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An overloaded boat, packed with dreams: Hundreds of migrants plucked from a hazardous journey across the Mediterranean

Three rescue teams, including Save the Children, work to transport 412 migrants from a smuggler's boat to safe ships off the coast of northern Libya. The migrants, of multiple nationalities, were then transported to Sicily. In the background is the rescue ship Minden.

As darkness fell, the rescue ship Vos Hestia sailed south of Sicily, searching for stranded migrants in the world’s deadliest sea crossing.

By 10:30 p.m., Italian officials were radioing reports of a smugglers’ boat, then a second and a third, packed with hundreds of migrants.

Vos Hestia’s captain responded that his ship would try to save the larger vessel.

Named for the goddess of family, the Vos Hestia is run by the London-based nonprofit Save the Children. It’s equipped with a clinic, latrines and wash basins, and can feed and sleep hundreds on deck. But the crew had never saved more than 400 migrants at once, and never at night, which was considered especially risky.

Roger Alonso, the rescue team leader, checked the ship’s radar. Then he stepped outside the bridge to scan the waves.

“We see it on the radar, but…” he said.

Suddenly, the captain started shouting:

“Roger, Roger, you see the light?”

Migrants from a wooden boat are transported by the rescue team of Save the Children to the Vos Hestia off the coast of northern Libya.
Migrants from a wooden boat are transported by the rescue team of Save the Children to the Vos Hestia off the coast of northern Libya.

Screams woke him after the smugglers’ boat left the Libyan coast.

The slender 15-year-old Eritrean had boarded the 40-foot blue double-decker wooden vessel on a beach in Sabratha, about 50 miles west of Tripoli. But now the youth — who asked to be identified by his initials, M.Y., to protect his family from persecution — worried he might not live to see Europe.

The teenager had been herded below deck with 200 other migrants, half under 18. Like M.Y., most were traveling without their parents.

About 200 others were seated above deck, mostly women, children and Moroccans who paid more for their passage.

The scream had come from another Eritrean, a man with a broken leg jostled by the crush of people. The motor belched fumes, the temperature climbed and M.Y. could smell vomit and human waste descending from above. The youth feared he might suffocate as he and other migrants gasped for air from slits in the boat’s sides.

Three smugglers had accompanied them, armed with Kalashnikovs, bayonets and night vision goggles. Several miles off shore, the smugglers climbed aboard another boat, intending to linger nearby to retrieve the first vessel after the migrants were rescued.

Some migrants became alarmed at being abandoned and abruptly stood up, rocking the boat. Water streamed below deck

The smugglers had given one of the migrants, a Sudanese man, their satellite phone to alert authorities. The man tried to restore calm. He warned those above to sit and those below to stay down and to cover the screaming man’s mouth. They did.

M.Y. felt water seeping in around him. The motor strained to pump it out. He prayed he would survive.

Then came updates from above: There was a light ahead. Some said it was Malta, others Italy. The Eritrean youth worried that it was Libyan authorities or militias that might send them back — or worse, seize the boat and dump them in the sea.

The light soon revealed the shape of a ship — the Vos Hestia. M.Y.’s heart leapt as those above shouted: “A rescue team is coming!”

Hundreds of African migrants are rescued trying to cross the often-treacherous Mediterranean Sea in a flimsy boat. (Video by Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The Sudanese man, Azhri Alshreef, had used the satellite phone to call Italian maritime officials.

Then he dialed his father in Khartoum.

“I’m here, I got on,” Alshreef said as the Vos Hestia’s floodlight approached.

“Thank God you are safe,” his father said.

Alshreef, 31, threw the phone in the ocean, as the smugglers had instructed, to avoid being mistaken for one of them.

The migrants’ trip had lasted four hours.


In 2015, more than a million migrants crossed the Mediterranean to Europe, five times as many as the year before. Last year, many shifted east, traveling the shorter route across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.

In March, Turkey reached an agreement with the European Union to close its borders, and smugglers returned to the more dangerous central Mediterranean crossing: stormy, frigid seas plied by militias and a ragtag Libyan coast guard.

Last year, 361,709 migrants crossed illegally to Europe by boat, 181,436 to Italy, the most in recent memory, according to the U.N. By year’s end, a record 5,079 migrants had died attempting to make the journey, over 1,000 more than 2015, according to the Institute of Migration. That included 100 migrants who disappeared when two jam-packed dinghies sank Dec. 22 sailing from Libya to Italy.

The day after Vos Hestia launched its rescue mission on Nov. 16, at least 340 migrants vanished in four wrecks along the same route.

Migrants sleep on the deck of the rescue ship Vos Hestia, operated by Save the Children, as it heads for Sicily. The migrants, of several nationalities, were bound for Europe.
Migrants sleep on the deck of the rescue ship Vos Hestia, operated by Save the Children, as it heads for Sicily. The migrants, of several nationalities, were bound for Europe.

The Vos Hestia sent a dinghy to the smugglers’ boat to ferry the migrants aboard.

The first two to arrive — both Eritrean women — looked dazed. Rescuers told them to stretch their arms out to be searched. Instead, the women embraced them.

The migrants smelled of stale sweat from being warehoused before they boarded the smugglers’ boat.

They came from 13 countries, the majority from Eritrea and Somalia. There was a tailor from the Comoro Islands, a student from Bangladesh, a Syrian doctor, a Moroccan barista. Gray, bearded men in their 60s hobbled past girls in flowered headscarves carrying babies. They spoke Arabic, Bengali, French and Tigrinya, an Eritrean language.

Sufian Mohammed David, 20, right, and Ibrahim Fahad Abdullah, 21, center, friends from Comoro Islands, hope to make it to France.
An unaccompanied minor from Eritrea looks at a notebook he kept in plastic for his journey.
S.H. worked as a midwife in her native Eritrea. She had lost nearly half her body weight during the arduous trip across the Sahara and Libya.
Top: Sufian Mohammed David, 20, right, and Ibrahim Fahad Abdullah, 21, center, friends from Comoro Islands, hope to make it to France. Bottom left: An unaccompanied minor from Eritrea looks at a notebook he kept in plastic for his journey. Bottom right: S.H. worked as a midwife in her native Eritrea. She had lost nearly half her body weight during the arduous trip across the Sahara and Libya.

They arrived in mismatched sandals and spotless Nike Jordans. Some held prayer beads, others handmade wooden crosses. They carried American Legend cigarettes, crusts of bread, soap, razor blades. Almost all withdrew worn wallets, swathed in plastic bags and stuffed with family snapshots and European phone numbers. Many kept their money sewn into their clothes to avoid being robbed during months of captivity in Libya.

Rescuers issued them MREs, blankets, wash cloths, ponchos and numbered yellow wristbands.

A half-dozen under age 5 were steered with parents toward the ship’s clinic or a child-friendly trailer, stocked with diapers and baby food.

Of 66 women rescued, 10 were pregnant. They, too, were sent to the children’s trailer, which would soon be converted into a second clinic. 

An Egyptian father of six arrived with his right arm in a cast. Three Eritrean men had broken legs from a car crash during their trek across the Sahara Desert that had killed several others. One had an infected wound in his side so deep, it exposed his rib and lung.

By the time the crew finished registering the migrants, they counted 412. All who boarded the smuggler’s boat in Libya had survived.

Migrants gather in a circle to sing and pray during the journey to Sicily. About 300 of the 412 rescued migrants were from Eritrea, where Christians and Muslims make up the majority of the population.
Migrants gather in a circle to sing and pray during the journey to Sicily. About 300 of the 412 rescued migrants were from Eritrea, where Christians and Muslims make up the majority of the population.

As the migrants settled in on the ship, a circle of Eritrean women began ululating prayer songs. M.Y., the teenager,  joined a knot of men, staring out to sea.

In the distance, they could see their boat, burning like a bonfire. Italian authorities had destroyed the craft, as they have others in recent months, to keep smugglers from reusing it.

More than 100 of the rescued migrants were unaccompanied minors, most of them young men. One of them, a 15-year-old Eritrean, who called himself M.Y. and spoke English, kept to himself wrapped in a blanket while on the rescue ship.
More than 100 of the rescued migrants were unaccompanied minors, most of them young men. One of them, a 15-year-old Eritrean, who called himself M.Y. and spoke English, kept to himself wrapped in a blanket while on the rescue ship.

M.Y. was overjoyed to see the boat consumed by flames.

“It tried my life,” he said.

Others said the blaze was largely symbolic. The smugglers had told Alshreef, the Sudanese man they had left in charge, that the vessel cost $55,000. Many of the 412 migrants had paid $2,000 to $3,000 each for the voyage.

“It’s not going to solve anything,” Alshreef said. “The place we left, there are a hundred boats being made.”

Alshreef said he was sold and traded among a family of Libyan smugglers, forced to become a lackey for the last — a man who had recruited and kidnapped other migrants to fight for Islamic State. Alshreef said he had made it clear to the man that he was not interested in working for the militant group.

Now Alshreef wondered if European authorities would blame him for helping the smuggler and bar him from reaching Britain, where he hoped to study graphic design.

Those he had forced to the bottom of the boat now huddled under foil blankets like marathon finishers.

“They knew I was the same as them. I didn’t have a choice,” Alshreef said.

As the ship sped north toward Italy, he was reminded of a traditional Sudanese Taarab melody.

“It is my destiny to migrate,” he sang, voice dry and cracking, “I cross your oceans and my song escapes me. The years of my life go by, and nobody hears my song.”

The 412 migrants rescued included dozens of women.
The 412 migrants rescued included dozens of women.

A day later, Hayat Abdelrahman brightened as they passed Malta, mistaking its cliffs for Italy. Told that they were still a day away, she looked shocked.

“If we hadn’t reached this ship,” the Somali mother said, “we all would have died.”

The Eritrean with the wound in his side lay on a nearby table, drifting in and out of consciousness. That night, one of the pregnant women would go into labor and be transported to a hospital on shore.

Abdelrahman, 27, had left her husband and two children, ages 5 and 3, behind in Mogadishu with dreams of working in Switzerland. Then she was starved and beaten by Libyan smugglers: scars are visible on her arms and cheek. Now she wondered if her dream of Europe was just that.

“They don’t beat you, do they?” she asked.

By the next morning, a half dozen Somali men stood barefoot on deck, hair ruffled by a stiff sea wind. From their pockets, they withdrew twig toothbrushes, or miswak, and picked at their jumbled teeth.

It was Thanksgiving Day, Eid al Shukr in Arabic, and some had relatives celebrating in Minnesota. Maybe they would join them someday, several of the men said.

Migrants are rescued during their hazardous journey across the Mediterranean off the coast of northern Libya. (Video by Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

Hassan Ahmed, 24, wasn’t sure what would happen when he reached Italian soil. He carried phone numbers of Somali friends and relatives on a scrap of paper. One was living legally in Sweden.

He withdrew the note from his pocket just as the bitter sea wind kicked up.

The gust ripped the paper away. For a moment, it seemed to flutter toward the roiling waves. Then it fell, sticking to the wet deck beyond the gate.

Ahmed pushed. The gate was locked. He strained to retrieve the note, using his miswak.

Just then, a crew member appeared on the other side of the gate. He didn’t speak Arabic, but Ahmed got his point across with gestures. The man picked up the paper, and handed it back.

Suddenly, a voice boomed over the ship intercom with an announcement: The pregnant Eritrean woman had given birth to a healthy baby boy. Mother and son had made it to Europe.

The migrants applauded.

Wrapped in blankets after a night outside on deck, the rescued migrants on the Vos Hestia wait at sunrise off the coast of Sicily.
Wrapped in blankets after a night outside on deck, the rescued migrants on the Vos Hestia wait at sunrise off the coast of Sicily.

After three days on the Vos Hestia, the migrants got their first glimpse of Italy — Sicily’s Monte Erice, bathed in a yellow-pink sunrise.

The fishing town of Trapani appeared next, in muted shades of red and gray: They could see Baroque church steeples peeking from behind boxy new waterfront apartments, neat rows of palm trees, brick streets, docks and blue and white pleasure boats emblazoned “Liberty lines.”

“In Libya, every morning you lose a little freedom,” Alshreef said — but today he felt the opposite.

On shore, he saw the Europe he had imagined: an orderly, safe universe with uniformed police guarding the port.

Then the captain docked, the crew raised the yellow flag of quarantine, and Alshreef saw another side of Europe.

Italian public health workers in full-body protective suits and masks came aboard. Migrants were told to line up to be examined.

Among the first was Abdelrahman, the Somali mother. She winced as a suited man raised her head scarf to check for signs of scabies, then told her to wait for additional screening.

M.Y., the 15-year-old Eritrean, followed. He was allowed to disembark — along with a Sudanese activist, Somali roughneck, the Bangladeshi student, Syrian doctor and Moroccan barista.

Authorities circled back to Abdelrahman.

“Open your mouth,” one commanded.

She did. Finally she, too, was allowed to walk off the ship.

Abdelrahman planned to send for her family, she said, to get them passports so they could travel safely. She would warn others on Facebook about the dangers of crossing illegally.

“Some people will listen. Some won’t, same as me,” she said.

The migrants disembark in Trapani, Italy, where they will board buses to go to a temporary reception center.
The migrants disembark in Trapani, Italy, where they will board buses to go to a temporary reception center.

Charter buses idled nearby to take the migrants to a temporary reception center.

The Sudanese activist and the Moroccans were released within days, designated as economic migrants instead of asylum seekers and given a week to leave the country. They would head to bus stations and fan out across Italy, with plans to travel to Britain and Spain.

Others, like the Eritreans and the Syrian, would wait under guard as they applied for asylum.

M.Y. hoped to call his parents from the reception center, to reassure them he was safe.Then, he planned to contact his brother in Gutenberg, Germany. He worried that would be difficult: They hadn’t spoken in years.

He would have to find his way in Europe. He had already learned a few things from his Italian rescuers. As he rose to leave, he paused to look back at those who had helped him.

“Ciao!” he called, and disappeared into the bus.

Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske and photographer Carolyn Cole spent nine days on the Vos Hestia as the crew and Save the Children staff searched for and rescued migrants attempting to cross from Libya to Italy.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

@mollyhf

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