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Libyan Refugees Describe Brutalizing Boat Ordeal

The three Ethiopian friends who survived more than two weeks adrift in the Mediterranean wander through Choucha Camp

The three Ethiopian friends who survived more than two weeks adrift in the Mediterranean wander through Choucha Camp

Survivors of a boat that left Tripoli on March 25 describe the brutalizing ordeal they and their fellow passengers were forced to endure on this perilous journey. The U.N. refugee agency says its staff interviewed three Oromo Ethiopian men on Thursday who said they were among only nine survivors from a boat carrying 72 people.

The survivors of this ill-fated journey are now being cared for in the Shousha refugee camp in Tunisia where the interviews took place.

Overcrowded boat

Spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, Melissa Fleming, says one of the survivors told UNHCR staff their boat was so packed there was barely any room to stand.

She says the boat, which was on its way to Europe, ran out of fuel, water and food. The survivor says it drifted for more than two weeks before reaching a beach in Libya.

“The refugee we interviewed said that military vessels twice passed their boat, without stopping, and that a military helicopter dropped food and water onto the boat at some point during the journey," said the spokeswoman. "The first boat refused their request to board. The second only took photos, he said. The man was not able to identify, however, where these vessels came from and to provide us with further description.”

Drastic measures

The survivors told UNHCR staff when water ran out, people drank seawater and their own urine. They ate toothpaste and one by one people started to die. Among those who died were 20 women and two small children.

Fleming says the survivors paid smugglers $800 to make this fateful journey and the passengers were expected to operate the boat on their own. She says this is becoming a trend.

“We have heard accounts that perhaps there was a captain for the first 100 meters or so and a smaller boat would then take the captain back to shore and provide the passengers with a compass and say Lampedusa is in that direction. Best of luck,” said Fleming.

Perilous journey

Fleming says the journey is so dangerous that one out of 10 people will perish. So far, 12,000 people have arrived in Italy and Malta. Fleming says about 1,200 have gone missing and presumed dead.

She says this odyssey ended when the boat drifted to a beach near Zliten, between Tripoli and the Tunisian border. She says one woman died on the beach from exhaustion. The remaining 10 men walked to Zliten where the Libyan police arrested them. Subsequently another man died, leaving nine survivors.

Fleming says Ethiopian friends in Tripoli paid the prison $900 to release the men who made their way to Shousha refugee camp in Tunisia.