The dawn prayer had begun prematurely in the cold darkness some time after 3am. Clinging to the upturned hull of the Nazar, the fishing boat that had carried the migrants out into the black waters off Tripoli, the survivors had dreamt they were floating west and, by Allah’s divine grace, had come upon the distant green lights of Malta.
For two days they had clung to the oily hull of the ship. Again and again they had slipped backwards into the watery Mediterranean tomb that surrounded them. Each time they had somehow made it back onto the rotten wooden carcass of the boat, using the floating corpses of other would-be migrants to help them climb back.
“Dear God, how many can there be?” whispered the captain of the Libyan coastguard vessel to his deckhand, repeating the words in Berber and Arabic as the high beam on the starboard of the Libyan navy rescue ship drew closer and lit up the remains of the vessel.
Even for experienced mariners, the sight was unforgettable. Pregnant women from Somalia, Nigerian schoolchildren and young Gambian men, dozens of them, bloated and scattered across the sea. On the upturned hull were no more than 10 survivors, all hysterical and weeping, grasping one another for dear life.
By daybreak it emerged that three boats had gone down. The survivors from the Nazar would speak of a blood-red sandstorm at sea and of hundreds slipping from the packed decks into the roaring depths around them. How many were there on each ship, their interrogators enquired.
“Too many,” one survivor claimed. “The boats were so low in the water we had to bail from the shore. At least a hundred crammed cheek to cheek on each vessel, dozens of screaming infants among our number.” Where were they from? “Everywhere. Lagos. Accra. Addis Ababa. Nairobi. Yaounde. Banjul. Dakar.” Where were they heading? “Lampedusa and then Milan, Paris, London. Who knows? To a better life.”
From The Sunday Times: