“How Many Mothers? How Many Others?”
Episode 10: Our search for missing refugees goes back to where it began. But how do you deal with a nightmare that never ends?
Khartoum swelters in the summertime. Rust-colored sand from the desert blows through the streets and hangs in the air, kicked up by slow-moving traffic, sticking to your skin and making the skyline of low concrete buildings dull behind a thin haze.
The air is so thick with heat that life creeps along slowly during the day. Activity only picks up when the temperature dips — even if just slightly — after the sun goes down.
The urban landscape is a nondescript grid of bumpy, dirt side streets spilling onto traffic clogged main boulevards. A small handful of architectural oddities break the uniformity — including one giant, egg-shaped building financed by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi — but for the most part, the capital of Sudan is unremarkable.
There isn’t really much to draw an outsider here, especially at the height of summer. But late one evening in July — the hottest month of the year, with daytime temperatures simmering around 110 degrees — that’s exactly where I found myself.
I’m sitting in the gravel courtyard of a restaurant near the center of Khartoum, picking over a meal of greasy, fried fish caught from the nearby Nile. Next to me, sitting on a low stool, is Yafet Isaias Andebrhan — the man whose story has unexpectedly come to dominate the past year of my life.
He’s taller and broader than I expected from pictures I have seen, with close cropped hair and a thin goatee that he dabs with a napkin to stop the sweat.
“We used to have hope from the rumors,” he says, flashing his eyes towards me for a second. “Someone says they are in Tunisia. Someone says they are somewhere [else]. But all are not true.”
Yafet is talking about his wife Segen and two year old daughter Abigail.
They vanished without a trace at the end of June 2014, and I’ve been searching for them — and the 241 other people who disappeared along with them in an incident that became known as the Ghost Boat — for a year.
From the moment I started this quest, I knew that one day I would have to meet Yafet. But I didn’t imagine that when the time came I’d be showing up empty handed.
When I first got introduced to Yafet in early 2015, Segen and Abi had already been missing for seven months.
Back then, I had only heard about the refugee crisis through the occasional headline. The clandestine movement of people across the Mediterranean hadn’t yet assumed the gigantic proportions we’re all now sadly familiar with. But that year, the year they disappeared, the escalation had already begun. By the end of 2014, more than 170,000 people had risked their lives to cross the sea, and over 3,000 drowned along the way. The Ghost Boat vanished without a trace somewhere in the chaos of one of the summer’s busiest weekends, when more than 5,000 other people were rescued from the sea.
The details we had to work with were threadbare.
In the early hours of June 28, 2014, at least 243 people had left a farm on the Libyan coast. The majority were from Eritrea, like Segen and Yafet, and were fleeing one of the most repressive governments in the world. The plan was to do what all those others had done before them: board a dilapidated fishing boat and get cast out to sea by people smugglers in the direction of Europe.
The group was meant to arrive in Italy within a couple of days. But they never made it. They simply vanished.
When a boat carrying hundreds of migrants capsizes in the Mediterranean, it almost always makes headlines. And yet, in the case of this disappearance, nobody — apart from the families of the missing — seemed to care. International media coverage was non-existent, law enforcement was disinterested, aid organizations didn’t respond, and it seemed that any possible record of what happened simply didn’t exist. There were only thin slivers of information hinting at possible answers, but it was never enough. One rumor would rise and fade only to be replaced by another, equally vague theory or clue.
The process of sifting through the muddled scraps of evidence to figure out what was true, what wasn’t, and where it all came from was frustrating. Sometimes it bordered on maddening. And each time it always seemed to leave us right back where we started: grappling for information that could actually lead us to what had really happened.
As time wore on, the investigation bogged down, and then progress ground to a halt. We combed Italy, Tunisia and Libya, but the tangible evidence we needed — however we searched for it — just didn’t seem to exist.
Earlier in the day, I had met Yafet outside my hotel. We had walked to his small, dimly lit apartment and sipped rich, sweet Eritrean coffee from small cups. He was curious and intelligent, reveling in the opportunity to speak with someone coming from far away but who had similar interests to his own.
It was easy to connect with him. We discussed American, African and Middle Eastern politics and history; he told me about living in Sudan, and asked me about what was happening in my own life. The way he spoke and carried himself was gentle and self-possessed. He was dignified in a way that masked the heavy burden I knew he was carrying inside.
But now, back at the fish restaurant, as a muffled cacophony of car horns and street bikes fill the air around us, his posture is broken. His shoulders slump forward, and he stares absently at the gravel below his feet.
Looking at Yafet sitting next to me, I know what I have come to Sudan to tell him. We haven’t solved the mystery of Segen and Abi’s disappearance — and I don’t think we ever will. After endless work and the support of thousands of readers, we have exhausted everything we could think of and come up short.
I have rehearsed this conversation countless times in my head, but face to face the words just don’t want to come out.
After a pause, he sighs heavily and says the words that are hanging in the air between us: “I think until now we have already done what we can do. There’s nothing left.”
All I can do is tell him: I agree.
So that’s it, the end of the Ghost Boat investigation. For all our hard work, for everything that readers contributed, for every scrap of information we chased down, there are only dead ends and dangling questions. Without new evidence, without access to the people who know the truth, there is no way to move the search for Segen, Abi and the others forward. Their disappearance will probably remain a mystery.
But it doesn’t feel like enough.
Two hundred and forty three people are still missing, and their families are living in a particularly cruel form of limbo, suspended without answers between hope and despair. And it’s not just them.
While the Ghost Boat is unique in some ways, the crisis that caused it is pressing on and on, creating tragedy after tragedy in the Mediterranean — more ghost boats, more tortured families.
In the past three years alone, more than 10,000 people have drowned trying to reach Europe’s shores, and only a fraction of their bodies have been recovered from the sea. Even fewer are ever identified. 2016 has been the deadliest year on record, with the number of dead reaching toward 5,000. That means there are other families — thousands of them — in a similar situation as Yafet, missing their loved ones without answers or any real hope that their living nightmare might end.
The scale of the problem is so enormous that the solutions seem to be out of our hands as individuals. There are things that can be done — Europe could change its asylum and immigration policies, or Sudan could stop persecuting refugees, or Eritrea’s dictatorship could end — but it seems unlikely that the situation will change, especially as Western nations increasingly veer towards nativism in the face of this crisis. So the problem will go on as long as people continue to feel they have no option but crossing the sea.
“Even my wife,” Yafet says. “I used to beg her not to go that way. But, finally… she wasn’t able to stay here. She chose that way, and we knew that it was dangerous.”
As more people are forced into that choice, more names that will be added to the lists of the dead and missing and more and more families will be left to grapple with the loss. How do they, the people left behind — people like Yafet — go on with these gaping holes at the centers of their lives?
This seemed like an impossible question. I hadn’t just hit a wall in the investigation, I’d also hit the limits of my ability to think: The absence of answers was debilitating. In some small way, like the families of the missing, I was grappling for a way forward.
That’s when I heard about Simon Robins.
When Robins first arrived in Nepal in 2006, as a delegate for the International Committee of the Red Cross, the country was starting to emerge from a decade-long civil war. For 10 years, Maoist rebels in the mountainous Himalayan country had battled to overthrow the ruling monarchy and bring an end to caste discrimination in the mainly-Hindu nation.
By the time the conflict ended, the insurgents had gained the upper hand, but more than 16,000 were dead and 1,300 had been forcible disappeared by the two sides during the fighting. Their fates were a mystery and their absence was an open wound for their families, and for society.
“The issue of the missing in the conflict suddenly became something we could discuss,” Robins told me over the phone recently. “Because the conflict was over.”
ICRC sends delegates to some of the most difficult and dangerous environments in the world — societies being torn apart by war — in an attempt to address the humanitarian needs of people living in there. They work on anything that’s required, from providing healthcare and economic support, to combating sexual violence, or trying to ensure the humane treatment of political detainees. They also try to track down those who go missing.
Robins spent much of his two years in Nepal traveling the country and interacting with the families of those who had disappeared. What he saw followed a similar pattern to experiences he had on other deployments — and there was something about it that bothered him.
Cases of missing people were dealt with as part of the attempt to bring justice for crimes committed during the fighting. The focus was on a right to truth for the families; the right to know what happened. But for Robins, this was problematic.
“The vast majority of people haven’t got answers, and realistically are never going to get answers,” he said.
The emphasis on truth often raised unreasonable expectations that the process would uncover the fate of the missing. And it never addressed how to support families living in limbo. Put simply, the approach failed to address the real needs of the people most affected by the situation.
After he left Nepal, Robins decided to dedicate himself to studying the problem more deeply.
“Driven by the fact that the approaches that we use to address this issue were clearly not effective, I wanted to understand what other approaches could be taken.”
He was grappling with the same question that was at the heart of Yafet’s experience: How are you supposed to move forward in life when you don’t know if someone you love is living or dead?
The answer, he discovered, might be found in an idea called “ambiguous loss.”
Shortly after the Twin Towers came crashing down on September 11, 2001, Dr. Pauline Boss received a phone call. Nearly 3,000 people had lost their lives but, in the stunned and grief-stricken days and weeks that followed, it was impossible to know who exactly had been in the Towers when they fell. Desperate family members were wandering lower Manhattan with pictures of their loved ones hoping to find answers.
Some who had escaped turned up alive. But, in the concussion of metal and glass and the slow burning inferno that continued for 100 days, many victims’ bodies were obliterated, mangled, incinerated. To date, no physical remains have been found for more than 1,500 people who died that day.
At the time, Boss was teaching psychology at the University of Minnesota. The person on the other end of the phone made an unusual request: Could she come to New York and run a clinical program for the families of missing people? There was probably no better candidate in the country for the job.
Her expertise started in the 1970s, when she had conducted interviews with the wives of military pilots who went missing in action in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. From those initial conversations, she began to develop the theory she called ambiguous loss. She defined it as a situation of unclear loss resulting from not knowing whether a loved one is dead or alive, absent or present.
By the time she arrived in New York to work with 9/11 families, Boss had spent 30 years researching the theory, and had written dozens of academic articles and a seminal book on it.
So, when Robins came across her work during his research, something clicked into place. It seemed to perfectly address the problem that he’d encountered during his own fieldwork.
“The narrative of ambiguous loss has very little to contribute to discovering the truth,” he told me. “But everything to contribute to supporting families in its absence.”
It sounds simple, but for most humanitarian workers it is also counterintuitive — a system of treatment that approaches trauma and loss not by solving it, but by accepting that it cannot be solved.
And now Robins is applying the approach to the refugee crisis through a research initiative called the Mediterranean Missing Project.
“The deaths have become a point of focus in the media,” he said. “But the families are really invisible — even with the terribly visible cases. The child along the beach is the focus, rather than the families… and we really know nothing about the families of the thousands of people who are dying or disappearing.”
He was talking about people like the Ghost Boat families.
In many ways, the Eritrean people as a whole are struggling with ambiguous loss. Their community has been slowly shattering for years.
One night in Sudan I visit Yafet’s house. It’s a small, two room apartment behind a fence of corrugated aluminum sheets that sits on one of Khartoum’s pitted, dirt side streets. Inside, the walls are painted two-tone: dull pink on top, beige below. The sound of Hindi soap operas dubbed into Arabic comes from a TV in the corner, and there’s a constant whir from a fan and an air conditioner unit lodged in a window close to the ceiling.
The main room is tidy. There’s a sagging couch pushed against one wall, while a squat arm chair and single bed sit against the other. The space is snug, and dim light filters in from a couple small windows. A second, slightly larger room with two beds is obscured by a thin white curtain.
Yafet and Segen used to live here together, with Abi and their older daughter, Shalom. Now only Yafet and Shalom share the space with another group: a middle-aged Eritrean woman, her teenage daughter, and her four-year-old nephew.
The boy looks at me as I sit on the couch — a white man who does not speak his language — and tells Yafet I look like his father.
“He’s never seen his father,” Yafet says.
The boy’s dad, like so many, is stuck in Eritrea, conscripted into a national service he may never be released from. The system takes people in the prime years of their lives and sends them to languish in far-flung corners of the country. It separates wives from their families, and fathers from their children. Anyone who speaks out against the system is in danger. Amnesty International estimates that the government has imprisoned at least 10,000 people for voicing dissent. Many of them are never heard from again.
If it’s not indefinite military conscription or forced disappearances by the government, then it’s the water that is breaking the Eritrean community apart.
“Almost every family lost one or two loved ones in the sea,” Yafet says. Before, it was conflict with neighboring Ethiopia that would take men and women from their families. “After the war, we are losing our young people in the sea and in the desert.”
We hear about the shipwrecks in the news.
“You just know 500 people died. That’s it. But who are those 500? Amongst them, how many fathers were there? How many mothers? How many other family members?” Yafet says.
“Each one is going to have four or five relatives depending on them. It’s not a damage or loss of 500 people. It’s going to be a loss for a large community. The community is going to be changed.”
The goal of the Mediterranean Missing Project is to put the experiences of those people left behind at the center of the conversation. The victims at sea have some kind of tragic resolution, but Robins and his team push for better policies to reduce the suffering of those who remain.
They have interviewed close to 100 family members for their research. What they have found is a range of similarities between the families of people who go missing in conflict and those of people who disappear in the sea.
Many family members become fixated on the missing person to the point of neglecting other aspects of their lives. Sleep disturbances are common. People have nightmares, or dream about the missing relatives, or suffer deep confusion about their identity: Am I a husband? Am I a wife? They experience a general sense of stasis; an inability to move forward in life.
In extreme cases, Robins has found psychiatric problems: people hearing voices, having hallucinations, feeling the desire to harm others — even their surviving relatives.
All cultures have ways of coping with death. “You have rituals and processes to absorb and understand that loss… You have ceremonies that you engage your community with to confirm, to give that loss a certain meaning,” Robins said.
But there are no rituals to create meaning when people simply vanish — and that makes the situation incredibly stressful. Family members disagree about how to deal with what has happened, communities pressure people to move on, conflict arises because there’s no common understanding.
Most psychologists and human rights practitioners view people’s suffering through the lens of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD stems from a single event that happened in the past — something that can maybe be addressed and overcome.
The knee-jerk response is to apply this same approach to the families of the missing. But ambiguous loss is not an isolated experience with a clear beginning, middle and end. It’s an ongoing trauma. And, in a world that values conclusive endings, that’s a hard concept to accept.
Instead of getting over an episode of ambiguous loss, the therapeutic goal is to learn to live while not having answers. Pauline Boss, Simon Robins and others have worked to help family members construct meaning around their loss and learn to live with the ambiguity. They’ve seen positive results, including among the relatives of 9/11 victims.
When I came across the idea, it made sense. It seemed like a missing puzzle piece — a framework for understanding the feelings of frustration and sadness and the desperate hope that I was witnessing in Yafet and the other family members. It even applied, in its own, limited way, to me.
Being able to put a name to what I was dealing with helped me to understand a little bit better. I took some solace in the thought that there were ways to move forward, even when there were no answers.
But still I felt unsettled about where I had arrived. I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I was giving up, that I needed to be doing more, that maybe if I pushed a little harder…
Then it struck me: That was the whole point. No matter what we do, we may never know. How do you learn to live with that? Most importantly, what does mean for someone like Yafet? What does he do now?
Every day since Segen disappeared, Yafet has had to wake up, look after Shalom, and go to work to earn money to keep the basics of their lives intact. Every day he has had to play a game to avoid being arrested or deported. It’s a constant test of his intelligence, his instinct, his ability to survive. It hasn’t been easy, but he’s had no other choice. In some ways, the challenge has kept him afloat instead of sinking under his heavy emotional burden. But is he just treading water?
He has never thought about loving another woman. The bond he forged with Segen when they were high school sweethearts has held strong over years of separation and, now, through insufferable uncertainty and absence. But he has thought of remarrying. Without Segen, he worries about Shalom, and questions his ability to raise her by himself.
If he were to marry, Shalom would have a mother figure in her life. But, for now, Yafet has decided against it. What if Segen were to come back? He can’t just move on.
So he’s settled on a less than satisfactory alternative. The women who live with him pay their way by watching Shalom while Yafet is at work. It’s convenient, but doesn’t make him happy — it’s just the only way he can afford childcare while he works.
“I’m a single father,” he says, sitting on the cot across from me as we talk. “I have a daughter. My daughter wants someone to care for her. I have to go out and work. There are no relatives here. I have to trust her with strangers in order to raise my daughter.”
Yafet gets along with the women well, and even looks after the little boy like a son. But the Eritrean community in Khartoum is transient: most people stay for a short period before moving on to Libya and attempting to cross the sea. Five or six different women have stayed with Yafet to help watch Shalom in the past two years. This latest family is likely to move on, too.
“Shalom used to call any woman that I bring here to help us Momma. When that one leaves and another comes, she used to call her Momma. She asked me the last time, ‘How many Mommas do I have?’”
He accepts the arrangement because he hasn’t given up hope that Segen and Abi might come back.
“I will keep waiting for them,” he says, his eyes briefly clouding with tears. It’s the only time his grief threatened to spill over during my visit. “I’m not hopeless… There’s nothing to let me have my hope and there’s nothing to make me lose my hope.”
But knowing that he may never know?
“It’s going to be harder than before,” he says.
Several months ago he was picked up by the police. He was leaving church on a Sunday when officers stopped the bus he was traveling on. Everyone on board was either Eritrean or Ethiopian. For the most part, they were undocumented — after all, it’s nearly impossible for poor foreigners to maintain legal residency in Khartoum.
The police took Yafet and the others to a holding station, and put them in a cell. People who paid a bribe were allowed to leave. The others were held until they came up with enough money, or found some other way to wrangle their way out. It was a shakedown.
These roundups are a fixture of daily life for foreigners — mostly Eritreans and Ethiopians — living at the lower end of Khartoum’s ladder. Most of the time people get out after a couple of days, but sometimes they are sent to the official refugee camps in eastern Sudan or are shuttled across the border, back to Eritrea. It all depends on the whim of the officers.
Yafet ended up being held for three days. During that time, Shalom was home alone. He had to rely on his neighbors to watch after her.
The experience shook him.
“You have to fear,” Yafet told me. “That’s why whenever you see the police officers or roundups you have to move away from them, or, people like me, you have to act like a… Sudanese. It’s a game.”
He never knows when that game will be up. Before it is, he’s looking for a way out.
Yafet doesn’t want to take the risk of crossing the sea himself. “I don’t wish to do it. It’s a dangerous risk, especially now I have a daughter. My wife is missing. I don’t want to try a dangerous journey like this. I don’t want to bring other problems.”
But it’s also hard for him to accept Sudan as his only option.
“I’m just looking for a free place, for a place where I can let my daughter grow up well; get educated. Even for myself — to live as myself. No more acting… I don’t want to live like this anymore. There is no freedom.”
So Yafet is in the process of applying to Australia for asylum. There, he thinks, Shalom could get a better education and he could finally live freely. His sister lives there, which increases his chances. But it’s a long shot. Acceptance rates are low, and he will have to wait years before he receives an answer. For a refugee not willing to risk the sea, there’s no other choice.
In the meantime, he is trying to find better employment. Shalom just started school. He wrote me after my visit to tell me she likes going to class and is excited to do her homework.
I ask Yafet what he wants for her future.
“I just want to advise her to be a good girl, to keep on studying, to be a disciplined girl. But, what I want depends on her.”
He wants her to have the freedom to choose her own path, the opportunities he hasn’t had. Given the constraints of living in Sudan, that might be a difficult dream to fulfill.
Now Yafet’s life is being pulled in different directions. In one sense, he can’t move on from the clawing absence left by Segen and Abi. In another, he has to keep going. His desire to provide opportunities for his daughter, and to finally find a place where he can be free keep him moving forward. But what he will ultimately be able to do is limited by being an undocumented refugee living in Sudan who is looking towards a largely unreceptive international community for a way out.
In the end, the Ghost Boat investigation didn’t achieve what he was hoping for — or what any of us were hoping for. But Yafet takes some solace in the fact that we tried.
“I’m comfortable because I’ve done what I can do. I did my best. You did your best. Most of us, the relatives, also, we are all doing our best,” Yafet said to me as we sat at his house on my last day in Sudan.
“What it achieved is that, actually, I know that the rumors are not true… And we know what one can do, we did it.”
The experience has made him feel less alone. When the story was first ignored by the international media, he felt abandoned, like the world didn’t care. Now, people have reached out to him — total strangers — and shared their support for what he’s going through.
“When people share your sorrow or when people share your bad moments, it’s a little OK. You feel that at least people are with you, people are thinking about what happened to you.”
Still, Yafet’s story, like the refugee crisis itself, defies an ending. The flow of people across the Mediterranean continues, and there’s no sign that it will stop any time soon. Where borders have been closed, people have simply become stuck — their limbo and suffering prolonged indefinitely.
As long as the conflicts and oppression driving the mad clamber to escape surge on, there will be people desperate enough to risk everything by braving the sea. The issue may eventually be eclipsed by others in the media, but the distant horizon of the Mediterranean will continue to promise safety and opportunity. And even though the reality inside its borders is much more complicated, to reach Europe is to obtain something that’s unthinkable in the various purgatories from which the refugees come — it’s to obtain the possibility for a future. And at the end of the day, that is every parent’s dream for their children.
This allure pulled Yafet’s wife and youngest daughter away from him. Their story isn’t over yet either. It may never be.
Without conclusive evidence about what happened, the families of the 243 Ghost Boat passengers will continue to live in between hope and despair — in a chapter of their lives that may never close.
As one family member said to me months ago: “I have learned that there’s a worse thing than death: missing people, and you keep thinking every day if they are alive.”
It isn’t until my last night in Sudan that the full weight of her statement finally sinks in.
I’m laying in bed at my hotel. My bags are not yet packed. I’ll save that for the morning. Instead, I’m drifting in and out of sleep, thinking about the trip.
The conversation I had with Yafet was one of the most difficult of my life, but I’m feeling as good about it as I can hope for. We seemed to have come to a mutual, realistic understanding about where things stand, and seeing his resilience and his love of being a father gave me hope. Even in what seem like the darkest of times, life, with its small moments of joy and redemption, goes on.
Then my phone rings, jolting me awake.
Yafet’s just logged onto Facebook and seen a new rumor making the rounds of the family network: Maybe some of the Ghost Boat passengers have been found alive. This time, could it be true?
My emotions swing.
The mad hope, the titanic frustrations of the investigation come surging back. Just as I’m trying to pull myself out, I’m brought right back in. For Yafet, it must be infinitely worse. Ultimately, this is the story. And it could go on forever.
We would like to give our deepest thanks to everybody who took part in this investigation — from the thousands of readers and contributors who helped sift through data, translate stories and provide support; to those who worked directly and indirectly on the series, including Rebecca Cohen, Rachel Glickhouse, Meron Estefanos, Martino Galliolo, Sam Cannon, the staffs of Medium and Matter, the students and faculty at Columbia and CUNY, members of First Draft, and many more.