21 May 2011

Libya: 1400 deaths since the beginning of 2011

It’s been twenty years now since the Sicilian Channel has been crossed by the boats of those who travel without a passport towards the northern shores of the Mediterranean. But something like this has never been seen before. Since the beginning of this year, it has been a massacre without precedents. There are at least 1.408 names missing. Men, women and children drowned around the shores of Lampedusa. In just five months. Since January there have been more people missing than all those who died throughout 2008, the year before the pushing back policies started, when the number of the victims reached 1.274, compared to 36.000 arrivals in Sicily. The mortality rate in the crossings has increased in an apparently inexplicable manner. But it is enough to break it down to get a clearer idea.

Since the beginning of the year, about 14.000 people disembarked from Libya and 25.000 from Tunisia. Nevertheless, of these 1.408 deaths only 187 drowned on the Tunisian route. On the Libyan route instead the number of deaths is 1.221. It is as if one out of 130 die on the Tunisian route, while one out of every 11 on the Libyan route. Twelve times more. There is something wrong going on. These deaths are far too many. It cannot be for the sea alone. And the data could be even more alarming. Because nobody is able to quantify the number of those shipwrecks nobody knows about. I discovered the last one by chance two days ago, while I was talking to some survivors at a reception centre in the North of Italy.

“We were 600 people. The boats were in such terrible conditions that we felt like crying just at the thought of leaving. But we had no choice. The soldiers were forcing us to get on board. 320 people got on the first boat, there were many women and children, because they made them board first. There were fewer of us on our boat, 280. We left like this, they were in front and we at the back”.
It was seven o’clock in the morning on 27th April 2011. And from Zuwara’s port two old fishing boats loaded to excess with 600 passengers, are put to sea. Initially the weather was good. The skippers were Tunisians. The two fishing boats navigated side by side, towards the North. But the compass malfunctioned already in the early afternoon. At least, this is what the captain said. He then proposed to wait until the sun set in order to follow the stars. But the sunset arrived together with a bad storm.

“We were in the middle of the storm, every time the boat went down it seemed as if it would be swollen by the sea, we were surrounded by mountains of water, and the waves hit on the deck. We were all drenched and cold, in the dark… I only tried to hold the child tightly in between my arms, he never stopped crying. At a certain point we heard the others starting to shout. The were saying ‘Help, help us! Help us, help! It’s breaking! It’s breaking it’s breaking it’s breaking! Take us take us! He fell he fell!’. We heard cries in midst of the darkness, without understanding where they were coming from, if they were ahead, on the right or on the left. We couldn’t see anything. We had a big discussion on board. Some were saying we had to help them. Others were pointing out that there wasn’t any space even for us on board, where were we going to put them? We were all risking to die by going to save them”.

The skipper was amongst the ones who wanted to go and provide help, but in the end he ended up by being convinced to leave them to their destiny and steered away from the area of the accident. When the first lights of dawn rose, the scene was terrifying.

“The sea was scattered with peaces of plastic, bags, clothes, lifejackets. And at a distance we also saw some human bodies floating. The boat had broken and sank to the bottom of the sea and with it all the 320 passengers. No survivors. We were terrified, and in order to avoid panicking, we decided to move away in order not to see the scene of the massacre.”

Also because in the meantime there had been some deaths on the fishing boat of our witness, around ten people who fell into the sea after being swept away by a wave that had crashed on the deck during the storm. The nightmare finished on the 1st May at four o’clock in the afternoon, when the boat docked at Lampedusa. Even though the voyage had come to an end, some women on board continue to cry. Because their husbands were on the other boat. In the rush of the embarkation in fact, the soldiers at the port of Zuwara didn’t waste time by bothering to keep the families united. So some families found themselves separated between the two ships.

This testimony explains better than any other political analysis the increasing number of massacres in the Mediterranean. The sea alone cannot be held responsible for so many deaths. Mainly, it is down to the Libyan soldiers. Because this time the arrivals of the refugees are actually an operation entirely organised by the regime. Which, unlike the mafia which managed the previous crossings, has no need to ensure that the goods arrive at destination. Because there’s no market. The passengers don’t choose the most trustworthy intermediary. They are simply picked up during raids in the black neighbourhoods of the Libyan towns and forced to leave against their own will. The crossing is free. It is the regime that pays. It’s the last weapon remaining to the Libyan regime. Human bombs. The objective is to send overseas as many as possible, in reprisal against European countries. The safety measures in the crossings are optional. Clearly a black man’s life in Libya is not of much value. Not even in the eyes of the pan African leader Gheddafi.

translated by Alexandra D'Onofrio