Captain silent as hundreds dead on sea of heartbreak
One man was killed for standing on a dinghy without asking for permission
MOHAMAD Ali Malek (27), from Tunisia, said nothing as he sat on a bench behind bars in the courtroom.
His silence was fitting. The alleged captain of the migrant boat that sank at the weekend with the loss of up to 950 lives was appearing in a court room in Catania in Sicily.
But the courtroom wasn't quiet for long. As Italian investigators pieced together a picture of beatings and abuse that hundreds of Africans and Bangladeshis suffered before setting sail from Libya to Italy, only to drown late on Saturday in one of the worst migrant shipwrecks ever in the Mediterranean, words seemed hollow.
Among the testimonies prosecutors have gathered from 28 survivors are recollections of several people being beaten to death by people-traffickers in a Tripoli farmhouse as they waited to set sail. One man was killed when he stood up on a rubber dinghy without permission, the prosecutors said.
More than 700 people, most locked into the hold and lower deck of a 20-metre-long fishing boat, are believed to have drowned instantly when the overloaded vessel capsized after colliding with a Portuguese merchant ship coming to its aid some 70 nautical miles off the coast of Libya.
Were it born out of any sense of compassion, silence in the face of such horrors might be somehow apt.
The weekend's tragedy seemed to have pricked the conscience of the world. It even prompted an emergency meeting on Thursday of European leaders who vowed to crack down on the people-smugglers behind many of the treacherous sea voyages. It was not clear if a second alleged smuggler, Mahmud Bikhit from Syria, would attend the hearing.
Prosecutors in Catania are building a case against Malek, who they suspect sunk the boat by deliberately colliding it three times against the merchant ship.
The judge has confirmed the arrests of the captain and crew. However, Massimo Ferrante, a lawyer representing the Tunisian, said his client says he was just a passenger on the ship, not the captain.
Trafficking networks have flourished as hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing war or poverty in Africa and the Middle East are willing to take desperate measures to reach Europe.
The smugglers process their passengers not only from northern Africa into Italy, but also to other parts of Europe - serving as "tour operators" for clandestine migrants, according to Palermo prosecutor Francesco Lo Voi, who recently ordered the arrest of 24 suspected smugglers.
According to the testimony of the weekend shipwreck's survivors, the migrants who set sail from Libya had been held for a month in a farmhouse near Tripoli. The hopeful travellers came from several African countries, including Mali, Somalia, Eritrea, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan and Senegal. There were also many people from Bangladesh. For all, the farmhouse in Libya was just one stop along a much longer journey.
Several survivors told investigators that the farm was under the control of armed men in uniform. Before they were all transferred by truck to the shore, one survivor said he had witnessed money being handed over prior to departure to Libyan personnel described by the witness as "police".
Prosecutors say that the 1,000-1,200 people originally expected to leave on the fishing boat paid from between 1,000-1,500 Libyan dinars ($840-1,260) to up to $7,000 for the voyage to Italy.
When the group arrived at the shore, they were gradually transferred via rubber dinghies onto the bigger fishing boat - where a captain was guiding the operations using a Thuraya satellite phone, prosecutors said.
But the traffickers found it impossible to squeeze more than 800 into the boat, according to testimony given by one 16-year-old Somali survivor to international organisation Save the Children. Those who protested that they couldn't swim were silenced with threats. When one man stood up in the rubber dinghy without permission, he was killed and his body thrown overboard.
The majority of the other passengers would drown hours later when the fishing boat collided against the merchant ship. Survivors said the boat capsized after passengers all shifted to one side during the collisions.
Prosecutors said true number of people aboard the ship may never be known unless the wreck is recovered, but they say the survivors all point to way more than 750 people aboard.
For the 16-year-old boy from Somalia, whose name Save The Children declined to make public, the Mediterranean crossing came after a nine-month ordeal. According to the organisation's Sarah Tyler, the boy set out in the summer of 2014, crossing the desert into Sudan with money paid to traffickers by his parents, who hoped their son would end with an aunt in Norway.
He was held prisoner for nine months on the Libyan border while his parents came up with the money to pay for the next stage of the trip. Eventually, he was taken across the border into Libya in a truck and given the number of a contact to call in Tripoli.
Now, the boy is in a migrant holding centre outside Catania. Tyler says he still plans to go to Norway - using traffickers, if necessary.
The degree of desperation that compels people to dice with death and risk making the crossing is hard to fathom. One woman known as Abiento is aware that perhaps 1,000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean since Sunday, yet she is awaiting her turn to make the crossing.
"It scares me, but only God will decide," said the 21-year-old from Mali.
"There's no work here" she added. "Now I want to go to France."
Abiento spoke in the Libyan town of Zuwara, where smuggling migrants to Europe is big business. Almost everyone seems to play a role, whether as driver, shelter keeper, or provider of boats. The constant flow of desperate travellers from Africa and the Middle East keeps the town alive.
Abiento left her four siblings and her unemployed father in Mali six months ago to hunt for work in Libya. Having failed to find a job, she is determined to reach Europe and support her family - whatever the risk. "My mother died and my father doesn't work," she said. "I'm the oldest of my siblings, so I'm the one responsible for the family. That's why I left Mali."
Zuwara is the Libyan coastal town closest to Italy, hence its status as the hub for migrants. The traffickers say business depends on their customers arriving safely.
The smuggler who is arranging for Abiento's passage is in charge of a small stretch of the Mediterranean coast. He is currently expecting another 70 migrants to arrive from the capital, Tripoli, representing a fraction of those who wanted to go. But the trafficker refused to take the rest because his boats do not have enough space. "I won't send them if it's too dangerous and I know they won't make it," he said. "I have a reputation to keep - my migrants always make it."
The smuggler complained that his competitors "are just addicted to the money," adding: "These are the most lethal - they don't care how many die and send hundreds all the time."
He described himself as being "careful and mindful of the migrants," saying:
"We don't like to hear about them dying and we really try our best to make sure they arrive safely."
This year, the smuggler has sent two boatloads: the first carrying 73 people arrived safely in Italy last month; the other made landfall three days ago with 78 passengers on board. "My groups travel first class," added the smuggler, sitting in his home in Zuwara.
Every time a boat sinks, rival gangs of traffickers turn upon one other.
Since Sunday's disaster off the Italian island of Lampedusa, every group has blamed the next. Exactly where the doomed boat left from in Libya is still unclear.
"Why would anyone use you if they think you sent 800 to their death?" asked the smuggler. All vessels trying to reach Europe from western Libya either depart from Zuwara or pass by the town.
The smuggler will send Abiento on her way when the tides are right and space is available.
Until then, she must wait her turn in a safe house along with four other women and 12 men.
Another man - a Malian national who lives in Tripoli - organises the journeys of his compatriots.
He coordinates all of their travel and accommodation from the minute they leave Mali until they arrive in Europe.
"If they don't arrive safely, I won't pay the smuggler," he said by telephone from the capital. "We only send the money when our people confirm their arrival." Safe houses for migrants awaiting passage to Europe are found all over Zuwara. One lies along a dirt road turning off the main coastal highway.
It amounts to a small farm near the Mediterranean shore. Here, some migrants earn money to pay their smuggler by shearing the farm's sheep or caring for livestock.
(© The Daily Telegraph)