This Is The Man Responsible for the Ghost Boat
Plus: Refugee stories and a request to get mapping.
This Just In
Martino Galliolo has been looking into the life of Jamal Al Saudi, the leader of the smuggling ring that was behind the Ghost Boat journey. Through the evidence contained in the documents from Operation Tokhla—the Italian investigation into the smuggling ring—and his own work on the ground in Italy, he managed to find out more about him.
His article, which he published recently in Italian to share with locals, has now been translated into English. In it, Martino goes over some of the information we’ve already confirmed through the course of this investigation. But it adds some new information—and a dark, grainy photograph of Al Saudi himself.
It’s an epic piece of work to cover all this ground. And it makes clear the complications of Libya. As Martino says:
The sense that I got of the whole story is that Jamal “the Saudi” and his gang organised the route from Sudan to Libya, but that they had to rely on the fleets of Libyan smugglers to get the refugees across the sea. And the farm too, must have been given to Jamal by somebody else.
The “Tunisian pilot” that Jamal mentions on the wiretaps and that other “group of people” to whom the refugees had been handed over, according to the Eritrean engineer, are details that struck me and which made me think. If Jamal had not made an agreement with Libyan smugglers, they would have never allowed him to run his trafficking business so smoothly. They are gangs of criminals without a qualm and they have their own little armies.
At the core of the Ghost Boat mystery there is really a story about love. Not just the kind that families — both narrow and vastly extended — have for each other, but more particularly the story of Yafet and Segen, who fought many obstacles to be together only to be pulled apart again.
Rod Nordland’s new book follows a similar direction, and it’s not shy in telling you about it, either. The Lovers (see?) takes on the story of an Afghan couple, Zakia and Ali: a star-crossed Shakespearean-proportioned romance (literally: it’s subtitled “Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet.”) Unlike Yafet and Segen, they have not fled the country they grew up in. But like them, they have had to fight to be together in a land where countless people are running for the exit.
Fortunately for us, Nordland, who’s a correspondent for the New York Times, has published a piece about the book on Medium so that you can go and read it. Anyone who was moved by the story we’re telling may find something in his words, too. We urge you to tell Rod what you think, and ask him what you want to know about Zakia and Ali.
For a long time I was frustrated at the unwillingness of Zakia and Ali to try to flee themselves, as so many of their countrymen did. But the asylum system did not make any sense to them. Having found love and one another, they felt they had something too precious to squander on the migrant trail. They know they remain at risk if they stay, but rightly or wrongly, they have figured that risk to be less than what they face if they leave.
What is harder to understand is how the massive attention to their case did not spur some Western embassy to act on their behalf. There have been cases where asylum has been granted to people still in their own country, though most Western embassies do not admit it or talk about it very openly. In the onslaught of reader mail that pursued me throughout reporting the couple’s story, many people wondered why an organization as powerful as the Times had not been able to get the couple out, or at least inspire someone to do so.
Things like that work better in movies than in real life. In real life, they would need a country to take them, and for that, a government would have to act. Even so, it’s a little mysterious to me why none of them did. A few years ago, there were many such cases where female victims of abuse easily found refuge abroad, without having to sail across the Mediterranean (and remember, nearly all of these refugees come from countries where few people ever learn to swim — which is especially true in landlocked Afghanistan).
Further Further Reading
It’s not just The Lovers that’s worth looking at: There has been a glut of deeply interesting stuff to read about refugees on Medium recently.
For example, the Red Cross/Red Crescent is sharing stories of the people who make the journey across the Mediterranean—and the people who work the route. We urge you to follow their Medium publication, but also take time to read these three short interviews.
We also had some questions about smartphones earlier in the investigation, so it’s worth pointing out this analysis piece by Billy Pilgrim on what the prevalence of smartphones could mean in context of the refugee crisis.
Since it’s Friday, it seems like a good time to ask for your help over the weekend.
Thanks to the work of readers like Devansh Mehta, Kirk Pettinga and David Phares—as well as many others who have more anonymously contributed to our crowdsourcing projects—we’ve built a couple of interesting databases of geographic information from the Ghost Boat region.
Now we need to build an accurate map of the Libyan sea at the time the boat would have set sail. If you have the ability to help out in the next 72 hours, we’d love to hear from you.
Basically: We need to take several pieces of data we already have, and combine them… map out the locations of offshore objects from the spreadsheet you helped compile, and then add the paths of nearby vessels during the time the Ghost Boat would have been at sea. (There’s a wider set of vessel data too, which might be worth looking at.) There is also a log of refugee incidents in the Mediterranean that we could include.
Once we have put all of these together, we can look for potential routes they might have tried to take, and layer on top some other information: body sightings in Libya, potential departure locations, Mediterranean currents data. All of this will help build as accurate a picture as possible of places to search for the Ghost Boat.
So, if you can find time to take part this weekend, please help.