“At First The Traffickers Were More Human. Then Slowly They Started The Torture.”
Episode 5: Witnesses suggest our attempt to find 243 missing refugees is hitting the limit. Perhaps it’s time to take a different approach.
“This is our unofficial embassy,” Berhane Isayas said to me, gesturing around the bar we were sitting in. At first glance, this cafe in Milan looked like any other in Italy — shelves of bottles stacked along the back wall, and a barman busy at the espresso machine.
But that’s where the similarities ended. Tigrinya script over the doorway announced “Eritrea” and on the walls were paintings depicting simple, bucolic scenes of dark-skinned women with braided hair going about daily village life. On the ceiling, there was a giant, backlit, wood cut-out map of the country. It was a chilly Friday afternoon, and a dozen Eritrean men were sitting around sipping tea, coffee, and beer. There were no Italians in sight.
Like many of the people I have spoken with during the course of this investigation, Berhane’s life has been dramatically, permanently affected by the disappearance of the Ghost Boat. His sister, an uncle, and a cousin vanished with 240 other passengers aboard the Ghost Boat at the end of June 2014.
Over the past two months, his name kept being brought up by other family members with whom I spoke. They told me he had gone further in his own search for the truth than anyone else, that he had more information about what happened than anyone else, that he knew more about the smugglers involved than anyone else.
After the mysterious phone call from Tunisia turned out to be a dead end, I went to find him.
When we first met, he was serious and self-possessed. His wavy hair was grown out and pulled back in a ponytail. Occasionally his face would break into a contagious smile — but his eyes were always intense, focused.
Berhane, who had himself crossed from Libya to Italy in 2008, was an important contact person for many of the Ghost Boat passengers. At least 120 of the people who were due to be on board had his phone number. “When a boat leaves the shore of Libya and is at sea, they call a phone number in Italy so that person can contact emergency services,” he told me, scrolling through his cellphone and showing me messages with GPS coordinates sent from other boats. For the Ghost Boat, Berhane was supposed to be that person.
On the night of June 26, he spoke with his sister, Tsegereda, who was 30 at the time. Like the other family members, she told him that she was at a farm outside of Tripoli waiting to depart. He didn’t hear anything again until he called on the morning of June 28. Measho Tesfamariam, who is now in prison in Italy, answered the phone. The boat had left around 4 a.m., he said. “They will see you in Italy,” Measho told him.
But Berhane did not receive a call from the boat, nor a message with its coordinates to initiate a rescue. This was strange. But on June 30 Measho called him to congratulate him: The boat, he said, had successfully arrived in Italy. “I believed him at first,” Berhane told me, with a sad smile.
Two days later, when he hadn’t heard anything, Berhane called Ibrahim — the boss of the smuggling ring — asking for answers. Ibrahim started to spin the same stories that others had heard. But Berhane didn’t believe him. He knew something out of the ordinary had happened and pressed Ibrahim to explain why he hadn’t received a call or message with the boat’s coordinates.
Ibrahim said that he hadn’t given this group a satellite phone. It was a huge red flag; boats are always sent with satellite phones. It’s how they call to initiate a rescue once they are far enough from the Libyan coast. “This is one of the things that would have confirmed if they actually left,” Berhane said. The absence of the satellite phone was so strange, it made anything seem plausible. “I thought Ibrahim sold the people [into slavery],” he told me.
Berhane demanded answers and fought with Ibrahim over the phone. But Ibrahim was unfazed. “Ibrahim said he wasn’t scared of Eritreans. He said we are like domestic animals, like cats… He basically washed his hands of the situation because Eritreans have no government or embassy that will ask what happened to them.”
Ibrahim broke off contact, but Berhane stayed in touch with Measho. So when Measho crossed to Italy himself a few months later in September 2014, Berhane knew that he had arrived. He got his phone number and asked Measho to meet him at the train station in Bologna, but Measho avoided the meeting.
Berhane started gathering everything he could to track down Measho. He knew he had made it to Germany, and told an Italian prosecutor who was working on a case against Eritreans involved in a smuggling ring. Berhane submitted written testimony to the prosecutor to help support the case for Measho’s extradition. Measho was later taken into custody and sent back to Italy to face trial.
“I’m happy he was arrested because he is a smuggler,” Berhane said. “But it doesn’t solve the problem.”
Like everyone else searching for the Ghost Boat, he still wants to know what happened to his relatives. Until he does, the absence of an answer will remain an open wound.
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked if he felt like he was close to figuring out what happened. He held his thumb and forefinger up — just a sliver of space between them. “That close,” he said. But the information he was missing was the exact information we were still seeking.
Berhane had gathered impressive information about the movement and personal lives of the smugglers responsible for the Ghost Boat. But despite that, it felt like we were at the same impasse. As we talked, it struck me that the information I was missing, the information Berhane was missing, the information everyone who had investigated the Ghost Boat was missing was incredibly basic — almost frustratingly so. I scribbled the central questions to the mystery down in my notebook:
- After they left the farm outside of Tripoli, were the people who were supposed to board the Ghost Boat sent towards the coast in Tripoli or Zuwarah?
- Did the people make it to the coast and actually board a boat?
- If they did, what happened to the boat after it left the shore?
- If they did not, what happened that caused the people to disappear?
Those four questions contained the whole mystery, but tracking down the answers would be difficult. I needed advice.
The next morning I was in another typically Italian cafe, this time without the Eritrean decor. Dr. Alganesh Fisseha sat across the table from me. Her straight black hair tumbled over a headband framing her gently lined face. She was wearing an oversized sweater to guard against the chill on the walk from her apartment across the street.
Alganesh’s political activism stretches back to the Eritrean war for independence from Ethiopia, a struggle which dominated life in the country until 1991. As a newly independent Eritrea veered towards dictatorship, however, she became disillusioned with politics. For the past decade, she has dedicated herself to serving the needs of an expanding and vulnerable diaspora — the hundreds of thousands of people pushed into exile by intensifying repression.
Berhane had directed me to Alganesh because she, too, had investigated the mystery of the Ghost Boat. Her experience was vast. Perhaps she could offer perspective and guidance.
She described the exodus from Eritrea like a stream growing larger and picking up momentum over time. Wherever there was a crack or an opening — the potential for a better life — people would find their way through. When one option closed, the current would shift until the next opening was found.
For example, the first destination for many Eritreans was Israel. It is a country accessible by land that projects a Western image. Starting in the early 2000s, tens of thousands of Eritreans crossed from Sudan to Egypt and trekked across the Sinai desert to try to find a safe haven.
Instead, they arrived in a country that tried to make their lives so miserable that they would choose to “self-deport.” The Israeli government even offers asylum-seekers money to leave. The alternative? Stay and face travel restrictions, police harassment, and being held in an open detention center in the desert.
Desperate, people still flocked to the country. But as the numbers crossing the desert grew, the smugglers became increasingly sinister — and brutal.
“At first the traffickers were more human,” Alganesh told me. “Then slowly they started the torture, the rape. They started selling organs. They saw it was a good income.” She spent the better part of the last decade traveling to the Sinai to try to free captured Eritreans and document the horrors taking place so the global community would believe that they were real. There are still skeptics.
Later, sitting in her kitchen and sipping cardamom tea, she passed around photo albums of the evidence she’d collected. There were mortuary gurneys holding young men, their bodies cut open and crudely stitched back together for organ harvesting. There appeared to have been no thought of trying to keep them alive. Gouged-out eye sockets where corneas had been taken for sale. Mostly young men, their bodies mutilated in their prime.
The images were so far beyond the pale that it was easy to see why people would prefer to believe the acts they depicted weren’t real. But there they were. Page after page of horror, grotesque death for profit.
Nobody—not the Egyptian government, nor the Israelis, nor the European Parliament — wanted to admit what was taking place in the Sinai. But the Eritrean diaspora knew what was happening. The stories of the survivors would filter back.
Still, it wasn’t until Egypt ramped up military operations against Islamic militants in the Sinai and Israel built a border wall in 2013 that the stream of people came to a halt. By then, thousands had been killed, Alganesh estimates. And Libya had already turned into the main thoroughfare.
“They tried [the Sinai] and then a new way opened up through Libya. And if Libya stops, they will find a new way,” she said. The NGO she works for, Gandhi, is already handling cases of Eritrean refugees imprisoned in Alexandria, Egypt for attempting to cross the Mediterranean from there.
In all of the cases she has witnessed over the past decade, amid all of the horror and tragedy, the Ghost Boat stands out. It is the first time she has heard of such a large group of people going missing without a trace. “It is impossible that they disappeared into thin air,” she said.
Families of the missing people contacted Alganesh when the boat didn’t arrive in Italy. She searched for an answer to what happened through her networks in Tunisia, Malta, and Italy. But no one had any information. Her search got stuck in the same place as Berhane’s, as Meron Estefanos’, as ours.
Even though we’d chased down the source of the Tunisian jail phone call to Riadh and his father — finding an answer to a question that had been a mystery before — ultimately that didn’t end up bringing us any closer to knowing what happened to the Ghost Boat. We’d made progress, but we were left in the same place as everybody else.
“The story is very confusing and all of us are going around and around and around on the same things,” Alganesh said.
One way to make a breakthrough would to be find out if the sources we know about have more clues, more information. What more could we find out? Who would know?
“The person who sent the boat is in prison in Italy,” Alganesh told me. “That’s the only person who would know if the boat sank or not.”
She was speaking about Measho. But would he talk? Would we be able to track down information that will help us find out what happened to the Ghost Boat in the chaos of Libya and the tangled, clandestine smuggler world?
As we have focused our efforts on finding answers to these questions, the investigation has been advancing on other fronts. While I’ve been chasing down threads on the ground in Tunisia and Italy and talking to families, something else has been happening that has been adding depth and breadth to our investigation, putting us in a position to potentially move past the impasse. Our readers — the same people reading this story right now — have been trying to construct their own version of what might have happened, using data, public information, and solid investigation.
Unlike Berhane, or Meron, or Alganesh, most of the contributors to the open investigation do not have a direct connection to the Ghost Boat, or even to the Eritrean diaspora. They come from a range of different backgrounds and from all over the world: the U.S., Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and elsewhere.
Between them they have sifted through reams of data and found lots of different pieces of evidence — some small, some large — that could help us build a more accurate picture of the Ghost Boat’s whereabouts.
Take Kirk Pettinga, a web developer in Bangkok, who located nearly 250,000 lines of boat-tracking data over the two-day period when the boat went missing in the region of interest. The information he dug up specifies the positions of any registered vessels that may have intersected with the Ghost Boat. That data is currently being plotted to see if it reveals any insights into what may have happened in the Mediterranean.
“I work with mapping software a lot in my job,” he said. “Taking geographical data, plotting it on a map, and coming up with ways to interact with it is something I find really interesting.”
“In Bangkok we have a lot of refugees from Pakistan, Myanmar, and parts of central Africa,” he added. “I’ve met a few and the challenges they face in coming here are complex and take a long time, and I think this goes for refugees anywhere.”
Another reader, Ross Whiteford from Toronto, has been carefully examining almost everything, but was particularly excited by a trove of intelligence reports uncovered several weeks ago. His current state of thinking is much like Berhane’s— perhaps they never got on the boat after all. But Whiteford, who was born in Scotland and moved to Canada, continues chasing every thread available.
“I’m an immigrant myself, and though I’ve led a very privileged experience, it kind of strikes a chord with me,” he said.
Many of the people taking part do not have experience, but are able to harness their inquisitive nature to help the Ghost Boat families; one reader in Italy has been looking for a potential witness in a nearby town, for example. Others, meanwhile, are experts who have specific knowledge: journalists, geographers, lawyers.
Cécile Debarge, a French reporter based in Sicily, has reported extensively on the refugee crisis. She offered to find out more about the case against the smugglers in Catania.
“I immediately wanted to get involved as I already produced a series of reports on the ground in Spain, Greece, and Italy meeting people on the borders, trying to give back dignity to dead migrants and their families. And I know how it matters for them to know the truth,” she explained.
“I found out while reporting that it was a real fight to know what happened. It’s about smugglers’ responsibility, of course, but it is also about our collective responsibility not to be able to let them another way to reach Europe.”
Cyril Chen, another reader from Toronto, spent some time running Italian court documents through Google Translate and sifting them for information on potential sources. He said that he was motivated to join in by something as small as photographs of baby food and diapers.
“The International Rescue Committee’s article ‘What’s In My Bag?’ includes a photo of one refugee family’s belongings, some items of which are for baby care,” he said via email. “They are commonly available in the West — not just in stores, but in our own homes. The crisis is far away, but the refugees are like us, and they have the same basic cares we do. What family does not want to protect their young, their own baby?”
Natalia Ossowska from Warsaw, Poland, says her main tools have been Google and some keywords. Her motivation is to try and help find answers, both for the Ghost Boat families and for other people who may come across the story with questions and opinions about immigration.
“After reading it,” she said, “I just had to help somehow and show [Yafet] that there are people who do care about him, about Segen and about all the others. I hope that at least one person, who now wants to build walls in the world, will change his mind, because even this one person can make a difference.”
Chen is one of many who joined the effort because it allowed to act in a small way to try and shed light on a much larger problem.
“When the first Ghost Boat article appeared, asking for help, it offered a chance to do more than the usual,” he says. “Crowdsourcing the investigation allows people with all sorts of skills to contribute, using skills that might not come into play in regular relief efforts.”
So far, the crowd-powered investigation has helped us understand a few vital elements that are harder to put together with on-the-ground reporting. Alongside the vessel data, the intelligence reports, and the court documents, readers have mapped out offshore objects, found contact details for vital sources, and started building a database of social search terms.
And then there’s the science. A few weeks ago, Vincent Rossi, an oceanographer from Spain’s Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Physics and Complex Systems, got in touch. As more information presents itself, he is preparing to model the possible drift patterns from an incident that may have taken place with the Ghost Boat.
Perhaps there will be a clue to where any evidence may have washed ashore, and when. Even if we know the forensic chain in north Africa is very broken indeed, maybe we can talk to locals to find reports consistent with the facts.
But the critical moment, if it comes, may not simply be from the data itself: A zoomed-out approach on its own might bear only a little fruit. When you combine these clues and direct the search with information we are finding on the ground — a departure location, a navigational route, shipping data, satellite photography, oceanography — then suddenly it puts forward something a lot more solid.
In the end, though, all of these threads — talking to the smugglers, or to those who have survived other Tokhla operations, or even in our crowdsourced investigation — eventually point to one place. Libya.
So many of the questions that I scrawled in my notebook while talking to Berhane relate to what was happening in Tripoli and Zuwarah on June 27, 28, and 29, 2014.
It’s another daunting task. Libya is an active war zone divided between rival governments and, at the local level, territory is fragmented between dozens of militias. After four years of conflict, anarchic lawlessness has become the norm.
But if we are going to move the investigation forward, past the place where it has gotten stuck every time anyone has tried, this is what we’re going to have to do.
We need your help to make this happen.
We don’t just want you to read this story. We want you to be part of making this investigation work. Right now we are examining Berhane’s testimony to the Italian prosecutor, and compiling common terms used in Arabic and Tigrinya.
There’s so much more we can do to find out what took place.