Hallucinations, thirst and desperation: How Senegalese migrants endured 36 days at sea

Senegal

The voyage from the struggling Senegalese fishing town of Fass Boye to Spain’s Canary Islands, a gateway to the European Union where they hoped to find work, was supposed to take a week.

But the wooden boat carrying 101 men and boys was getting blown further and further away from its destination.

No land was in sight. Yet four men believed — or hallucinated — they could swim to shore. They picked up empty water containers and wooden planks — anything to help them float. And one by one, they leapt.

Papa Dieye, 19, center right, talks to his father Badara Dieye as they look through photographs of his rescue on a cellphone, surrounded by other relatives, in Diogo, Senegal.
| Photo Credit:
AP

Dozens more would do the same before disappearing into the ocean. The migrants still in the boat watched as their brothers faded. Those who died onboard were tossed into the ocean until the survivors had no energy left and bodies began accumulating.

On day 36, a Spanish fishing vessel spotted them. It was Aug. 14 and they were 290 kilometers (180 miles) northeast of Cape Verde, the last cluster of islands in the eastern central Atlantic Ocean before the vast nothingness that separates West Africa from the Caribbean.

For 38 men and boys, it was salvation. For the other 63, it was too late.

Too often, migrants disappear without a trace, without witnesses, without memory.

As the number of people leaving Senegal for Spain this year surged to record levels, The Associated Press spoke to dozens of survivors, rescuers, aid workers and officials to understand what the men endured at sea, and why many are willing to risk their lives again. Theirs is a rare chronicle of the treacherous migration route from West Africa to Europe.

Senegalese fisherman Papa Dieye was struggling to survive on earnings of 20,000 CFA francs ($33) a month. “There are no fish left in the ocean,” he laments.

Years of overfishing by industrial vessels from Europe, China and Russia had wiped out Senegalese fishermen’s livelihoods — pushing them to desperate measures.

“We want to work to build houses for our mothers, little brothers and sisters,” he explains.

For the first few days, the voyage proceeded slowly but smoothly. On day five, the winds rebelled.

Papa Dieye, 19, prays in his father’s home in Diogo, Senegal.

Papa Dieye, 19, prays in his father’s home in Diogo, Senegal.
| Photo Credit:
AP

Tensions on board rose, explains Ngouda Boye, 30, another fisherman from Fass Boye. “When we could almost see Spain, the fuel ran out,” Dieye says. It was day 10.

Back in Fass Boye, relatives were beginning to grow anxious. The 1,500-kilometer voyage from Senegal to the Canaries normally takes a week. Ten days later, they had no news.

Migrant arrivals to the Canaries hit a record 35,000 people this year, more than double the previous year. For others, the migration journey has ended in tragedy. Entire boats have gone missing in the Atlantic, becoming what are known as “invisible shipwrecks.”

Spanish authorities routinely fly over a massive area of the Atlantic around the Canary Islands looking for lost migrants. But the vast distances, volatile weather conditions and relatively small boats mean they are easily missed.

The relatives of survivors and victims of the pirogue that was found adrift in the Atlantic Ocean on Aug. 14, gather on the beach in Fass Boye, Senegal, Monday, Aug. 28, 2023.

The relatives of survivors and victims of the pirogue that was found adrift in the Atlantic Ocean on Aug. 14, gather on the beach in Fass Boye, Senegal, Monday, Aug. 28, 2023.
| Photo Credit:
AP

Massive cargo ships passed the would-be migrants by almost every day, destabilizing their shaky wooden canoe-like boat, known as a pirogue. No one came to their rescue. Under international law, captains are required “to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost.” But the law is hard to enforce.

It didn’t take long for passengers to start pointing fingers at the captain, who was not a native of Fass Boye. “He did things like a sorcerer. He spoke gibberish,” Mr. Dieye recounts. Belief in witchcraft and the power of curses is strong across West Africa.

“They tied him up,” Mr. Dieye says. “He was the first to die.”

Into their third week, they ran out of water. There was nothing left but the ocean. Those who tried to quench their thirst with saltwater died. Those who took only tiny sips survived. The hunger tortured them as much as the thirst.

“Sometimes I sat at the ledge of the pirogue,” Bathie Gaye, a 31-year-old survivor from Diogo Sur Mer, Senegal, recalls, “so if I died, I wouldn’t have to tire the others — they could just push me over.”

Fernando Ncula, a 22-year-old from Guinea-Bissau, was one of only two foreigners on board. His friend succumbed to thirst and hunger around day 25, Ncula recalls.

When he opened his eyes the next morning, his friend’s body was gone. Others had thrown it in the ocean. He was the only outsider left, and became terrified he would be thrown overboard, too.

“Why are you not tired like the rest of us?” Mr. Ncula remembers being interrogated. They tied him up.

Unable to move, and without food or water, he fell in and out of consciousness for two days. Finally, an older man took pity on him and cut him loose. His savior later died, too.

Death seemed inevitable; waiting for it was unbearable. As they reached the one-month mark, people started to jump in a desperate attempt to swim to safety, or perhaps to put themselves out of misery. Thirty men and boys died that way, survivors say.

Two nights after the last men jumped, lights appeared in the sky. It was the Zillarri, a Belize-flagged, Spanish-owned tuna fishing support vessel.

“They were so skinny. I saw their eyes and teeth and only bones,” Abdou Aziz Niang, a Senegalese mechanic working on the ship, remembers. “How long have you been here?” he asked them.

It had been 36 days. Now these men — who were fleeing for Europe because industrial overfishing had made their livelihoods untenable — were being rescued by a European fishing vessel.

Finally, the ship received instructions: Take the rescued people to the closest port, Palmeira, on the island of Sal in Cape Verde, 290 kilometers (180 miles) away.

They were alive, yes. But at what cost? Relatives had invested in their journey to Europe, selling possessions to pay for their trip, hoping the young men would get jobs and send money back home. Instead, they would return with empty hands and terrible news.

Without jobs, the survivors are back where they started. They are still looking for ways out — even if that means gambling their lives again.

Among them is Boye. Boarding another boat could leave his wife a widow and his two children fatherless. But “when you have no work,” he says, “it’s better to leave and try your luck.”

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‘Banging sounds heard’ during Titanic tourist sub search, US media reports

Banging sounds were heard during the search for the Titan submersible on Tuesday, CNN reported, citing an internal government memo. Other acoustic feedback was heard and “will assist in vectoring surface assets and also indicating continued hope of survivors”, according to CNN.

News of the banging sounds was first reported by Rolling Stone.

An aircraft heard sounds at 30-minute intervals from the area where the sub went missing, according to internal e-mails sent to DHS, obtained by Rolling Stone.

Rescuers searched a vast swath of the North Atlantic for a third day on Tuesday, racing against time to find a missing tourist submersible that vanished while taking wealthy passengers on a voyage to the wreck of the Titanic in deep waters off Canada‘s coast.

The 21-foot-long Titan was built to stay underwater for 96 hours, according to its specifications giving the five people aboard until Thursday morning before air runs out.

One pilot and four passengers were inside the miniature sub early on Sunday when it lost communication with a parent ship on the surface about an hour and 45 minutes into its two-hour dive.

As Canadian and US authorities stepped up the search, previous questions about the safety design and development of the submersible by its owner, US-based OceanGate Expeditions, came to light.

The wreck of the Titanic, a British ocean liner that struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage in April 1912, lies about 1,450 kilometres (900 miles) east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and 644 kilometres (400 miles) south of St. John’s, Newfoundland.

US and Canadian aircraft have searched more than 7,600 square miles of open sea, an area larger than the state of Connecticut, US Coast Guard Captain Jamie Frederick told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday.

The Canadian military has dropped sonar buoys to listen for any sounds that might come from the Titan, and a commercial vessel with a remote-controlled deepwater submersible was also searching near the site, Frederick said.

Separately, a French research ship carrying its own deep-sea diving robot vessel was dispatched to the search area at the request of the US Navy and was expected to arrive Wednesday night local time, the Ifremer research institute said.

Those aboard the Titan for a tourist expedition that costs $250,000 per person included British billionaire Hamish Harding, 58, and Pakistani-born businessman Shahzada Dawood, 48, with his 19-year-old son Suleman, who are both British citizens.

French explorer Paul-Henri Nargeolet, 77, and Stockton Rush, founder and CEO of OceanGate Expeditions, were also reported to be on board. Authorities have not confirmed the identity of any passenger.

Rescuers face significant obstacles both in finding the Titan and in saving the people aboard, according to experts.

If the submersible experienced a mid-dive emergency, the pilot would likely have released weights to float back to the surface, according to Alistair Greig, a marine engineering professor at University College London. But absent communication, locating a van-sized submersible in the vast Atlantic could prove challenging, he said.

The submersible is sealed with bolts from the outside, preventing the occupants from escaping without assistance even if it surfaces.

If the Titan is on the ocean floor, a rescue effort would be even more challenging due to the extreme conditions more than 2 miles beneath the surface. The Titanic lies 12,500 feet (3,810 meters) underwater, where no sunlight penetrates. Only specialized equipment can reach such depths without being crushed by the massive water pressure.

“It’s really a bit like being an astronaut going into space,” said Tim Matlin, a Titanic expert. “I think if it’s on the seabed, there are so few submarines that are capable of going that deep. And so, therefore, I think it was going to be almost impossible to effect a sub-to-sub rescue.”

Safety issues raised before 

The ability of the tourist sub’s hull design to withstand such depths was questioned in a 2018 lawsuit filed by OceanGate’s former director of marine operations, David Lochridge, who said he was fired after he raised safety concerns about the vessel.

OceanGate said in its breach-of-contract suit against Lochridge, who is not an engineer, that he refused to accept the lead engineer’s assurances and accused him of improperly sharing confidential information. The two sides settled their court case in November 2018.

The company did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters and its attorney in the Lochridge case, Thomas Gilman, declined comment. An attorney for Lochridge declined comment except to say, “We pray for everyone’s safe return.”

Months prior to the suit, a group of submersible industry leaders wrote to OceanGate warning that the “experimental” approach” to the sub’s development could result in “minor to catastrophic” problems, the New York Times reported.

US President Joe Biden was “watching events closely,” White House national security adviser John Kirby said on Tuesday. Britain’s King Charles asked to be kept apprised of the search, a Buckingham Palace source said, as Dawood is a longtime supporter of the monarch’s charity, the Prince’s Trust International.

OceanGate said it was “mobilising all options,” and US Coast Guard Rear Admiral John Mauger told NBC News the company was helping to guide the search efforts.

“They know that site better than anybody else,” Mauger said. “We’re working very closely with them to prioritise our underwater search efforts and get equipment there.”

Billionaire aboard

OceanGate schedules five week-long “missions” to the Titanic each summer, according to its website.

David Pogue, a CBS reporter, rode aboard the Titan last year. In a December news report, he read aloud the waiver he had to sign, which noted the submersible had “not been approved or certified by any regulatory body” and could result in death.

In an interview on Tuesday, Pogue said OceanGate has successfully ventured to the wreck around two dozen times and that the company conducts a meticulous safety check before each dive.

“They treat this thing like a space launch,” he said.

Harding, a UAE-based businessman and adventurer who is chairman of Action Aviation, posted a message on Facebook on Saturday, saying: “This mission is likely to be the first and only manned mission to the Titanic in 2023.”

Fellow tourist Dawood is vice chairman of Engro, one of Pakistan’s largest conglomerates.

The sinking of the Titanic, which killed more than 1,500 people, has been immortalized in books and films, including the 1997 blockbuster movie “Titanic,” which renewed popular interest in the wreck.

(France 24 with Reuters and AFP)

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