Over 60 African refugees, including women and children, recently died trying to reach Europe when their boat ran adrift for two weeks in the Mediterranean. Western military personnel allegedly saw the boat and did nothing to help. Now the United Nations is investigating the case. SPIEGEL talked to survivors and reconstructed the course of events.
It was a brief moment of happiness on a voyage that would end in death for many on board. They held a child up in the air, cheered and hugged each other. They were so delirious that they almost caused the overcrowded boat to capsize.
A helicopter was circling above their heads, say three of the nine survivors of the dramatic voyage, as they sit in Shousha refugee camp on the Tunisia-Libyan border. They say that they were able to make out the word “army” on the fuselage. Two months since their failed attempt to flee Libya, they can still write the word on a piece of paper and make a detailed drawing of a helicopter.
They say that they are certain. “Why should we lie?” asks Elias Kadi, a gaunt 23-year-old Ethiopian who is fluent in Arabic and speaks English relatively well. “What good would it do us now? What happened happened and can no longer be made up for.”
Hope of Being Saved
According to the survivors’ account, the helicopter descended to a low altitude, circled about 10 to 15 meters (33 to 50 feet) above the boat and, using ropes, lowered water bottles with Italian labels and several packages of cookies to the refugees, who fished the items out of the water with their hands.
The refugees had left Libya from a point near Tripoli on a nameless fishing boat two days earlier, headed for Europe. Their destination was the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is about 290 kilometers (180 miles) off the coast of Libya. But then they became lost at sea.