Before setting out across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy, the Ghanaian human traffickers who had hired Samuel and his two friends to captain the boat in exchange for their passage warned them not to sail with more than 90 immigrants aboard – nor to trust the Libyan police.
But under the cover of night, when a freezer truck delivered them to the beach they realized that corrupt local cops had filled the leaky, stolen fishing boat with more than 100 sub-Saharan Africans. Samuel and his friends, fishermen from a coastal village in Ghana, were responsible for reaching European shores, alive. What were they to do now?
“If the sun rose and we were discovered, who knows what problems could have arisen,” says Samuel, whose name was changed to protect his identity.
Samuel is one of the tens of thousands of Africans who have sought to reach Italy by boat in recent years. Last year about 22,000 immigrants arrived on Italy’s shores – primarily the islands of Lampedusa and Sicily – close to double the number from 2004. Though more illegal immigrants enter Italy through the country’s northern border with Slovenia – which is used as an entry point for those from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and the rest of Asia – the leaky boats from North Africa draw the most attention. And the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean follows an even deadlier journey through the Sahara Desert to reach North Africa.
Samuel comes from Senya Beraku, a village of about 12,500 on the Gulf of Guinea, about an hour drive west of the capital, Accra. Fishing was once the dominant industry there, but fish off the Atlantic coast are disappearing at an alarming rate. Experts suggest several causes for the fishing industry’s plight. The fishermen use nets with holes that are too small, or catch fish with electric lights and dynamite – unsustainable practices that exhaust fish populations. In addition, the growing coastal population has put pressure on the food supply. But central to the problem are the industrial trawlers subsidized by the European Union, primarily from Spain, which has acquired fishing rights off West African territorial waters. And industrial fishing greatly affects the catch closer to shore that the local communities rely on for survival.
European trawlers now fish off the coasts of nine West African countries – from Morocco in the north to Gabon in the south – a development criticized by the United Nations as well as environmental organizations like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, which question the sustainability of the practice.
In April 2006, Greenpeace observed and intercepted a Spanish trawler, the Binar 4, en route to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands after illegally fishing within the territorial waters of Guinea. The trawler intended to sell its catch at Las Palmas, which Greenpeace calls the “fish laundering capital of the world.”
“Some say the lull is natural, and that the fish will come back at some point, but this is now the third year in a row that we aren’t catching enough fish,” says Chief Mortey, who presides over Senya Beraku’s fishing industry.
The fishermen typically leave at daybreak. Between five and six in the morning, the sounds of outboard motors from the beach pierce every ear in the village before the fishermen jump, 20 per boat, into their large painted canoes. But whereas they were once able to remain in the bay, Senya Beraku’s fishermen now go farther out to sea. Skyrocketing gas prices haven’t made their lives any easier, and many crews travel around with serious gasoline debt hanging over their heads.
In the afternoon the canoes return from the ocean. But even before they have reached land, the villagers can see that the fishermen have returned empty-handed. “They sit and hang their heads,” explains Mortey. “If they have a good catch, you’d see them standing up and cheering in the canoe. But there hasn’t been much cheering lately.”
Mortey has tried to convince the village’s youth not to risk their lives to reach Europe, but several of them have returned from Italy with enough money saved to build a house or buy a car, and that kind of wealth impresses the other fishermen.
Death in the desert
The trip from Ghana to Europe begins with a journey across the Sahara Desert that those from the coastal areas fear. Out on the high seas fishermen believe they can deal with whatever goes wrong, but in the desert they feel helpless.
The trip from Accra to Tripoli that Samuel and his friends endured is almost 1,900 miles long and takes about a month. It crosses Burkina Faso, Niger and sometimes Algeria. The first part of the journey – by bus, to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and then onto Niamey, the capital of Niger – is usually problem-free. Then it gets tough. The border areas of northern Niger, Algeria, Libya and Chad are notoriously unsafe. The caravans of people headed for Europe are easy targets for the armed bandits that patrol this desolate region.
“I don’t cry easily,” says Samuel. “I didn’t cry when my sister died. But I cried in the desert. I was sure that we would all die.”
Samuel left Dirkou, the last city in Niger before the Sahara, in a caravan consisting of four trucks with around 30 people packed in each. He had convinced Martin, a friend from their village in Ghana, to join him on the journey. But somewhere in the desert, their driver abandoned Samuel, Martin and 28 other passengers, driving away early one morning with all of their water and food while they lay on the ground sleeping. They quickly got up and ran to one of the other four-wheeled trucks in the caravan that hadn’t left yet. They tried to climb aboard before the truck drove off – but it was filled to the brim with other immigrants. The driver promised he would return and get them once he’d driven his own passengers to the border. But he didn’t keep his promise. Dejected, Samuel and the others began wandering across the Sahara.
“We didn’t know which direction to go,” says Samuel. “So we followed the tire tracks in the sand. But the people weren’t strong enough and they began to fall down – the old ones first. We walked day and night, but quickly ran out of water and were forced to begin drinking our own urine, which we mixed with sugar. We were around 30 people when we began to walk, but it didn’t take long before there were only eight of us left. The weakest ones asked us to wait for them, but we couldn’t wait for anyone, otherwise we would all die.
“At one point while we lay and rested, one guy suddenly got up and said he could see a city in the distance. He walked three steps and fell back into the sand. It was as if he found new strength just before he died. The rest of us continued to walk, and the next day at around six in the evening we met a car that helped us with food and water. The only passengers still alive were Martin, myself and two other young guys. We were very lucky to survive that journey.”
They finally reached Libya, found their way to Tripoli and began looking for a connection to Europe.
“We met a few others from our home village. Because of the desert sun we were very dark and the skin had fallen from our bodies. They looked at us and asked what had happened. We answered that we had died but come back to life.”
Danger on the high sea
Once in Tripoli, Samuel and his friends made a deal with a Ghanaian smuggler who put them up in a house in Zuwarah, a Libyan port city near the Tunisian border, from which illegal immigrants cross to Europe. They agreed that Samuel and his friends would captain the boat to Lampedusa in exchange for their passage. The smugglers wanted a good crew because they feared business would be lost if too many of their boats disappeared at sea. Rumors of capsized boats and drowned immigrants circulate quickly among the Africans looking for passage to Italy.
The amount of money at stake is not small. A ticket to Europe costs around $1,000 per person, making Samuel and other West African fishermen valuable commodities to the human traffickers. During their time in Zuwarah, the smugglers offered Samuel and his friends whatever food and drinks they wanted, and even tempted them with prostitutes.
A week later they learned that they were to leave for Italy that very night. The Ghanaians began to fast and pray. One of the captains, Eric, a tall fisherman who was religious and versed in the Bible, took the confessions of the others. Nothing was to stand in the way of a safe journey.
Samuel knew that 12 young men from his village had already disappeared at sea, and hundreds of passengers with them. Samuel believed the deaths could have been caused by bad weather or poor equipment – as it’s well known among captains that Libyan human smugglers show them one boat in the daylight, but when they return to the beach at night for the departure, it’s been switched for a leaky version that is already overflowing with passengers.
When he reached the beach and saw the boat he was to sail across the Mediterranean, Samuel grimaced. “I was afraid. I thought, ‘Oh God, what have I done?’ I thought of all the people whose lives were now in my hands. But we didn’t want to show anyone that we were afraid, so we tried to remain cheerful and keep our heads up. I told them just to wait and see. I would make them European this very year.”
The human smugglers escorted them out to sea in their speedboat and reminded Samuel to follow the compass, then turned around and disappeared into the dark. The boat headed straight for Italy – a journey that would take about 24 hours if everything went according to plan. Even though the motor was poor, they moved slowly forward, passing Libya’s offshore oilrig platforms with Malta on the starboard side and Tunis on the port side. Samuel knew that the key to a safe journey was to avoid panic. If passengers began to move around, the boat might capsize.
“When I looked over the side to see what condition the boat was in, I saw that it sat so deep in the water that I couldn’t see anything other than the passengers,” Samuel says. “Water kept coming in over the railing and we had to begin bailing it out.
“All went well early on, and the passengers remained calm. One passenger declared that he would take sleeping pills and fall asleep – if the boat went down he would die without suffering.
“But when we got out to sea and the waves grew larger, people began to move around. They refused to sit where water was entering the boat. It was a very dangerous situation. I told them that if they didn’t sit back in their seats, the boat would capsize and we would all drown. Some of the passengers wouldn’t listen. They said we didn’t know what we were doing. So I asked an older man among them to keep order, and he convinced them to sit back down.”
Forty-eight hours later, they reached the harbor of Lampedusa, the small Italian cliff island 190 miles north of Libya. Samuel and his friends had survived the journey to Europe. And back in Senya Beraku, another wave of Ghanaian fishermen was beginning to look north.