When I first spoke to Yafet Isaias 10 months ago, he felt frustrated and angry, abandoned. His wife, Segen, and two-year-old daughter Abi had been missing for more than six months, along with 241 other people who were supposed to be on a refugee boat heading from Libya to Italy.
What he told me that day was the start of our search for the Ghost Boat.
Yafet saw echoes of his situation in other global tragedies. But he also saw a difference. Other horrific incidents and cases of missing people had garnered massive media attention, and drawn sympathy and support from the public. And many of them had been the subject of extensive international efforts to figure out what happened.
In April 2014, for example, 276 Nigerian girls were kidnapped by the militant Islamist militia Boko Haram. The girls were Christian, and as stories of their forced conversions, marriage, and rape filtered through the media, the hashtag #bringbackourgirls galvanized international attention. Michelle Obama and Oprah even spoke up in support of the campaign.
More recently, this October the U.S.-flagged cargo ship SS El Faro disappeared with 33 crew members in hurricane-tossed waters near the Bahamas. A search effort led by the U.S. Navy recently located a shipwreck nearly three miles below the sea’s surface that is believed to be the missing ship. The families of the crew are hoping that identifying what remains will finally bring them closure after months of waiting in limbo.
For Yafet, one incident felt particularly close.
Just four months before the Ghost Boat passengers disappeared, Air Malaysia flight 370 vanished over the Indian Ocean with 239 people on board. Yafet specifically brought it up when we spoke, because he saw a striking number of parallels between the two cases: the number of people who went missing; the mysterious details surrounding the disappearance; the agony of the families left without answers.
As soon as it happened, MH370 became a sponge for media attention all over the planet — a pattern that continued for months, and even carries on today. The coverage was so intense that major U.S. networks, particularly CNN, attracted criticism for their obsessive 24-hour reporting.
The Ghost Boat’s disappearance, on the other hand, was almost completely ignored. Even though the incident was known to prosecutors and investigators in Italy, it took more than a month for any story to appear in the press. The few articles that were eventually written focused on the efforts to arrest the men involved in Jamal Al-Saudi’s smuggling ring, not what happened to the boat that went missing. In fact, the articles repeated the assumption that the boat had sunk — without any evidence — even after family members contacted the publications asking them to substantiate the claim.
The disparity between MH370 and the Ghost Boat hurt Yafet.
“All the world, all the countries, were trying to find what happened,” he told me back when we started. “But, in our case, nothing… because we are black? I don’t know why. It’s really hard.”
Since our investigation hit more complicated, slower territory, I have been asking myself different versions of Yafet’s question.
Why does the world care about 239 people who disappeared on an airplane so much more than it cares about 243 other people who disappeared on a refugee boat? Why has the responsibility for finding out what happened to the Ghost Boat refugees fallen to a small team of journalists soliciting public help? Whose responsibility should it have been to carry out this investigation? Maybe the two cases are only equivalent in theory.
“This is exactly the same kind of a mystery,” said Christine Negroni, an investigative journalist who is writing a book about MH370, when we spoke recently. “But the fact is that there is an interest in anything having to do with airplanes, and the people who fly in them.”
That’s not just because there are lots of aviation hobbyists. The people who fly in airplanes are affluent — rich enough to afford a plane ticket, at least — and have the legal status to board flights and cross international borders. They are not running, desperate for their lives because of oppression, war, or violence. They fly because they are professionals or vacationers, they are people who have purchasing power, they are the target audiences of advertisers on media outlets. They are our policymakers, the people who guide the contours of our media conversations. And if you live in the West, or any industrial nation, they are you.
All of this makes it so much easier to picture yourself going to the airport and boarding a passenger plane that disappears than it does to imagine yourself clambering onto a cramped boat to be smuggled across the sea.
“That separates them from the Yafets of the world, from the people who don’t have assets, who don’t have power, who are living in desperate straits in oppressive regimes,” Negroni said. “The fact of the matter is… lives don’t matter equally in the way they resonate.”
Empathy often requires remarkable moments that break through the clamor of our daily lives — something like the image of the lifeless body of three-year-old Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi washed ashore on a Turkish beach. It broke through the mental barriers around the refugee crisis by presenting the world with something anyone can comprehend. Everyone can all relate to the idea of childhood. To see such a startlingly stark image of a life cut short raises questions we can all understand, wherever we are.
But Alan Kurdi was the exception. What is it, in general, about the images we have of refugees and their lives that make their experiences feel so distant from our own? I’m not sure I have a complete answer.
The disparity has been noticed by lot of others, though, and some are trying to push back against the lack of empathy in the media. The 19 Million Project — which takes its name from the number of people who have become refugees in recent years — was specifically formed to help spark better, more human coverage of the crisis. The Huffington Post’s A Thousand Miles in Their Shoes and Al Jazeera’s Life on Hold are innovative approaches that attempt to push past the expected two dimensional images that hold audiences at an arms’ length.
Displaced, from the New York Times, took that multi-dimensionality even further with an immersive virtual reality presentation that literally puts the public in the shoes of children who lost their homes due to conflict.
At the same time, the increased attention being paid to the journeys of refugees entering Europe — and, by proxy, to the conflicts they are fleeing — has also led to some prominent social media campaigns. In the UK, the hashtag #refugeeswelcome was picked up by celebrities, politicians, and thousands of others. It aimed to put pressure on David Cameron to allow a larger number of refugees to enter the UK as more and more people crossed Europe’s borders seeking asylum.
But should public attention really make a difference about whether a search for missing people takes place? Shouldn’t there be legal responsibility and institutional backing for searches in cases like the Ghost Boat that isn’t dependent on media coverage?
For a search and recovery effort to take place, there has to be both the political will and the resources, according to Steve Saint Amour, a deep-water search and recovery expert. Saint Amour is the managing director of Eclipse Group, which describes itself as a “marine operations service provider.” It’s the kind of company that gets contracted to search for missing airplanes and boats in the sea.
Usually, he told me, such efforts are initiated by national governments which have an interest in figuring out what happened. Sometimes, they are funded by wealthy individuals with an interest in the outcome. Saint Amour mentioned the example of a small private airplane that crashed recently in the Caribbean. The relatives of the two passengers on board had the resources to fund a search effort, and it eventually led the the recovery of the wreckage and the bodies of those on board.
Most of the time, though, search and recovery efforts take place for larger incidents because it is not just about providing closure for the families of the missing. Finding a missing plane or ship and getting to the bottom of what caused its disappearance yields information about what went wrong that can be incorporated into improved safety standards and best practices.
In the case of MH370, a total of 26 countries — including Malaysia, Australia, China, the United States, and the United Kingdom — have contributed resources to the search. Each of them had some national interest in contributing: either citizens on board, or their national territory intersected with the search area.
As of March this year, the effort was projected to cost around $100 million — the largest and most expensive search and recovery effort in history — and it has yet to turn up a definitive answer to what happened. So far, the only solid discovery has been a segment of wing recovered in July, after 10 months of combing the ocean.
At first glance, these logistics are intimidating and disheartening. If such a large effort, backed by so many countries with such an intense investment could go on for so long without turning up an answer, how on earth could our small team hope to be successful?
Thankfully there are several factors that should make any attempt to look for the Ghost Boat easier. The initial search area for MH370 was 1.8 million square miles, roughly twice the size of the entire Mediterranean Sea. And the area where the plane is thought to have disappeared is remote and not frequently trafficked — it isn’t really on anyone’s regular route.
The MH370 search has also been affected by dysfunction and special interests. Search and recovery is an industry, not altruism, Negroni told me. A lot of people are making money off of the search and benefit from doing it a more costly way as opposed to the way that might yield the best result.
In the case of the Ghost Boat, if it did disappear — that is, if the passengers did indeed make it to the coast — it happened in a much smaller, highly-trafficked area of water, close to the coast lines of four countries. The region was covered by Italy’s search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum. The Libyan Coast Guard also still patrols the waters close to the Libyan shore. This means that if the boat sank, an answer should be possible. Even taking the largest possible region into consideration, the search area for the Ghost Boat is probably less than 20,000 square miles.
Even if scale is on our side, however, there are other problems with finding answers.
Cost is a significant hurdle. Even smaller search and recovery efforts are expensive: Deploying a single fishing boat, crew, and equipment to conduct an ocean search can easily cost $10,000 a day or more — and a search across even a small area can take weeks or even months. And that means cases are often overlooked because it’s just too prohibitive.
“Everybody wants to investigate, but nobody wants to pay,” Saint Amour told me.
As a team of journalists, we do not have the resources — in terms of radar records, satellite imagery, or money — that a national government has access to, let alone the pooled of 26 different countries. And that’s before you realize that no government has an interest in conducting the search we’re undertaking.
“In the case of the Ghost Boat, you only have stateless people,” said Saint Amour. “Which country has a national interest to find out what happened?”
The majority of the people we are searching for were fleeing Eritrea, a state that pressgangs its population into indefinite military service — what the United Nations classifies as forced labor. The Eritrean government does not show concern for the well-being of citizens inside of its borders, let alone those who escape. Libya, the last country where the Ghost Boat passengers were known to be, is consumed by a chaotic civil war that has fragmented the country and rendered state institutions all but dysfunctional.
And Italian investigators who knew about the case shortly after the people disappeared said that without partners in Libya, they had no way of verifying whether the boat actually existed or whether it reached an area under the jurisdiction of Mare Nostrum. They had little information to even begin an investigation, and no political incentive do so.
So that’s why it has been left to us — including you, the readers — to try to figure out what happened. Because no government wants to take responsibility, because nobody has the money, because only now is media coverage picking up and are people making an effort to tell refugee stories in ways that are relatable to audiences who fly in planes — as opposed to cram themselves into rickety, overpacked boats in a desperate attempt to reach safety and opportunity.
I don’t know the answer to Yafet’s question about why the world didn’t care about the plight of his wife and daughter when they first disappeared the same way it cares about other tragedies.
I think race has something to do with it, and it’s related to the divide between parts of the world where these kinds of stories are expected — and therefore treated as normal — versus areas where they are not. I also think the Ghost Boat falls outside of the narratives that automatically catch the attention of Western audiences: airplanes, Islamic terror, innocent holidaymakers, natural disasters. Despite all that, though, there are still people who care, and we are moving closer to an answer to the mystery.
We have made a lot of progress in the investigation since it began in October, and some time ago we narrowed down the possibilities of what happened to two theories.
First, did something happen to the Ghost Boat passengers in the early hours of June 28, 2014, after they left the farm where they were being held? Whatever happened would have taken place outside of Tripoli, and prevented them from reaching the coast and contacting their families for almost a year and a half. Were they kidnapped to be used as forced labor or by a radical Islamist group? Were they sold into slavery? Have they been held incommunicado for more than a year in a detention center?
Alternatively, did the passengers reach the coast, leave on the boat, and then sink? In this case, all 243 people drowned. There was no satellite phone call to initiate a rescue attempt. Any bodies or wreckage that washed ashore were never recorded or connected to a large shipwreck. So where is the evidence?
As we have gotten deeper in the investigation, our reporting has slowed down. The interview with Measho — one of the few people who might have more information that could help direct the search — is still on hold for at least another week.
Meanwhile, it is difficult to organize reporting on the ground in Libya, where most of the answers to our remaining questions lie — if they exist at all. We are making progress, but because of the situation in the country, it is not going to move at the pace we set at the beginning of the investigation.
For almost two months, we produced an article every week on the search. Now, it has become clear that we are going to have to take a step back from publishing while we put together the reporting that will hopefully lead us — and Yafet and the other family members of the missing — to an answer.
So we are going to hold off on putting out new episodes until the whole picture becomes clearer.
But the search continues, and we’ll be continuing to investigate, share more evidence and discuss the case as our work moves forward even while we’re holding off fresh episodes.
You can help us find the truth.
We don’t just want you to read this story. We want you to be part of it. Our investigation is happening live, in the open, and you can join in. Right now we are putting together a search of satellite images from the region and preparing to interview one of the smugglers.