A fisherman who rescued 47 people after a migrant boat sank off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy, says coastguards stopped him saving more people. He claims rescue workers refused to take people from his full boat so he rescue more, because it was against their protocol. More than 300 people are thought to have died in the disaster
Migrants tell of perilous journey that ended in tragedy at sea
Survivors who were rescued off Lampedusa had escaped war-torn Eritrea through the Sahara and endured hardship in Libya before their boat was ravaged by fire
For the young Eritrean, the reason he is still alive is very simple. “I know how to swim,” he said. “My friends on the other hand had never been in the sea.”
The teenager, who gave his name as David Villa, was among the 155 migrants pulled out of the water alive off the Italian island of Lampedusa on Thursday after their vessel – with around 440 packed on board – caught fire and sank, taking hundreds to their deaths and making it among the worst tragedies on a route where around 6,000 migrants have perished in the last 20 years.
In the first accounts given to Italian newspapers, Villa, 18, and other survivors described their hellish journey from war-ravaged Eritrea through the Sahara and across the Mediterranean, and claimed a second ship was sailing alongside them to Italy.
“They had given us a bottle of five litres of water for every three people, there were terrible waves and we couldn’t move on the boat,” said Villa, as he huddled in nothing but his underpants and a heat-retaining blanket at the packed and fetid migrant centre on Lampedusa, the holiday island that sits just 70 miles from the African mainland.
When, after a two-day voyage from Libya, the boat came within view of Lampedusa, hearts on board lifted and trouble started, he recounted.
“We started burning shirts and T-shirts,” he told Corriere della Sera. “We waved them in the air, then the boat started to burn and there was an explosion. We knew there was another ship close to us which had left Misurata, which had almost always been next to ours. Many jumped in the water, but they didn’t find it.”
After locating just 111 bodies in the sea, authorities were forced by bad weather to call off their search on Saturday for more than 200 migrants – mainly Eritreans – who may still be packed like sardines into the hold of the vessel, now resting on its side at a depth of 40 metres.
On Saturday morning a fishing boat flotilla threw a single bouquet of yellow flowers into the sea at the site, after Italy held a national day of mourning for the disaster on Friday.
Lampedusa, a tiny speck in the Mediterranean, has long been a promised land for thousands of Africans fleeing war and poverty who aspire to new lives, usually in northern Europe. “The rules are you get asylum in the country you are identified in, and since many don’t want to stay in Italy, they refuse to be fingerprinted here,” said a UN official who declined to be named.
Villa, who was likely using the name of the Atlético Madrid footballer to conceal his identity, said his horrific sea voyage was just another chapter in a months-long odyssey that started in the spring of 2012, in a village near Keren in the Eritrean desert, where he was the oldest of eight children. Paying over his parents’ $3,000 in savings he boarded a truck heading across the Sahara to Libya.
“We couldn’t breathe, there were people crying and coughing,” he said. “By day, when we stopped, they tied us up, and I was convinced I would die, I wouldn’t make it.”
In Libya, Villa and a friend, Kijwa, who also made it to Lampedusa with him, worked for months as painters, sleeping in their employer’s shack alongside their tins of paint. “Beatings, many beatings,” said Kijwa. “The Libyans are bad,” he added. “Mafia, mafia,” Villa told La Stampa. “They treated me like a slave.”
The pair were lucky not to be locked up in one of the 22 detention centres set up in Libya and run by corrupt officials where inmates are beaten up, where they must pay up to $1,000 to be released and where the UN has limited access.
“We have a small office in Libya which is not recognised by the government,” said Federico Fossi, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “We are tolerated, not recognised,” he added.
Italian police are meanwhile holding a Tunisian man who has been identified by passengers as the ship’s navigator, who insisted on being called “the Doctor” and was part of a trafficking gang that made about €500,000 from the crossing.
After surviving the desert, Libya and the crossing, Villa and Kijwa were rubbing shoulders this weekend with Syrians who have fled the war in their own country. At the holding centre, which is fit for 250 people and where more than 1,000 are now sleeping, Syrian and Eritrean children were playing football and together sketching pictures of boats being tossed by waves.
“We like the same teams, Juventus, Real Madrid, Inter,” one child told La Stampa.
“The Syrians have been sailing from Egypt, but now embark in Libya too,” said Fossi. “They tend to be middle class and relatives are often at the port ready to pick them up and take them out of Italy.”
As for the hundreds of Africans whose journey ended for ever half a mile from Lampedusa, they are now lined up, nameless, in a hangar at the island’s airport, where a specialist team of medics formed in Italy after the Sri Lankan tsunami has been taking DNA samples in a bid to identify them.
Meanwhile, local people have long been finding photographs carried by the migrants washed up on the shore or left aboard wrecks – heartbreaking images showing them, or their families back home, dressed in their Sunday best or posing like rappers in front of backdrops featuring a Mercedes or Hollywood-style mansions, an image of the new world they hoped to reach.
“Lampedusa is the new Checkpoint Charlie between the northern and southern hemispheres,” said Italy’s interior minister, Angelino Alfano, after the disaster.
Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black minister, who has pushed for looser immigration laws, said migrant boats needed better monitoring at sea while asylum seekers from Africa’s warzones merited better treatment.
“Lawmakers need to imagine that it could have been them on the other side,” she told the Observer.
Having made it across alive, Villa said he was now heading for Switzerland. “I want to study, I want to become a nurse,” he said. And he had a message for his parents. “Mum and Dad, I want to tell you that there was wind, a huge wave and I fell in the sea. But don’t worry about me, I’m fine.”