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Boat survivors tell how escape from poverty brought them close to death

By Peter Popham in Rome
10 August 2004

Two crew members of a ramshackle boat found drifting off Sicily at the weekend have been arrested after 28 passengers died of cold and dehydration while trying to reach Italy.

The ship, from Libya, was intercepted by a Polish ship on Saturday night. Italian police said the men were Liberian nationals suspected of organising the voyage for profit.

There seems to be an almost endless chain of human tragedy in the eastern Mediterranean, "as ineluctable as the monsoon", said Piero Luigi Vigna, the Italian official in charge of investigating illegal immigration.

In the worst disaster, on Christmas Day 1996, at least 200 died when their flimsy shell sank after colliding with a cargo ship between Sicily and Malta. On 20 June last year, at least 50 people died when their boat sank off Tunisia, and 160 were unaccounted for. These tragedies are only the ones we know about.

But still they come, thousands every year, making their way from the misery of sub-Saharan Africa across the desert to the coast of Libya, paying €1,000 (£670) each or more to brokers at the port of Al Zuwara on the far west of the Libyan coast who pack them without food or adequate water into small, unseaworthy vessels captained by amateurs, without maps or compass. A journey which in fair weather should take no more than three days can last a fortnight, or the boat can go down with all hands. The survivors of the latest tragedy set out between 24 and 28 July. They had reached the Libyan coast in separate groups from Liberia, Côte d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone. There, they were penned together in shacks and obliged to wait for a week.

"They put us on a boat and said the voyage would be brief," a survivor told Italian investigators through an interpreter. "We were crammed in tight, there was little room. That's probably why they only allowed us to bring a single bottle of water each."

Another survivor said the two-man crew "didn't seem very expert". The passage from the coast to Sicily is due north, but the boat appears to have zigzagged across the Mediterranean for three or four days before the engine failed. But passengers had begun to die long before that.

"We'd been on the boat for a couple of days," said a 25-year-old Liberian woman, unnamed so far, like all the survivors. "Thirst, hunger, sun, it was an inferno. It killed my only child, a one-year-old boy. He was among the first to die. There was nothing to be done. Me and my husband picked him up and put him in the sea, because the dead could not be kept on board."

Another survivor said: "They died one after another and we threw them into the sea." Of those passengers that made it to Italy, all but two were men, and one of the surviving women was immediately whisked to a hospital in Malta by helicopter.

But even the sturdiest were close to death. "In three years helping survivors I've never seen anything like it," said Dr Giuseppina Pignatello, director of maritime medicine at Syracuse, where the Polish merchant ship Zuiderdiep brought the survivors.

"They were dehydrated and in an advanced state of hypothermia. I had a moment of great difficulty; I didn't know where to go or which to help first. Everywhere I looked I saw people suffering."

Several survivors are in hospital. But few of them are likely to benefit from their ordeal. Under Italy's tough illegal immigrant law, most will be expelled. The Italian interior ministry said 1,752 illegal immigrants entered Italy by boat in the first five months of 2004, down from 3,936 in the similar period last year.