food, we have to try and wait until we reach Italy. Two days at sea with no food, depleted from our ordeal, many felt like they could die of hunger. We could barely move, we didn’t have the energy to walk or go to the toilet. We just sat and waited to see the island of dreams. Sicily was all we could think about.
We got there eventually. They took photos of us, names and nationalities. We got sandwiches with jam and butter and some water in plastic bags. Next destination: Milan—twenty-four hours’ bus ride. There we were taken to a Red Cross camp and told we can either stay or go. I had planned to go to Sweden, so I headed north, but they caught me in Chiasso, just across the Italian-Swiss border. The authorities took my fingerprints there, which is how I got stuck in Switzerland. I applied for asylum, as an atheist fleeing religious persecution in my country, Morocco. That was three years ago—my application was ultimately rejected and I became “illegal.”
In memory of the tragedy of 6 August 2015. We are all migrants. Your dreams remain in my heart. I will never forget you.
Note from Papierlose Zeitung: The author firmly rejects categorizing people by nationality, as is done in this article. He included nationalities in the hopes that people who knew any of those who died on 6 August 2015 could better identify what happened to their relatives, friends, and loved ones.
On 5 August 2017, Badr Bodor was forcibly deported back to Morocco by Swiss authorities. He says that deportation was much worse for him than the trip described here, because it made his entire motive for fleeing as well as all the violence and risk of death that he faced on the Mediterranean essentially for nothing. He has written about that abysmal day, too.
And one from us: This story was transmitted in English to Rosa la Manishe in Switzerland, who translated it into German for Papierlose Zeitung. With their blessings as well as those of Badr, instead of presenting his original English here we have prepared a translation back from Rosa’s German.
Featured image: “Sinking Dreams” by Itzíar Tesán. Source: Papierlose Zeitung