“Now I Have Learned That There’s a Worse Thing Than Death”
Episode 4: At the heart of the Ghost Boat mystery is a strange phone call. Nobody had tracked down the person on the other end of the line. Until now.
Sixteen months ago today, the Ghost Boat — and the 243 people who were supposed to be on it — went missing. Sixteen months since Segen, Abigail, and the rest of the passengers vanished en route from Libya to Italy. Sixteen months of suspended lives.
“All of the families think that these people are alive somewhere,” Yafet told me recently. “I don’t know what I think now… It’s hard. It’s really hard.”
There are so many stories of people left behind, in limbo. One family member told me how he was “depressed and always frustrated.” There is a woman who has postponed her wedding until she finds out what happened to her brother. “I can’t focus on anything,” said another relative.
Hellen, whose brother Aklilu was on the boat, told me that she cancelled her yearly trip to visit her mother and father in Eritrea because they still don’t know that their son is missing. When she speaks to them, she tells them he is in Libya but doesn’t have access to a phone and can’t call home. But she knows if she saw them, she would have to tell them the truth — that she doesn’t know where her brother is, if he is dead or alive.
“I am a daddy’s girl, the favorite,” she told me. “But I had to disconnect the phone calls I had with my father due to the amount of questions he asked me everyday. I ran out of excuses.”
Her father is sick. She worries he would die if he knew the truth.
I’ve been searching for the missing people full-time now for two months. And while we’ve made progress on a number of fronts, what we know for certain is still sparse.
We know that the passengers of the Ghost Boat did not reach Italy. We know — thanks to the Italian prosecutor — that the passengers were kept at a farm outside of Tripoli used by the smuggler, a man called Ibrahim, to warehouse refugees before their journeys across the sea. We know that they were taken to one of two locations — either in Tripoli, or in Zuwarah, 120 kilometers down the coast. We know that if the boat sank, and the bodies washed ashore, they may have been buried in unmarked mass graves. And the community gathered around the investigation is making substantial progress on what might have happened to the boat at sea.
But for the most part, our investigation has uncovered absences: the absence of evidence, the absence of records, the absence of contact. And these gaps leave all of the questions, all of the possibilities, wide open — they are what give the families hope, even when things look grim.
Inside all of the open questions, though, was one detail that I was unable shake from my mind — the thing that seemed so odd that it just couldn’t be ignored.
The phone call.
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.
It was the only positive contact we were aware of that suggested the Ghost Boat passengers might be alive. It was the reason Meron Estefanos, the Eritrean journalist who specializes in refugee issues and is working on this project, had been in Tunisia earlier this year. I met her when she was following up the possibility that they had been in the local jails, which means it was the reason that I had found out about the case.
So who made that call?
One candidate was a man called Asaad. He had worked with a Ghost Boat family member in Saudi Arabia, but moved back home to Tunisia — and when the boat went missing, she’d called him for help. Asaad had called back to say that his friend, a police officer, had told him that the people were in prison in the south.
When Meron travelled to Tunisia to look for the jailed people, she had contacted Asaad through her translator. He was angry, and yelled at her. He spoke English: Why had she gotten a Tunisian involved? He still had information, he said, and he knew where the people were — but he would only hand it over if Meron paid him. As the discussion went on, the details shifted. The name of the city where they were in prison changed and then changed again. He repeated his request for money. Meron stopped trusting him and broke off contact.
Still, Meron kept following the lead. She travelled to Sfax to see if the people were in jail. At the prison she was told that there were many sub-Saharan Africans, but there was no record of the names she was looking for. Somebody at the local court said they’d heard a story about a large group of sub-Saharan Africans, but nothing was documented. And all the people Meron spoke with said that even if the people from the Ghost Boat had been in Tunisia, they would have been deported long ago. Every knowledgable source I spoke to said deportations in the desert were a common occurrence.
The story had details that were hard to ignore. Why would people tell her this if there was no truth behind it? Would Tunisia really deport 243 people and drop them off in no-man’s land along the border in the desert?
There are plenty of strange stories. One Cameroonian woman told me she’d been held captive in Sfax in 2012 — she had tried to leave from Tunisia on a boat to Lampedusa, but was kidnapped by the smugglers and held for ransom with more than 150 other people. There was torture, electric shock — brutal treatment. “We were treated like animals,” she told me.
Eventually she was let go — but the rest of the detainees were put on a boat and abandoned in the sea, she said.
Another story came from a man working with a local organization. On the record, in the office, his interview provided me with no information. I felt like he was giving me the runaround. I was frustrated and ready to leave. But he insisted on having coffee even after I declined twice, citing a busy schedule.
In the cafe with the recorder off, the man’s face reddened and he broke out into a sweat as he told me a story about a friend from his neighborhood who had left Tunisia illegally on a boat heading for Lampedusa at the end of June or in early July 2014. After arriving in Europe, the friend said that there had been sub-Saharan Africans on the boat with him who had been captured in Sfax before leaving. Some of them had died on the journey.
The story didn’t match the information about the Ghost Boat, but, with the Cameroonian woman’s story, it suggested that there were things taking place in Sfax that were only whispered about.
The stories intensified the feeling that I had that there were two worlds; the one before my eyes that I could see and hear and touch, and the other shadow world that was only hinted at in conversation or spoken of in hushed tones. What was going on in that world?
There is no asylum law in Tunisia. No protections for undocumented people.
As I started to dig deeper, I was warned to be careful and cautioned about the repercussions.
“If you try to poke your nose in this, you will be expelled in 24 hours,” one contact told me. He had tried to help undocumented people in Sfax before, but cut his efforts short after two undercover policemen — one with a gun on his waist and another with a large knife — approached him at a cafe addressed him by name, and advised him to stop.
The idea that Segen, Abigail, and the others from the Ghost Boat had somehow ended up in Tunisia and disappeared into this shadowy world of detention, deportation, and mysterious boats started to seem more and more plausible. But I needed to find some way to prove it existed. I needed to know about the phone call.
Another family member I had been talking to was called David. His niece went missing on the Ghost Boat, and he had been helping me to gather information from the others. I shared where I was, and said I needed to know the story about the phone call. Was Asaad the source of the phone call? Or were there other people in Tunisia the family members had been talking to? Was there any more information that could make the story more tangible? Phone numbers? A name?
Minutes later, my phone started to buzz. David had tracked down the story. There were two different people in Tunisia, he said. Yes, one was same man who had asked Meron for money, but the second man was different — and his story mirrored the one I was trying to uncover.
David explained it to me: A family in rural Eritrea had received a missed call from a Tunisian number, so they passed the number along to an Arabic-speaking woman whose brother had also been on the Ghost Boat. She called the number. At first, the man on the other end said he had never called anyone in Eritrea. But later, he called back to say that, in fact, he had been visiting his son in prison in Sfax earlier that day.
The son was called Riadh. He had told his father that there were more than 150 sub-Saharan Africans in the prison with him. The father asked the family for pictures of the missing people to give to his son, to see if the same people were with him in jail. But then, suddenly, he didn’t want to talk anymore: He was afraid, and was being warned off contact with the Eritreans because what he was doing was illegal. He could end up in prison.
David sent me two phone numbers. They belonged to Riadh and his father, he told me.
Finally I had something concrete. A name. Phone numbers. Things that I could trace and follow to try to get to the bottom of the story. It started to seem plausible.
Before I could make contact, though, I needed to check the details. After some tracking online, and a little help from a technically-inclined friend, we made a breakthrough: an online employment posting for a bakery that confirmed Riadh’s name, telephone number, and location. The bakery was just outside of Mahdia, the same place the father’s number was registered. We had tracked down the origin of the theory that the Ghost Boat was in Tunisia — the one person who would be able to give me an answer.
Less than a week later I was in Mahdia — a small city on the coast — standing in a dark, dusty shop with sparsely populated shelves. The man behind the counter was looking at me with curiosity out of the corner of his eye. My translator, standing inside an old, wooden public telephone stall, was on the phone with Riadh.
The bright, florescent light inside made everything outside seem darker and lit the outline of her body like a silhouette through the hazy glass. I was trying to read the movement of her hands, the shifting of her weight, for any sign about the content of the conversation. I pulled my cellphone out my pocket and started fidgeting with it to distract myself, but my eyes wouldn’t focus on the screen.
My translator hung up the phone, flipped the light switch, and exited the phone booth. She let out a breath — I was suspended. A small smile crept onto her face.
He had agreed to meet us.
On the road to the small town outside of Mahdia where Riadh lived, my hands gripped hard on the steering wheel. I was afraid.
I had no idea what I was going to find when I arrived. This was my one tangible lead. Would it just evaporate? Or was I about to open a door into the shadow world I had been hearing about in Sfax? The implications behind both possibilities were frightening.
Earlier, I had told Yafet what the other family members had told me about Riadh and that I had tracked him down and was going to meet him. “I think Riadh didn’t ask for money, right?” he asked me over Facebook Messenger. “He was just trying to help.”
“Right. That’s the same thing that I heard,” I told him.
“This seems… true,” was all he wrote back.
I parked the car at a roundabout outside of Riadh’s bakery, a nondescript storefront that sent dull, cold light spilling onto the sidewalk. As I stepped out, I told myself I was approaching this like any other interview I had done. I was just going to do what I knew how to do. But it felt different.
A couple of minutes later, Riadh walked in the door. He was short and square, stocky with a stubbly beard and a hat that covered closely cropped hair. We pulled up chairs and a table on the sidewalk outside the bakery. It was nighttime already. Riadh started to tell his version of the story.
His father had started to receive strange phone calls from international numbers in late summer 2014. At first, he didn’t understand the language the people were speaking. Then, a woman called Fiyori got in touch, speaking Arabic. She said she was Eritrean and lived in Switzerland, and was looking for her brother who had gone missing with the Ghost Boat. Riadh’s father felt bad for her, so he took her brother’s name and gave it to friends who could check to see if they were registered in the prisons in nearby towns.
The Eritrean woman asked about Sfax, but Riadh’s father didn’t have contacts there. His friends told him that there was no record of the name he had given them in the prisons where they checked.
He apologized he couldn’t do more to help. But the sister kept calling, sometimes in the middle of the night. He had done what he could, he said, he asked her not to call back. The conversation passed to his son.
Riadh, like virtually every Tunisian I know, had a friend who tried to leave Tunisia on a boat to Italy. After it left, the boat started to sink. The people on board were rescued and brought back to Chebba, the nearest town. The Tunisians were released, but the foreigners were held in the police station until a bus came and took them away. Riadh thought they had been deported. “There were lots of them — black Africans,” he said.
When Fiyori sent him a picture of her brother, Riadh shared it with his friend Alaa — the one who had been on the boat. Alaa was absolutely certain it was the same boy he’d travelled with. Riadh wanted to help, to talk to the police about what happened to the people who were put on the bus — but he was nervous. “I wanted to search by myself, but I got afraid from the police,” he said.
Riadh didn’t have any more information for me, but he sent someone off on a motor scooter to get Alaa. We sat for a couple minutes in tense silence. So far Riadh’s story didn’t exactly match the information we had about the Ghost Boat, but there were enough details that could fit, especially if Alaa was convinced about the identity of the boy he met.
Alaa arrived a couple minutes later wearing a gray track suit. He had a gold chain on his left wrist and meticulously gelled hair. I had printed out pictures of the boy that his sister had sent me. I handed one across the table.
“That’s him,” he said with certainty. I showed him more, including one where he instantaneously picked the boy out of a group. “He was right next to me the whole time. He was wearing a black hat with a white ‘W’ on it and always laughing and making jokes,” Alaa said.
I grabbed my cellphone and frantically started searching for a picture of Segen. My hand slightly shaky, I showed it to Alaa. His brow furrowed. He didn’t remember her, he said. I needed to take a step back and get the story from the beginning.
Alaa explained: His boat left Tunisia in September 2014, two months after the Ghost Boat.
“How many people were on the boat with you? How many were sub-Saharan?” I asked.
There were 50 people on the boat, said Alaa (the Ghost Boat had at least 243 people on it). Seven of them were black, eight or nine were Tunisian, and the rest were Syrian (almost everyone on the Ghost Boat was from Sudan or Eritrea). Most of the foreigners had come from Algeria, he said. Some may have come from Libya, but if they did, they came by land, not from the sea. Anyone who made it from the Ghost Boat to Tunisia would have almost certainly come via the water.
What about the boy? Perhaps he had become separated from the Ghost Boat and ended up on the same journey as Alaa. I asked for more detail: Alaa said the boy — who only spoke a few words of Arabic — had made a phone call to his family before the boat left. Again, it didn’t stack up: the boy I was looking for spoke Arabic like his native tongue, and his sister hadn’t heard from him since the end of June.
Alaa’s story — Riadh’s story, the story of the phone call — was falling apart in front of me.
The progression of events just didn’t make sense. Riadh had already been talking to Fiyori before Alaa tried to cross to Italy. It seemed like Riadh had just put the two coincidental events together in his mind.
And then there was the phone call itself. When I spoke to Riadh, he insisted that neither he, nor his father, ever initiated contact with an Eritrean number: the Eritreans called them first. Riadh’s father, a retired school teacher, said he had no idea how they had got his number, but he was certain he didn’t place the first call. “I go from my home to school and back to my home. Sometimes I go to Mahdia,” he told me. “I’ve never even met a sub-Saharan African.”
Alaa’s identification of the boy on the boat bothered me — he was so certain. But he didn’t seem a reliable eyewitness, considering that nothing else added up. The origin of the phone call was still a mystery — if the family in Eritrea called first, where did they get the number? — but I had no reason to think that Riadh or his father were lying to me. They were open, welcoming, happy to talk, and when I went back to visit a second time there was no hostility, no inconsistency in their story.
But I couldn’t ignore it. Fiyori had told me her version of events, about the conversations she’d had with Riadh and his father. Then I’d spoken to Riadh and his father and got their take on the conversations they’d had with her. Both sides seem to have wildly different interpretations of what actually happened.
So how could the versions end up so different?
Riadh and his father had spoken to the sister in Tunisian Arabic. It is a dialect that few people outside of the country understand well. Fiyori spoke Sudanese Arabic. Maybe words had gotten lost in translation. Maybe the story had gotten mixed up with other ones? Maybe parts of Riadh’s story had become tangled with pieces from Asaad, the other Tunisian man, the one who had asked for money. Maybe the stories were filtered through the haze of time, or mangled by hope, or confused with the lies Ibrahim had told. I could see how guesses morphed into certainties and vague details became key pieces of information.
Still, there were things that I wanted to understand, but I had to be honest with myself: the stories just didn’t match. Riadh and his father hadn’t said what the families thought they said — and they didn’t know what I thought they knew either.
The phone call had turned into a dead end.
When I got back to my hotel room that night, I was exhausted and drained. My mind was searching for where to go, but I was coming up blank — all I had was absence.
The next morning I messaged Yafet and told him about my conversation with Riadh and Alaa.
“Maybe he changed the story,” he wrote me. “Maybe he doesn’t want to tell the truth.”
I explained more. I told him what I was doing to follow up on the parts of the story that still didn’t have answers. “I’m trying to turn over every stone here so I don’t miss anything,” I wrote.
“I see that,” he responded. “But there is no hope,’’
I pushed my chair back from the table in the cafe where I was sitting with a half-eaten breakfast spread in front of me; my computer and notebooks sprawled around. The frenetic energy that had been fueling me sagged. I put my face in my hands. My mind was numb.
Where do we go from here? It was the only thought echoing in my head.
Was this it? I knew the investigation had to keep going until we found something concrete — whatever that might be — or until we exhausted every plausible lead. If we stopped here, all of the possibilities would remain open. For family members who were grasping for any sign, any reason to be hopeful, the absences we turned up would continue to be a form of torture.
“People are born and die. Now I have learned that there is a worse thing than death: missing people, and you keep thinking every day if they are alive,” Hellen, the woman who hasn’t told her parents that her brother is missing, had written me.
The most promising lead I had was gone, but all of the questions were still there. I kept thinking back to what we knew. Segen, Abi, and the others left the farm, but Ibrahim and Measho, the smuggler in prison in Italy, both said they hadn’t accompanied them to the boat. Nobody we knew of had seen them get on the boat — or if they had, they weren’t saying.
Talking to the families, even this detail opened up so many possibilities. Maybe they had been kidnapped in Libya, sold into slavery. “In Libya, these things happen,” Meron told me.
If I wanted to be able to answer the families’ questions — to be able to start filling in the gaps — I had to go back and trace the story from the very beginning. That, though, required more information; I needed to know how to direct my search. I had been working off one sliver of evidence that seemed promising. But talking to the family members, I had learned there was so much more I didn’t know.
There was one family member living in Italy I had been hearing about who apparently had more information about the Ghost Boat than anyone else. It was time for me to go meet him.
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. Images sourced from Facebook and via family members. The faces have been blurred for their protection.
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