Ghost Boat

“I made a lot of money smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean”

Jamal “al-Saudi” organised the crossing of the Ghost Boat with the 243 missing refugees. He allegedly also organised 20 other journeys from Libya to Italy: the “revenue” is around 5 million dollar. A picture of Jamal was found on a witness’ smartphone

By Martino Galliolo
Photography by Gianni Cipriano

Sitting in the fortress Europe, enclosed by rows of barbed wire fences, I am asking myself what I would do if I was Yafet. He has not heard from his wife Segen and their daughter Abigail for more than a year. The desperate gaze of this 29-year old man hurts me like an uppercut to my stomach. I could be in the same situation. The only difference between me and Yafet is that he was born in Eritrea and had to flee with his family to Sudan in an attempt to reach Europe. His wife Segen was 24 years old and Abi, their youngest daughter, was only 2 years old, when Yafet saw them for the last time. Segen and Abi had set out on their own, following a smuggler who led them across the Sudanese desert into Libya. After they had stayed for a couple of weeks on a farm near Tripoli, a gang of traffickers made them climb on a boat that was supposed to bring them from the port of Zuwarah to Italy. Altogether, there were 243 people on board, plus the captain. They were all squashed together like human cargo on a vessel that could have hardly carried half the amount of passengers. The day before she got on board, Segen had called her husband Yafet to tell him that she was fine. They had not seen each other for four weeks. Yafet had stayed behind in Sudan. He and the oldest daughter, were supposed to join up with them, once they were safe. He never heard from Segen again.

In the night from June 27th to June 28th, 2014, the boat, with 243 people on board, disappeared on the Mediterranean Sea, and it is as if it had vanished into thin air. It is entirely possible that it sunk, but there is nothing to prove this.

Today Shalom, the other daughter of Yafet and Segen, is 4 years old and she asks where her mother is, why she does not hear from her and why she never calls. Yafet tells her that Segen is living abroad and that one day they will all meet again. Yet, it becomes increasingly clear to him that he is lying.

Yafet and Segen

I am asking myself what I should tell Berhane who is just as desperate as Yafet because his sister Tsegereda, his uncle and his cousin were on that boat too. “Now I know that there is an end that is even worse than death: when people disappear entirely and you keep thinking about them, asking yourself whether they are still alive” — wrote Hellen, whose brother Aklilu was on that boat. And I am asking myself what we are going to tell all those other families whom we met during the researches for the “ghost boat” and who are hoping for their loved ones to return.

For four months the journalist Eric Reidy has been working on the Ghost Boat investigation. He wrote a letter to the families of the 243 missing persons: “No one has tried so hard”.

If there is one person who can know what happened to the 243 people on board it is Jamal al-Saudi, the Eritrean who calls himself “the Saudi” on account of the money that he has put aside in Sudan and invested in Uganda. He earned that money with human trafficking. He was the boss of the smugglers who made Segen and Abi, and all the other passengers, embark on on that boat that was meant to carry them from Libya to Italy. Jamal is the only one who is still out of prison, as the other ten gang members have been arrested by the Italian police. Among those in prison are Mohamed Abdulatif who is considered to be Jamal’s treasurer, and Measho Tesfamariam who was in charge of translations and Jamal’s communications — the latter has agreed to be interviewed in prison by Eric Reidy and the photo reporter Gianni Cipriano (if the Italian bureaucracy will allow it).

The investigations on the Eritrean gang of traffickers had started one month before the disappearance of the “ghost boat”. They began with the testimonies by some of the 206 migrants that had been saved near the island of Lampedusa and brought to Catania by the Grecale, a frigate of the Italian navy, on May 13th, 2014. Among them were an engineer and his wife.

“I have a picture of Jamal together with my husband on the memory card inside my phone. I took it during our stay in Libya. It was one of the days when Jamal came to bring us food”, the engineer’s wife said. It is precisely with that picture, and the statement of the couple, that operation Tokhla (which means “jackals” in Eritrean) began. Operation Tokhla, which was led by the Public Prosecutor and the Squadra Mobile of Catania, revealed the disappearance of 243 refugees in the Mediterranean and it resulted in the arrest of ten members of the gang of Jamal “the Saudi”.

I had to find that picture.

I wanted to give a face to the smugglers’ boss who presents himself as if he was running a tour operator business. Unlike all the others, no picture of him has ever been published, since Jamal is the only one who has not been arrested. Looking at the written documentation of the investigations that we published online, I realised that appendix 2 to the statements of the engineer’s wife were missing. The picture of Jamal had to be in that appendix. We had visited the Public Prosecutor and the police headquarter of Catania, as well as the Squadra Mobile, to write two episodes of the Ghost Boat investigation. But nobody there had shown us that picture.

So I rang a series of people. I wanted to see the face of the man who had put 243 people on a boat and made them set off in the middle of the night with the promise to bring them to Europe, and all that while he was filling his pockets with their money.

I went on until a lawyer who works for the rights of migrants sent me the document. At that point I found out that, to some extent, I had been wrong. The appendix only consisted of a copy of a black and white picture of Jamal. In fact, the picture was so dark that one cannot recognise any of his facial traits.

Once again I rang a series of people and asked for appointments. And I waited for answers. I even spoke to members of the Eritrean communities in Milan and Rome. But I still could not get my hands on the original picture, and so far the file has not been released from the hard disk of the Squadra Mobile of Catania.

The only meagre details that I received from some of my sources are that Jamal should be about 35 years old, has dark hair and wears a beard.

Jamal “Al Saudi” (left), the head of the gang of traffickers. Appendix II to the dossier of the investigations of operation of Tokhla

The statements of the Eritrean engineer and his wife are important because they allow us to reconstruct the traffickers’ operations, and because they lead to the disappearance of the “Ghost Boat”. “We paid 3,200 dollars, 1,600 each. We gave the money to a fellow countryman of ours called Jamal al-Saudi before we left home”, the engineer recalled. His testimony, in addition to the picture of the head of the gang, was the first trace that led the investigators to the human trafficking of Jamal “the Saudi”. He is said to have organised at least 23 journeys from Libya to Italy between May and September 2014. With 1,600 dollars for every passenger and an average of 150 people per boat, the “revenue” of Jamal’s organisation could be around 5 million dollars.

“I had met Jamal through somebody in Sudan, called Attum”, the Eritrean engineer said. “From Sudan I called Jamal who was already in Libya. He informed me that each of us would have to pay 600 dollars to go from Sudan to Bengasi, another 700 for the flight to Tripoli and 1,600 to cross the Mediterranean to Italy”.

“When my wife and I arrived at Tripoli, Jamal picked us up from the airport and brought us to a farm where I gave him the 1,200 dollars for the first part of the journey. Eight of us had been on the same plane. All in all we were about 35 people from different ethnicities, jammed together on a farm for two months. During that time Jamal provided us with food and information on the proceedings”.

“On the day of our departure Jamal drove us to a place called Zuwara where he told us to wait for the next evening, when we would finally get on a boat. At that point we paid the remaining 3,200 dollars. Jamal was accompanied by Nizar Abd El Hay, the owner of the boat that we were to embark on. The next evening, Jamal and Nizar led us to the beach and handed us over to another group of people. They made us board a rubber dinghy that brought us to a larger boat that was meant to get us across the sea”.

Eritrea is one of the most repressive regimes in the world. There are extensive reports on cases of torture, forced labour, arbitrary arrests, solitary confinements, extrajudicial executions and kidnappings by security forces. The regime’s primary control mechanism is military service, which is obligatory for all men and women. Citizens are enlisted for an undetermined period of time, often for their entire life. They are forced to work for state-owned enterprises for almost no pay. There are restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and religion.

Even if they just want to speak about their future Eritreans flee from their country, seek refuge in Sudan and dream about arriving in Europe sooner or later.

In the meantime the landings of refugees on the coasts of Italy continued and so did the interceptions of phone calls by the investigators of operation Tokhla. A key phone call was intercepted on June 15th, 2014, just two weeks before the “ghost boat” departed from the Libyan coast. The phone call revealed a certain man called Ibrahim who was pulling the strings for Jamal’s organisation in Sudan.

It was Ibrahim who was responsible for the land route from Sudan to Libya. And it was him who had handed over Yafet’s wife Segen and their daughter Abigal to the traffickers who brought them on a truck to Libya, crossing the Sahara.

Jamal calls Ibrahim to ask about their reputation in Sudan, which is a crucial factor with important implications on the success of his business. Ibrahim assures him that their reputation “is really good”. Then Jamal boasts that he is the only one who succeeded in “making all those people arrive in Italy”. He also brags that he “put aside a lot of money in Sudan”, which he plans to invest in Uganda. During that same phone call the two men talk about the landings of refugees. Ibrahim asks for how long they are likely to continue and Jamal replies that “until the end of October the conditions on the Mediterranean will be perfect”. Hence, “there will be a lot of work to do”. Just before he hangs up, Ibrahim suggests to Jamal that in November and December they could use a different kind of vessel, a “kheebar”, which can carry up to 80 people and resists high sea conditions. He adds that in that way “not a single person is going to die”.

In the other intercepted phone calls Jamal speaks about the possible kidnapping of migrants who pass through Sudan. He talks about the amount of money that migrants had to ask from their relatives in Israel or Norway to be liberated. And about the ransom that was necessary to free refugees from Libyan prisons. All that money had to pass through the gang’s treasurer Mohamed Abdulatiff. He was the one in charge of assigning migrants the identification number that was used as a code for transactions and registers.

Jamal “the Saudi” and his gang did not know yet that their communication was being intercepted. Nor did he know that from then on everything would go wrong for him.

The night arrived, when the “ghost boat” was supposed to set sail. It was around 4 o’clock in the morning of June 28th, 2014. It was meant to be a journey like all the others that go across the Mediterranean. The boat that Segen had embarked on together with her daughter Abi and 240 other refugees set off from Zuwarah as planned, but it never reached Italy. Something must have happened after they had left the Libyan coast behind them. And nobody knows yet what really happened to the people on board.

From what I gathered during our inquiry, smugglers sometimes use old, wooden fishing boats, potentially with two decks, or just simple rubber dinghies that threaten to disintegrate under the bad weather and the weight of human bodies pressed against each other. “To jam hundreds of often reluctant people on such small vessels requires force, sometimes even extreme violence. Those who survived have mentioned cases in which traffickers have killed refugees simply as a warning to others”, writes Eric in the first episode of the Ghost Boat investigation.

Those passengers who pay a lower fare are pushed to the dark and humid lower deck, if there is one. Those who are sitting the closest to the boat’s engine often die after suffocating from exhaust fumes. But even being above deck is not risk-free: people fall into the sea as the boats are overcrowded, or they are pushed into the water when a brawl breaks out on deck.

Usually the traffickers, once they have brought everybody on board, do not embark with the refugees — in fact, they do not even hire a pilot. Instead, the boats are steered by refugees who volunteer to do the job in exchange for a free passage or a reduction on their fare. Yet, these are people who have absolutely no experience at the helm.

Sometimes the refugees are given a compass or a GPS, even if they do not know how to use it. Usually, passengers receive a satellite phone to call the coast guard when they need them.

And they almost always need the coast guard to rescue them, because they are not given enough fuel to reach Italy. The traffickers’ strategy is simply to make sure that the boats reach international waters, where the passengers can signal distress and wait to be saved. So the plan is to make the refugees at least go as far as 20 miles away from the Libyan coast and then to ask for help.

Also Segen and little Abi, just as all the other refugees on the “ghost boat” must have experienced all this. But they never even managed to call the coast guard. They had been abandoned on the Mediterranean, floating away.

It is strange, but it seems that they had no satellite phone on board of the “ghost boat”, or at least nobody managed to use it. Berhane whose sister, uncle and cousin were on board of the “ghost boat” confirms this. He has gone further than anyone else in searching for the truth, collecting information on the traffickers involved and on what could have happened to the passengers. Berhane who came to Italy from Libya in 2008 was an important contact person for many of the Eritreans who are said to have been on that boat: at least 120 of them had his number on their phones. Whenever a boat leaves the Libyan coast and reaches the open seas, the passengers call a contact person in Italy who in turn alerts the rescue forces. In the case of the “ghost boat”, Berhane was the designated contact person. But he never got a call.

So it was obvious that something unforeseen had happened. At that point the desperate calls of the passengers’ relatives began, as well as the investigations, which now have already been going on for more than 16 months, without producing any answers.

Jamal “the Saudi”, in one of the phone calls that were intercepted after the departure of the “ghost boat”, maintains that the last time he had heard from the boat’s pilot, a Tunisian, the vessel was in international waters. In the following months he continued to provide his people with contradicting information, before he suddenly disappeared without a trace. He had realised that his organisation was under investigation, because in that period operation Tokhla had for the first time led to the arrest of some of his collaborators in Italy.

Together with Yassin Abdrazzak and other non-identified collaborators, and with the help of Measho Tasfamariam who was in charge of translations and communications, Jamal organised the crossings from Libya. According to the investigators, in Italy the organisation was represented by the treasurer Mohamed Abdulatif, Abraha Flipos, Ibrahim Omer Munire, Mahammed Ali Abdallah and Goitom Efrem. They were based in East Sicily, especially in the province of Catania. Then there were also Khasay Kibrom, based in West Sicily, Ebrahim Ornar in Rome, Seid Mahamud Kar Mahamud and Ibrahem Suleman in the province of Milan. Their work consisted in helping the refugees to escape from the identification centres in Italy and to reach other countries in Europe. They have all been arrested, including Abdrazzak and Tasfamariam, because they had come to Italy on boats while operation Tokhla was under way.

Jamal al-Saudi and his accomplice Ibrahim, however, are still on the loose.

“On July 3rd, 2014, four days after the 243 refugees had taken to the sea, a boat was found on the Libyan coast”, a certain Hayat mentions in one of the intercepted calls. “The boat was empty and there were only four corpses floating on the sea”. This could be a trace leading to a tragic end for the passengers of the “ghost boat”.

Due to the political instability in Libya, a country devastated by civil war and divided by two rivalling governments, the team of investigators of operation Tokhla have not been able to initiate investigations on an international level and continue the inquiries into the organisation of Jamal al-Saudi. Unless they can coordinate the investigations with the Libyan authorities, Jamal and Ibrahim will remain mere names that have been extracted from wiretaps and were mentioned in testimonies by relatives. The Italian police simply does not have enough manpower to verify their identities.

The reporter Mohamed Lagha succeeded in interviewing the director of the Libyan Coast Guard Redha Issa on the case of the “ghost boat”.

“In August 2014 our coast guards on patrol found a boat, lost at sea with no survivors on board. From what we have observed, the boat seems like it had been there for a month or so. On this boat we only found one decomposed body”. “No, we did not find any documents on the body”, the director emphasised. This discovery too, could be another important clue for us to understand what happened to the passengers of the “Ghost Boat”. But there is not sufficient evidence yet to prove that this is the shipwreck that we are looking for.

“Do you have information on Jamal al-Saudi from Eritrea and Ibrahim?”, Mohamed asked the official of the Libyan Coast Guard. “For us those names are still not complete. But a Libyan smuggler was caught, and he decided to collaborate and mentioned many other names.”

But who provided Jamal al-Saudi’s gang with boats?

The sense that I got of the whole story is that Jamal “the Saudi” and his gang organised the route from Sudan to Libya, but that they had to rely on the fleets of Libyan smugglers to get the refugees across the sea. And the farm too, must have been given to Jamal by somebody else.

The “Tunisian pilot” that Jamal mentions on the wiretaps and that other “group of people” to whom the refugees had been handed over, according to the Eritrean engineer, are details that stroke me and which made me think. If Jamal had not made an agreement with Libyan smugglers, they would have never allowed him to run his trafficking business so smoothly. They are gangs of criminals without a qualm and they have their own little armies.

The investigative journalist cristina giudici discovered and published the story of Karim (his name was changed for security reasons), a 22-year old Tunisian smuggler who decided to reveal everything he knows on a powerful organisation of traffickers in Libya. Karim has spoken about the organisation’s headquarter in the eastern part of Zuwarah and about the bunker-villa close to the beach that is owned by a powerful family of smugglers who command a militia of about 13 people: “They even have a series of shipyards where they can repair and construct boats”.

“The organisation is led by two brothers, one of whom limps because of a gunshot injury in his leg. One is in charge of organising the journeys, while the other (their names cannot be disclosed because they are both still under investigation) takes care of the boats. The father is the organisation’s treasurer and their mother acts as an accountant”, Karim recounted.

“And since they are very powerful they even have their own shipyards. The carpenters who work there are Tunisian and Egyptian, and they are assisted by young men from sub-Sahara Africa. The Shipyards are located in Zuwarah, Zabrata and Ras Lanuf. They have a bunker close to the beach where they keep their arms and a plasma TV, and in the basement they have four mattresses full of money and provisions for three months.”

Only one member of the gang could have been in contact with the Libyan smugglers.

It is the same man who in the night of June 28th, 2014, put Segen, her daughter Abi, and all the other refugees on board of the “Ghost Boat”. He is the only one who might know what happened to the 243 people who went missing.

That man is Jamal “al-Saudi”, the Eritrean who is called “the Saudi”.

(Translation by Enrico Boccaccini)

We’re looking. And you can help.

We want to find out what happened to Segen, Abi, and the rest of the people on the Ghost Boat. And we want you to take part by working through the theories, sifting through the data, and suggesting your own lines of inquiry. Maybe there’s something you can find, maybe there’s something you know; maybe there’s something you can see that we aren’t seeing.

So we are gathering evidence, exploring the story and creating guides on how to search for the answers. Join us.

Here’s how you can get started.