A Dark Day

I wrote the following piece in April 2012 on an earlier, now defunct blog of mine. I recently came across it again accidentally and in light of events that have taken place since, it seemed appropriate to re-share it.

Imagine that you are on a boat. You and the many others around you have been forced to flee your homes. People that look like you are being attacked and imprisoned, if you do not leave, you will be in serious danger.

The sea is rough and you feel nauseous. The boat is severely over-crowded, 72 people in total are crammed on board. It was not designed for this many people, nowhere near so many. There is no space to move, it is uncomfortable, claustrophobic and hot. When you boarded, most of your provisions and those of the other passengers were thrown away, the space was needed for more people. There is no food or water on board and your mouth is already very dry.

Not long after the journey has begun, the captain announces that there is a problem, the boat is losing fuel – fast. You are scared but do not panic as your friend overhears a man say that the boat has a satellite phone which can be used to call for help.

Later, it is announced that a man has been called using the phone and that he has passed the details of the boat to the coast guard. You smile to yourself at this news, confident that it is now simply a matter of time until help arrives. ‘It will be ok, people will come to help, they know where we are now, they will come’.

A few hours after the call, you hear a strange noise, a helicopter is approaching. You thank God. People are smiling, relieved. You and your friend hug one another and laugh. But after hovering briefly overhead, the helicopter flies away. People fall silent. You close your eyes. ‘It’s OK, they will come back’.

Sometime later the helicopter returns. Once again, it hovers above the boat, a man inside throws down some bottles of water, his face is obscured but you see he is wearing a military uniform – he gestures to stay where you are. A woman shouts ‘they will send a boat for us soon, don’t worry!’

Many hours pass and no help arrives. Some people begin to cry. The group decides to save some of the water for the two babies on board, the situation is desperate. The captain announces that he thinks the boat has enough fuel left to make it to its planned destination. Exhausted, you close your eyes. Slipping in and out of sleep, you lose all track of time.

You open your eyes, the boat is completely out of fuel, the engine is off and it is drifting with the current. Most of those on board are silent, several pray to themselves quietly, some moan in despair, others do not move at all. The sea is rough and you are frightened – home feels far, far away. Your mouth is painfully dry, you have been thirsty before, but never like this. You urinate into an empty bottle and drink it. Others begin to do the same. You close your eyes.

You hear crying, a man has died, his wife lies beside him sobbing and whispering his name. You do nothing, there is nothing that can be done. Your eyes burn and your stomach aches, you have not eaten for days.

You wake up, you do not know how long you were asleep, you did not dream, there was no escape. On the horizon, a ship appears, no, not a ship, an aircraft carrier! Murmurs begin to spread around the boat and murmurs turn to yells. The craft is getting closer. ‘This is it! They’ll save us now, they can see us!’ People on board the carrier look through binoculars and take pictures, then two helicopters take off from its deck and fly low over the boat – people scream out for help and the babies are held in the air.

The boat begins to drift away from the craft, it slowly fades into the distance. You close your eyes. You feel weak, weaker than ever before. You want to cry but no tears form. Your friend looks very ill. No help has come. ‘But they saw us!’ You close your eyes. ‘They will come back, they have to – they saw us’.

You remember that you have some toothpaste in your bag and begin to suck it from the tube, it is hard to swallow and tastes horrible. You offer some to your friend but he does not respond. You shout his name, he does not respond, you shout again – no response. You close your eyes.

You hear a scream, another man has died. He smiled and said hello when he boarded. You try to stand – you want to help – but your legs buckle. You cannot move. The screams become more frequent, you lose count of days, nights, deaths…

Sweat, urine, faeces, the smell on board is overpowering. Your skin is burnt and cracked from the sun, there is no shade, only filth and despair.

A man lifts a baby from the arms of its dead mother – the woman’s body curled protectively around it, her hand still gently cradling the back of its small head. ‘Is the baby that man’s daughter?’ He does not cry, nor does the baby. You close your eyes.

Later, a different man lays the baby down carefully next to its mother – it is not moving. You close your eyes. ‘No-one is coming, they saw us, but no one is coming’

‘How many bodies have been thrown overboard?’ You helped when you could, but now you have no strength left. You close your eyes and wait for the nightmare to end.

A loud thud wakes you – you look over the side of the boat and see sand. You close your eyes.

Men appear, they have guns, they take you and 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 – 9 others off the boat. You are taken somewhere dark, hot, dirty. ‘Where am I? Hell?’ No, it is a prison cell. ‘What is happening?’ You close your eyes. A man is dragged away – he is not moving. There are only 8 others now. 63 are gone, 63.

‘But they saw us! Why didn’t they come? Why?’

You close your eyes.

———————————————————————————————————————————————–

In March 2011, a small boat that was dangerously overloaded with 72 passengers[1] departed from the Libyan capital, Tripoli heading for the Italian island of Lampedusa. The passengers were all migrant workers fleeing the violence in Libya in which sub-Saharan Africans had begun to be indiscriminately targeted as ‘mercenaries’ allied to the Gaddafi regime.

Not long into its journey, the boat began to start losing fuel. The boat was equipped with a satellite phone and using this it made contact with Father Moses Zerai, an Eritrean priest in Rome who runs a refugee rights organisation called Habeshia. Zerai contacted the Italian Coast Guard which after obtaining the GPS location of the boat from a satellite provider informed the Maltese Coast Guard and NATO’s Naples Maritime HQ of its predicament. A distress signal was then sent out to all ships in the area. Shortly after, a military helicopter appeared above the boat and flew away without assisting. Later, it returned and lowered down some basic supplies (water and biscuits) and gestured for the passengers to await further help. It is not clear which country sent this helicopter but what is clear is that no rescue boat subsequently appeared. Realising that no help was coming, the captain of the ship decided to continue on to Lampedusa. This proved to be a fatal mistake as the boat quickly ran out of fuel and began to drift aimlessly. The smugglers that arranged the journey had removed the passengers’ provisions and without water, they soon began to die of thirst.

Some days later, with many already dead, the boat drifted next to an aircraft carrier. According to survivors, two helicopters took off from the carrier and flew low over the boat while people on board viewed it through binoculars and others took pictures. The migrants stood on deck holding two starving babies in the air and crying out for help – none came. Dain Haile Gerbre, a survivor who was later granted asylum in Italy said, “At first the ship was very far. Maybe 700 metres. They then circled around us, three times, until they came very close, 10 metres. We were watching them, and they were watching us. We are showing them the dead bodies. We drank water from the sea to show them we are thirsty. The people on boat took pictures, nothing else”[2].

14 days after it disembarked, the boat washed up on a Libyan beach, and 61 of those on board had died – two more died shortly afterwards, one of them in a Libyan prison where the survivors were taken. Abu Kurke, a passenger who survived by drinking his own urine and eating two tubes of toothpaste, explained “We saved one bottle of water from the helicopter for the two babies, and kept feeding them even after their parents had passed. But after two days, the babies passed too, because they were so small”[3].

At the time, the area where the boat became lost was a military zone controlled by NATO forces. The NATO intervention in Libya had just begun, a ‘humanitarian intervention’ intended to save lives we were told by our politicians and the media. Yet NATO failed to react to the distress calls of the boat, even though there were military vessels under its control in the area when the call was first sent out and during the subsequent calls that were repeated every four hours for ten days[4]. Sadly, it appears that the lives of innocent people fleeing conflict, a conflict that NATO itself played a significant role in creating, were not considered important enough to be saved. Those Africans that died on board were just another 63 desperate and voiceless souls condemned to die torturous deaths because of the indifference and racism of others. This tragedy was wholly avoidable – according to one NATO official, a rescue would have been “a piece of cake”[5]. It was entirely foreseeable that NATO’s intervention in Libya and the subsequent escalation in the conflict would lead to large numbers of refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean. Yet NATO prepared no contingency plan to deal with the impending humanitarian catastrophe which it was complicit in creating.

When the Costa Concordia ferry sank off the coast of Tuscany in January 2012, the story was covered extensively and dominated headlines and news broadcast for days on end. TV stations provided minute-by-minute updates, analysed in detail what may have caused the accident and made extensive use of video and images of the ferry and maps of its route. A news producer of a major news channel explained to me how he and his team worked hard to contact passengers on board the ferry, as well as their families around the world. The channel was also in regular contact with the ferry’s owners for regular updates and new information. Since the event, recovery efforts, the exact number of casualties, the misconduct of the ferry’s captain and its exact itinerary have all been reported in detail by the media[6].

Around thirty people are confirmed to have died in the Costa Concordia accident[7] and undoubtedly it was an event which deserved the efforts and attention of the media. But the number of fatalities on board the migrants’ boat was significantly higher and in terms of human suffering its story was as worthy of the media’s focus, if not more so. However, with the notable exception of The Guardian (the work of Jack Shenker in particular), this harrowing incident received little coverage in the media. The concerted effort made to inform audiences and readers of the fate of those on board the Costa Concordia was simply not made. Hence, many of you reading this probably knew nothing of this tragic event until just now. Indeed, you may not know that at least 1,500 African refugees fleeing Libya died in similar incidents in 2011[8]. It is clear, to much of the media, that unlike the lives of wealthy Europeans aboard a luxury cruise liner, the lives of African refugees do not matter – they are insignificant, unworthy of extended coverage. As a reporter of a major UK newspaper explained to me, they are individuals that the political and media class simply do not care about.

In March 2012, The Council of Europe[9] published a report that summarised its investigation into the events[10]. The report’s author, Dutch politician, Tineke Strik – described the tragedy as “a dark day for Europe” and said “We can talk as much as we want about human rights and the importance of complying with international obligations, but if at the same time we just leave people to die – perhaps because we don’t know their identity or because they come from Africa – it exposes how meaningless those words are”[11].

Strik’s words are sadly accurate. This awful incident reveals the racism at the heart of the media and exposes the absurdity of the argument that the NATO intervention in Libya was motivated by a desire to save the lives of innocent civilians. The Africans on board that small boat were the wrong civilians for NATO, there was no political or economic gain to be made by rescuing them, so instead they were left, left alone to die slowly in nightmarish conditions that no human being ever deserves to endure. The next time a politician talks of the ‘successful humanitarian intervention’ in Libya, remember the appalling story of those that died on board that nameless boat and the countless others that have shared a similar fate.

Louis Allday 20/04/2012

Re-posted 27/03/2016


[1] The passengers were Ethiopian, Nigerian, Eritrean, Ghanaian and Sudanese. The boat was a rubber boat measuring approximately 10m in length. See: http://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/rapport_expert_independant.pdf

[9] A Pan-European Human Rights Organisation based in Strasbourg, France. See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/country_profiles/4816408.stm

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