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Letter sent on Oct 26, 2015

“I Used to Love My Country”

As Hilal pointed out recently, if you’re trying to understand the plight of refugees like Yafet and his family, it helps to know their backstory. This week we’ll be using the daily update to share more details about Yafet and Segen’s lives before she boarded the Ghost Boat.

Here’s what Yafet recalls about his childhood:

Growing up in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, Yafet was the youngest of seven children. His father was a physics teacher in high school and his mother taught typing. They lived in a four-bedroom house, and Yafet remembers much of their family time revolving around meals. “All the family had to be together in a circle and all the food had to be served on just one plate,” Yafet recalled. “My father use to pray for us. Before we started eating, we had to take a peace of bread from father’s hand.”
“I can remember the family life, or the joy of eating meals together, chatting together, having a coffee somewhere together. It was when I was too young. I remember just a little from it,” Yafet said. “I just remember it was something good for me.”
Yafet’s oldest brother was a freedom fighter during the war for independence. “I was proud that I had a brother from the freedom fighters who people saw as a hero or a patriot,” Yafet said. “I used to love my country.”
But Isaias Afwerki, a former rebel leader who has ruled Eritrea as president since independence, and criticism over ongoing conflicts with Ethiopia.
In September 2001, 11 top party officials who had criticized Afwerki were arrested, along with the staffs of Eritrea’s privately owned newspapers and numerous other civil servants, military leaders and citizens who were perceived to be part of the opposition.
Yafet remembers reading about the emerging opposition to Afwerki in the newspapers before they were closed down, and he remembers the crackdown on dissent that followed.
“From that time, I started to wonder why, if we are Eritreans, did the government do this?” he said. “I use to ask my mom, ‘Mom, why?’ 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?” Yafet remembers thinking. “Later, I saw what happened to the people who asked.”
Yafet and Segen

Notes From the Field

You might remember from Episode 1 that one of the Ghost Boat families received a strange phone call that suggested the occupants could be in a Tunisian jail. This weekend, Eric tracked down the owner of that phone. We’ll have the details of his conversation with that person, and what it means for our investigation, in this week’s episode.

This Just In

We made incredible progress on filing out the lighthouse spreadsheet this weekend — thank you to everyone who chipped in! The next step will be to turn this data into a map.

Ross Whiteford makes the very reasonable suggestion that we might be able to track the Ghost Boat’s journey via satellite phone signal. We thought the same thing. Meron got in contact with one of the smugglers and asked if there had been a satellite phone on the boat. His suspicious-sounding answer was that there had been, but he had forgotten to register the number and couldn’t remember it. It was one of the clues that made her sure the smugglers were lying. We’re assuming, sadly, that there wasn’t actually a phone on board.


Gravier Genou says we should translate Ghost Boat into Arabic to reach a wider audience. Good news: We’re working on it! Expect Arabic versions in the next few days. (Meanwhile the Dutch versions of episodes 1, 2, and 3 are all live courtesy of Team Mindshakes.) Meanwhile Kev Benson criticizes us for presenting this story in episodes, like a work of entertainment. We think this it’s a criticism worth taking seriously, though it may not surprise you to hear we disagree. Here’s an excerpt from Bobbie’s response:

One of the reasons we decided to produce Ghost Boat was precisely because we thought nearly all reporting on the refugee crisis falls into the category you are concerned about. Everything I read is either clinical and distant, or like a kind of weird torture porn: Aimed at eliciting a fleeting emotional connection, which a reader maybe follows up with a donation to an NGO.
So we have decided to try and tackle that by giving readers the ability to help us, and therefore to help the families of those who are missing. Fanus’s story is meant to shock you, but our project is meant to show that being shocked doesn’t mean that you’re unempowered to make a change, or to stop more stories like Fanus’s happening in the future.
This is not a serialized piece of pseudo-fiction to titillate readers with. It is an introduction to a live investigation, one that is full of questions and dead ends and maybe a couple of answers here or there, and it is happening right now. I spent most of my weekend talking with our team as they chased down leads; our readers took the last few days building up a detailed picture of the geography of the Mediterranean coast. Things are really happening. They are only happening because we are taking this approach.

Your help matters to the people on our team and to the families involved.


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