Her name was Segen. In the early hours of the morning of June 28, 2014, she had boarded a boat in Libya with her youngest daughter, Abigail. Segen was 24, slender; Abi was not quite two years old, a frizz of hair and pudgy baby cheeks. They weren’t alone on the boat: All in, there were at least 243 people on board, crammed together, human cargo.
Segen, like most of the other people on the boat, was a refugee from Eritrea — the “North Korea of Africa,” one of the most repressive countries in the world. Everybody was hoping the boat would get them to Italy, away from the hardships back home.
She called her husband, Yafet, the day before the boat left. They hadn’t seen each other for four weeks: While she travelled across Libya, smuggled thousands of miles to the coast with her baby, he’d stayed behind in Sudan. When she made it to Europe, he planned to follow.
The smuggler didn’t let them speak for long, maybe two minutes. It was OK: Yafet could speak with her once she reached Italy.
He never heard from her again.
Yafet and Segen had met nine years earlier at a neighborhood café in Asmara, the Eritrean capital. He was in 10th grade, she was a year behind him, the coffee shop was a popular hangout for their school friends.
It was frowned on for girls and boys to socialize too much, so larger groups of teenagers would often get together to provide cover for a couple who were dating. That’s how Yafet and Segen met: They were accompanying two friends who were seeing each other secretly. And when those friends needed a little privacy, Yafet and Segen would fill the time by chatting with each other. Slowly, he started to fall for her.
“When we started to talk… not actually in one day, but after months, I started to like so many things about her: The way she talked; the way she laughed; the way she smiled,” Yafet says. “I fell in love, and I asked her to start a relationship.”
Yafet was born in 1987. He was the youngest of seven children; his father was a high school physics teacher and his mother taught typing; together they all lived in a four-bedroom house in an upscale district of Asmara. Back then, Eritrea was at the tail end of a 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia, and families like Yafet’s — middle class, educated — were poised to form the backbone of the new nation.
Freedom came in 1993, but the optimism didn’t last. In 1998, a new conflict with Ethiopia escalated, and within two years 100,000 people were dead. President Isaias Afwerki came under scrutiny for his leadership: He responded by cracking down on dissent, banning the country’s privately-owned newspapers, and imprisoning anyone who opposed him. He has ruled ever since.
Today, Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive states: There are extensive reports of torture, forced labor, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, extrajudicial killings, and disappearances. Its primary mechanism of control is national service: Citizens are conscripted for an indefinite period and forced to work in government enterprises for almost no pay. There are restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, and religion.
Even though he was just a young teen when it happened, the crackdown sticks with Yafet. And once his eyes were open, he couldn’t look away.
“I used to ask my mom, ‘Mom, why?’” he says. “My mother told me to keep quiet, don’t talk like that outside. I’m in my country. I’m just asking what happened. Why can’t I say? Later, I saw what happened to the people who asked.”
Today, more than 400,000 people — one in every 16 Eritreans — have fled the country.
By September 2007, he and Segen had been dating for two years. Like everyone else in the country, he reported for six months of military training after finishing 11th grade, before returning to high school. After graduating, and just a few days before he was to be officially drafted, he took Segen aside. He was leaving Eritrea, he said.
She wasn’t happy. Not because she couldn’t see the oppression — she had dropped out of school herself after 10th grade to avoid national service. The fear was that they would never have a chance to build a future together.
But they understood that staying didn’t give them that chance either.
“We couldn’t imagine having any future there with the government. That’s why she accepted it. I promised not to forget her. She told me that she would pray for me… and that one day we would be together and have kids.”
The border between Eritrea and Sudan is a desert of cracked earth where temperatures soar into the 100s. The only distinguishable feature marking the boundary between the two countries is a low mountain ridge that cuts across the horizon.
“Beyond the mountain is Sudan. In front of it is Eritrea,” Yafet says. Reaching it meant reaching freedom.
After saying goodbye to Segen and his family, Yafet reported for duty at a military camp in the west of the country. He stayed there for three days while making final arrangements before heading into the desert with eight friends. He was 20 years old, and he knew he’d never be able to go home again.
“I knew where the west was, and I knew if I went to the west [I would reach Sudan],” Yafet said. But it was a two-day walk from the camp to the border, and the government did not treat deserters kindly.
There was no cover — no trees, no bushes — to obscure them from sight, so they travelled mostly at night. But even after dark the moon was so bright that they didn’t have much protection. So they devised a system. Each of them would take turns walking several hundred feet in front of the others: That way, if they came across a military patrol, only the scout would be captured, and the rest of the group would have a chance to escape.
It wasn’t just the Eritrean patrols that were a threat, though. There was also a chance of running into criminals or security forces on the Sudanese side who would deliver them back to Eritrean authorities in exchange for money.
After walking for two nights and a day in the desert, the group reached the mountain. On the other side, they found it difficult to find their way — nobody in the group spoke Arabic, just the main Eritrean language, Tigrinya, and a little English. Then they came into some luck: A friendly Sudanese man brought them to his house. “He gave us food, water, even milk. We were wearing military clothes. He brought us civilian clothes.”
The man pointed the group in the direction of a nearby refugee camp. Yafet had made it. Now he could begin his new life.
“It was the worst place I have seen in my life. There was no food service. There were no houses… There were tents that were donated by UNHCR, but it wasn’t enough for the people. There was no clean water for the refugees, there were no medical services, there was one nurse and the refugees were maybe 2 or 3,000 at that time. If you had money you could pay for food, but there were people who didn’t have money. They were really in trouble.”
Yafet was in Wad Sherife, a refugee camp about 10 miles from the border. It was against the law to leave, so three months later, he paid a smuggler $100 to take him to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, where he could think about going further — to Europe or the U.S.
But Khartoum itself was another horrible shock, an unforgiving and legally precarious place, where Yafet was constantly exposed to danger and abuse. At first he relied on the help of others: One relative in the United States sent him money, another who lived locally gave him shelter. He shared a small room with five other people — it was bare, hot, and didn’t even have beds — but still, Yafet was happy. It was the first time he could process being outside of Eritrea.
“It was good for us. We had freedom. We felt that we could relax. We could speak about what we wished… things that we wouldn’t dare say in Eritrea. We discussed our country. We discussed our futures. They were the things that we hadn’t ever expressed.”
Things got progressively worse, though. His support network faded, his money ran out. Most nights he scraped together enough to sleep in the underground hotels run out of people’s houses; sometimes he slept outside, mingling with other homeless people and keeping away from the police. Eventually, he found a job in a bakery: The owner gave him $3.50 a day in wages and let him sleep in the back of the store at night. It was a tiny bit of stability, but not enough to build a future.
So, when Segen told Yafet that she was coming to Sudan in the summer of 2009, he was not happy.
“I just told her to be a little patient, to wait for me to try something,” he says. “I didn’t want to bring her and see her be in trouble and I also didn’t want to be in more trouble.”
Segen decided to come anyway. She didn’t have much money, but her cousin— a people smuggler — agreed to help her escape from Eritrea if she could find three friends to come with her who would pay.
Segen finally married Yafet in September 2010 — a church service, with about 30 people in attendance.
“I was happy that day because I got my dream girl and it was my wedding day,” says Yafet.
Things were looking up. They moved in together, and he had a new job marketing agricultural products online, with his own office, his own computer, and a salary of $500 per month.
Finally being united, however, didn’t reduce the insecurity. They argued about whether to stay or try to get out. Segen’s family was encouraging her to flee Africa altogether, either to Israel — by crossing the Sinai desert — or to Europe, by boat across the Mediterranean. Both options were dangerous.
“I didn’t want to put our lives at risk in order to get a better life,” Yafet says. “That’s why I wanted to let her know that if we found a better way, a safe way, if we get resettlement or a visa and could leave by plane, that’s ok, but, no, we don’t have to risk our lives.”
Then Yafet’s company closed, and he lost his job. Their first daughter, Shalom, was born a month later, on August 16, 2011. He’d work wherever, whatever way he could: cleaning houses, manual labor, restaurants, anything. Then, a few months after she gave birth to Shalom, Segen got pregnant again. Their second daughter, Abigail, was born on October 29, 2012.
Nothing was steady, and Segen was more unsettled than ever. Finding a way to leave became the main topic of discussion. It was too much.
“She wasn’t able to get sleep. She wasn’t able to eat food. She wasn’t able to care for the children… She used to cry without any cause. She used to get angry about small things. She was not at peace. I tried to make her feel free, to make her relax. She got worse and worse.”
Then, one day, she told him she couldn’t wait anymore.
The couple weighed their options. In the end they agreed: Segen would cross the desert to Libya and get on one of the boats smuggling people across the Mediterranean to Italy. Once there, she would head for Norway, which has one of the fastest asylum and family reunification processes in Europe. Yafet would follow. Initially, he wanted both of their daughters to stay with him in Khartoum. But Segen thought that having Abigail with her would help keep them both safe from abuse during the trip and maybe even win some preferential treatment, like receiving extra food and water — things which could make a big difference during the long desert crossing that lay ahead. Yafet conceded.
When you’re being secretly carried across international borders, smugglers don’t give you an exact date and time for departure. They just call, unannounced, and that’s it: You go.
When the smuggler finally told Segen that it was time, Yafet had been preparing himself for a week. But, still, it caught him off guard. He was at work, and she called him to tell him that she was leaving. Yafet couldn’t go back home to say goodbye.
The next time Yafet heard from Segen, she had just arrived at her first destination in Libya. It had taken 15 days to cross the Sahara desert —a route without roads, across desolate terrain. She was safe, she explained, but not everyone had been lucky. It was a journey that should have taken them six days, but the truck that was carrying them had broken down, and they had to wait for four days until another one was brought to continue the journey.
Four people died of dehydration while they were waiting.
Segen was crying over the phone.
“I asked her to give me to Abigail… to let me hear her voice,” Yafet remembers. “She told me that [Abigail] was too tired and sleeping. I was really scared when she said that. I just thought something happened to Abigail.”
Yafet doesn’t lose his temper often. But he shouted at Segen to let him hear Abi’s voice. Segen brought her to the phone.
His fear was not without cause. The desert route she was running is treacherous, and large numbers of refugees and migrants perish without ever reaching the coast, let alone Europe. It is difficult to tell exactly how many die each year in the Sahara because of lack of information and documentation. But with smugglers packing as many as 100 people into old trucks, the number is high.
“All the people had little food and little water. When the water finished they started to drink their urine,” Younes Abdi, a 29-year-old Somali refugee who fled to Sicily, told me about his journey across the desert. Twenty people from his group of about 100 died because complications with fuel and the truck they were travelling in slowed down the trip.
Even those who survive face kidnapping, torture, beatings, and sexual violence.
Mohammed Ali, a 28-year-old Somali refugee living in Sicily, told me about being beaten with sticks by smugglers, stabbed, and having his money stolen. Others are kidnapped by smugglers or militias and tortured until their families pay ransom money; women are often raped or sexually abused before they are allowed to proceed.
The situation doesn’t improve when refugees reach their first destination inside of Libya. Militias and local police often put refugees in jails, detention centers, and even hold them captive in houses and demand payment. If they can’t pay the bribe, refugees are subjected to forced labor and harsh treatment, including torture.
After crossing the desert, Bahousmane, a 33-year-old Senegalese asylum seeker in Sicily, was locked in a house for a year with 150 other people. The group only escaped after two people broke a hole in the wall of the house.
Even outside of prisons and detention centers, refugees face exploitation and abuse as they move through Libya and work to make enough money to afford the journey to Italy.
“They don’t like black people. They use black people like a slave,” said Osaretin Ugingbe, a 35-year-old Nigerian living in Sicily.
When they eventually make it to the coast and pay for their journey — around $1,500 — they are kept in houses run by smugglers for anything from a couple of days up to a number of months, depending on weather conditions and how many people the smuggler has who are ready to make the journey. The human traffickers do not provide much food or water, and violence is common.
The last time Yafet heard from Segen was about a month after she left Sudan. She had arrived on the coast after making the dangerous and trying journey and was in a smuggler’s house waiting to leave for Italy.
“I remember the last day I heard her voice was the 27th of June,” Yafet says. “She told me she would be leaving the next day, the 28th, or the day after. I just told her to be strong, to take care of herself, take care of our girl.”
Yafet called back on the 28th, but no one answered the phone. He kept calling.
It wasn’t until the next morning that somebody finally picked up. He asked Yafet who he was looking for. “I told him: Segen,” Yafet says. “He asked me if she was the one with the baby girl. I told him yes… He just told me that they had left yesterday and ended the call.”
In Yafet’s mind, the journey across Libya was more dangerous than crossing the sea. Once Segen and Abi made it to the coast they were safe, he figured. All he had to do was wait for their call.
After a week, he began to worry.
“Later I called back the smuggler. I called him on the 4th of July,” Yafet says. “He told me that he spoke with them on the phone and they had arrived. He said to me congratulations.”
“I just believed him.”
The man on the other end of the phone was Measho Tesfamariam, a 30-year-old also from Eritrea. He is currently in an Italian prison, facing charges of conspiracy and aiding illegal immigration, with a trial beginning in December. The claim is that he was part of a smuggling ring that organized at least 23 crossings from Libya to Italy between May and September 2014. Segen’s boat was one of those the Italian prosecutor says he helped send into the Mediterranean.
Even though the authorities believe the organization was responsible for what happened to the 243 people, they have no knowledge of their fate. It is entirely possible that the boat sank. But if that happened — a single, tragic incident on the water — experts say there would almost certainly be evidence.
“It’s really strange,” says Othman Belbeisi, who is the International Organization for Migration’s country director for Libya. IOM, which keeps detailed records of activity in the Mediterranean, has no knowledge of rescue operations that match the description of Segen’s boat.
“When you talk about more than 200 people, it is hard to hide this number for a whole year. It’s really strange that there hasn’t been any professional investigation.”
Tesfamariam, meanwhile, has said that he was just another refugee, working for a smuggler called Ibrahim: He answered the phone, acting as a go-between only so that he could earn free passage to Europe himself.
In fact, he claims his brother was also on the Ghost Boat. He says he doesn’t know what happened to it.
“It’s only known by Ibrahim and God,” he told an Italian reporter, not long before he was arrested in Germany and extradited.
I met Meron Estefanos for the first time in Tunisia earlier this year. She is a beacon for Eritrea’s refugee community — a journalist and activist who has found herself at the middle of the exodus. Like Yafet, she left her home country when she was young, although her departure was legal. Now 40, she lives in Stockholm, Sweden, and uses her platform to help refugees and push back against the Eritrean dictatorship.
At the heart of it all is her weekly radio show, Voices of Eritrean Refugees. It’s a must-listen for the diaspora. Each week, she covers a range of stories about people escaping the Asmaran regime, and as a result she regularly receives calls when journeys go wrong.
Sometimes it’s a panicked voicemail message from a worried cousin or parent or sibling. In cases where people are kidnapped or go missing, she investigates what happened herself. But sometimes it’s a distress call from somebody actually stranded on a boat that’s sinking beneath them: When that happens, she tries to mobilize authorities to respond. All this has made her a contact for many people fleeing Afwerki’s rule. “Everyone has my number,” she says.
Estefanos had first heard about the vanishing boat from a group of families who, like Yafet, were lost for answers.
It wasn’t clear what was going on, but she knew one thing about the Ghost Boat: What the smuggler had told them was a lie. European authorities had no record of the passengers arriving on their shores, and if they had reached Italy, there would have been a record of the boat’s arrival and the people on board would have been able to call their relatives. But none of them ever did.
“There was something fishy about the whole thing,” Estefanos told me when we met. “The one thing we know is that there were people in the house of the smuggler after them, so they never returned. Once he took them out to get on the boat, they didn’t come back.”
Although finding anyone alive seemed a distant possibility, Meron was in Tunisia because of a very specific, very strange clue. The family of one of the people on the boat had received a phone call, in Eritrea, from a Tunisian phone number. The person on the other end of the line claimed to be a prison guard. He said that the people from the boat were being held in his jail in southern Tunisia. Meron had come to investigate.
At this point I had been living and working as a journalist in Tunis for about five months, and a friend of mine who was helping Meron told me about the case. I was curious.
We sat down for coffee at one of the numerous outdoor cafés along the tree-lined Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the main pedestrian thoroughfare that runs through the heart of French colonial era downtown Tunis. Estefanos had just come from the imposing Interior Ministry building across the street, a drab cement construction surrounded by a cordon of razorwire and barricades. They told her that there was no record of the people from the boat having been in the country.
She had spent the previous four days scouring court files and visiting prisons, but her findings were inconclusive.
There were more clues, though. One guard said he had heard about a large group of Africans being detained in the southern city of Sfax around the time of the phone call. Somebody at the court in Sfax said they had heard a similar story, but there was nothing documented.
“It could also be an option. It could be. I don’t think I can say absolutely not,” Lorena Lando, the International Organization for Migration’s director in Tunisia, told me. “I think we can’t exclude any option.”
Despite the rumors and the breadcrumbs and the stories, Meron didn’t have anything concrete to give the families. “It’s really sad what the families are going through… I wish I could give them closure, but unfortunately I can’t,” she said. Her voice trailed off.
Today, it’s been over a year since the boat went missing. Segen’s fate, and that of the other passengers, remains a mystery. Almost nobody has done anything to try to figure out what happened.
“We thought they were in Italy. They weren’t,” said Yafet. “We thought they were in Libya. Nothing. Also, now, we think that they were in Tunisia, but we don’t have any evidence to say that they were in Tunisia.”
What we really have now is a string of possibilities, odd occurrences and missing information. Where is the evidence?
Fausto Melluso, an activist and migration expert with the Italian organization Arci in Sicily, told me: “It is inconceivable that a boat with that many people can go missing in 2014 and nobody know about it.”
For Yafet — and for the families of the other people on the boat — the emptiness is a new kind of torture. Shalom, his other daughter, is now four, and she asks where her mother is, why Mom doesn’t call. He tells her Segen is abroad, that they’ll meet one day. He doesn’t know if he’s lying or not.
“Two hundred and forty-three people disappeared. Young people. Women. Children… No one cares about it. Even the world doesn’t care about it,” Yafet said to me over the phone.
He was angry, frustrated.
“If you remember Charlie Hebdo in Paris, 14 or 15 people, they got shot by some terrorists… The world stopped for 14 people, but white people, Europeans. The same thing for Malaysia Airlines,” Yafet continued.
A passenger jet with 239 people on board goes down and “all the world, all the countries, were trying to find what happened. But, in our case, nothing… because we are black? I don’t know why. It’s really hard. What can I say?”
“We are human.”
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.
This story was written by Eric Reidy. It was edited by Bobbie Johnson, fact-checked by Rebecca Cohen and copy-edited by Rachel Glickhouse. Art direction by Noah Rabinowitz. Photography by Gianni Cipriano for Medium.