“Refugees Were Turning Themselves Over to Smugglers”: Reporting From the Deadliest Migration Route in the World

He waved as the ship pulled away. 

That evening, there was seemingly an electrical fault; the crew was woken by alarms and the smell of burning. The ship returned to port again.

The next time we set sail was early on Christmas Day. On Thursday, December 26, we finally entered the Libyan search-and-rescue zone.

Dozens of miles away, the Libyans had packed two big boxes of croissants inside an eight-meter fiberglass boat. There were dates, Nescafe, and cigarettes, too—enough for four days. They were scared, “but that’s normal,” one man told me later. For some, it was their first time at sea. 

They searched for rescue ships on MarineTraffic, a phone application that allows anyone to see vessels at sea and their locations. With the Alan Kurdi, they were in luck; they saw we were coming. This was their chance. 

Khaled, a broad, baby-faced twenty-something from Tripoli, had been perusing Twitter. He scrolled through the pages of MSF Sea, Open Arms, and Sea-Eye before finding my feed. He saw the Christmas dinner the Alan Kurdi’s crew ate on December 24, the night before we set out, and a video I took of dolphins jumping. He knew what the ship looked like and was confident he could recognize the big spinning radar on its mast. As the Alan Kurdi moved south, they readied themselves. After dark, around 8:00 p.m., they set sail. 

Each person on board had paid 10,000 dinars, or around $2,000 on the black market rate, with no discount for babies and children. According to the passengers, around 150,000 dinars went towards the boat, and the rest towards the smuggler. Some of the thirty-two people crammed together were friends already—they had grown tired of Libya together, debating how to find salvation. Others met in the weeks prior to departure. They told me all this in interviews later.

One year before, Khaled had posted his laptop and Sony camera to France, where his mother and two siblings lived. He tried to cross the sea from Tunisia but was caught. When his father died that May, it increased the feeling of urgency: he needed to be reunited with what was left of his family. As they took to the water this time, he pictured their faces. 

The men took turns steering, sitting exposed at the top. Women stayed inside with the children. It was quiet, except for the occasional sounds of vomiting. In the still of night, they crossed twenty miles within five or six hours, making sure they were clear of Libyan waters before they called Alarm Phone. Tareq, an outgoing 27-year-old from Tripoli, did not even know the call had been made. He had his headphones in, convinced they would all die. 

The first time they called, the person on the other end said he could not guarantee any help, but he would phone back to check on them. The second time, he had better news: the Alan Kurdi was on its way. 

The Alan Kurdi’s crew went to sleep early on that first night in the search-and-rescue zone, with only a single person keeping watch. Then came the long blaring bursts, rousing everyone. Bleary-eyed, the crew and volunteers gathered in the mess. There was a refugee boat, we were instructed. We were sailing towards it. 

I climbed up to the monkey deck. Lights blinked in the distance, shining bright, then dimming: a sign of life. As the Alan Kurdi turned to aim for its target, still half a nautical mile away, the flashing became more regular. It looked like a small white powerboat with a red stripe on the side. And suddenly, noise broke through: cries, appeals for help, their voices. 

The Alan Kurdi’s crew were donning protective orange suits with helmets and lifejackets secured around their torsos and between their legs, should they fall in the water themselves. Lifeboats were deployed with a crane. A rescue operation is both fast and slow. Fast because everyone’s heart is pumping, but slow because it is important to do everything calmly. Panic costs lives.

I waited on deck until the first lifeboat came back. Inside were four children, a woman, and a man. Volunteers hoisted them up, child after child. Once on board, the father held his baby to his face, breathing in the smell, until he burst into tears. He hugged an older boy who came up next, started crying, and then began to vomit. The lifeboat returned again. “Thank you, thank you,” said a woman who stumbled on, wearing skinny jeans and a headscarf. “No problem,” replied one of the rescue crew. 

Younger men were the last to board. They bent their backs as they climbed the ladder and walked down small wooden steps, some with a measure of attempted swagger, others clearly exhausted or maybe resigned to the momentous change that was coming. I sat, observing them and taking some photos. A young man in an orange pullover crouched in front of me. He looked closely. “Are you Sally?” he asked. “I follow you on Twitter.” I would later learn this was Khaled.

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