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Survivor Tells of Mediterranean Sea Disaster That May Have Killed 500 Migrants
Muaz Mahmud's wife and 2-month-old son barely had time to scream as the cold waters of the Mediterranean surged over their heads.
Minutes earlier, they had been forced by smugglers to abandon the boat they had chartered in Libya last week for a larger boat already packed with 300 migrants heading toward Italy.
As the bigger boat took on more passengers, it began to list, Mr. Mahmud said Thursday. When it capsized, hundreds of panicked people — many of whom could not swim — were thrown into the sea.
Mr. Mahmud and another survivor of last week's shipwreck recounted grim details of the sinking, in which 500 passengers may have died, making it the deadliest episode for asylum seekers trying to reach Europe since more than 800 drowned last April in a boat trying to reach Italy.
At a news conference in Athens, the men described how smugglers had promised to help them flee poverty and conflict in Africa for the safety of Europe, only to install them in floating death traps and abandon them when the journey became too dangerous.
The authorities in the region have not yet verified the disaster, and no national coast guards have located the sunken boat. But the latest tragedy, if confirmed, would bring the number of migrants who have died on the Mediterranean between North Africa and Europe this year to nearly 800, the International Organization for Migration said.
On Thursday, the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, said that a deal agreed to in February between the European Union and Turkey had helped reduce the number of migrants making the dangerous journey from Turkey across the Aegean Sea to Greece — until recently the preferred route for asylum seekers trying to reach Europe.
But smugglers have continued to ferry people across the Mediterranean from North Africa, he said, and more must be done to stop them.
Mr. Mahmud, a 25-year-old from Ethiopia, said that he, his wife and their infant son had boarded a boat late last week in Tobruk, in eastern Libya, with around 200 other migrants, mostly from Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. They paid the smugglers $1,800 per passenger to take them to Italy, where they hoped to apply for asylum.
After sailing for about 15 hours, the smugglers told the passengers in Mr. Mahmud's boat that everyone would be moved to a larger ship that was waiting in the middle of the sea.
As their boat approached the new ship, the passengers grew nervous when they realized the other vessel was already packed with people. Mr. Mahmud said that when he and others tried to resist, the smugglers forced them to disembark.
As Mr. Mahmud and his family were being transferred to the other ship, he recalled, it began to capsize. Flung into the water, Mr. Mahmud said he saw his wife and child, who were out of his reach, drown along with hundreds of others who were traveling with them.
"My wife and baby, they were dead," he said. "They drank the water of the ocean when the boat went down."
Mr. Mahmud, one of the few people aboard who could swim, said he made his way toward a boat that still had about 30 people on board. Those onboard threw him a rope, saving him and about 10 other people who had also scrambled to get to safety, he said.
The survivors pleaded with the smuggler to help them rescue people who were still flailing in the sea.
"We said, 'Please, help us take them,'" Mr. Mahmud told the French radio station RFI on Wednesday. But the boat's pilot refused, brandishing a knife and threatening to kill him. The smuggler said that if they took on more people, their boat would sink, too. "He started the motor," Mr. Mahmud said. "He left all those people in the water."
According to Mr. Mahmud and Mowlid Ismad, 28, who also survived the wreck, the smuggler called for another boat to come retrieve him.
When the boat arrived, he abandoned the survivors and left them with a cellphone, which they later used to call the Italian coast guard.
The boat drifted until a cargo ship from the Philippines spotted it and took the survivors to Kalamata, a city on the Greek mainland. They were taken to Athens, where aid groups were helping them sort out their future.
[Source: By Liz Alderman, The New York Times, Europe, 21Apr16]
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|This document has been published on 25Apr16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.|