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.
Now, rescue seemed imminent. Their captain, a very tall Ghanaian in his early 30s who had never told them his name, cut the engine. When they looked up at the soldiers in the helicopter, they saw they were carrying weapons and that one of them was taking pictures. Then he waved his hand as if to say: Help is on its way, so stay where you are. At least that was how the refugees interpreted the gesture. Then the helicopter turned and flew away, say the survivors. The refugees watched until the helicopter was only a dot on the horizon.
Some time later, the captain did something that an experienced skipper would never do. Elias, one of the survivors, is standing on shaky legs in the refugee camp as he recalls what happens. He holds onto the ropes of his tent, as if they were part of a boat's rigging. Then he says: "The captain threw his navigation equipment and his satellite phone overboard." Apparently he wanted to prevent the rescuers from arresting him and charging him with human trafficking, and to prevent border police from locking him up because he was illegally transporting Africans to Europe.
Elias was surprised, but he didn't stop the captain. He thought to himself: Technology won't help us anymore. What we need are people on ships to tow us into a harbor. They'll be here in one or two hours, Elias thought, coming from Malta or Lampedusa, the island that they saw as the promised land.
But the rescuers would never arrive. The ensuing drama was only one episode in a much bigger drama. The survivors' story is an account of immense suffering before the gates of Fortress Europe. It is a logbook of death.
Since ordinary people in the Arab world began rebelling against the powerful and fighting for their freedom, about 34,000 refugees have made it to Europe. According to United Nations figures, 14,000 refugees have already traveled from Libya to Italy or Malta. But no one wants them.
Within the space of just a few weeks, the exodus has changed Europe more than anyone would have believed was possible. Because the Italians simply gave the refugees temporary visas for the rest of Europe, the French temporarily closed their border. The Danes want to reintroduce border controls. EU leaders are now arguing over how to limit the freedom to travel, calling into question one of the fundamental tenets of a united Europe.
It isn't that European governments are so worried about the Arab refugees. What they do fear, however, is that if the refugees make it, hundreds of thousands of people from all over Africa could follow them. As it happens, the people on the nameless boat were from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Eritrea, Ghana and Sudan.
They risked the crossing even though they knew that the trip across the Mediterranean in boats that are often unsafe can be deadly. The UN estimates that some 1,200 refugees have been lost at sea since the end of March alone.
'I Had No Choice'
The three survivors that SPIEGEL spoke to -- Elias, Mohammed Ibrahim, 23, and Kabbadi Dadi, 19 -- had waited for their chance to leave Africa for years. Elias, the son of a cowherd, arrived in Tripoli four years ago, and the two others came in 2008. Elias says that they are members of the Oromo, a persecuted ethnic group in southern Ethiopia.
One of his eight brothers was killed in fighting against government militias, while another is in prison. Elias left home without a word of farewell. He worked as a car washer in the Sudanese capital Khartoum until he had saved enough money for the trip across the Sahara in overcrowded trucks.
Their chances were better than ever, they thought, in late March, when the West was bombing Tripoli. There were no more patrols on the beaches, as there had been in previous years, when Italy was paying Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi a lot of money to keep poor African migrants away from Europe's shores. Elias knew what the dangers were but, as he says: "I had no choice. It was either prison and torture in Ethiopia, or freedom in Europe."
As is so often the case among refugees fleeing from North Africa, someone knew a Sudanese who knew a Libyan, and he called them one night to tell them to come to the beach. It was March 25, at 3 a.m. The moon was clouded over, but they could see the lights of nearby Tripoli and hear the bombing.
Their Libyan contact wanted $800 (€570) from each of them, but no names or other personal information were exchanged. The open boat, a blue plastic fishing boat that was only 10 meters long and 3 meters wide, was bobbing up and down near the shore. There were 50 refugees. They rolled up their trousers and waded through the shallow water out to the boat. It was the first time Elias had ever been in a boat.
The Libyan had blue gasoline canisters brought on board, a water bottle for each passenger, cookies and dates. A few minutes before the boat set out to sea, 22 more Africans climbed on board, bringing the total to 72 people -- in a space of 20 square meters (215 square feet). "Anyone who thinks it's too full should get out now," said the Libyan, "but no one gets his money back." The boat, loaded with 50 men and 22 women and children, Christians and Muslims, the oldest 45 and the youngest only a year old, set out to sea. With visibility good and the sea calm, the vessel moved quickly through the water. It's a relatively short trip to Lampedusa, Europe's outpost, only 300 kilometers from Tripoli.
The passengers formed a sort of human chain, with each person sitting between the angled legs of the person in front of him. They were wearing several layers of warm clothing and the women had wrapped their heads in scarves. They knew that it would get cold at night. "The mood was good at first," says Elias. "We took pictures of each other with our mobile phones."
They should have seen land by the second day, March 26. The Ghanaian had said that they would reach Lampedusa in 18 hours, but now about 30 hours had already passed. They became anxious. When the helicopter approached the boat at about 10 a.m., the passengers waved, held up their empty canisters and shouted: "Help, help!" The helicopter lowered provisions to the boat and then banked and flew away.
They spent the next three hours waiting for a rescue ship, but when it failed to materialize they became increasingly desperate. They asked the captain for his satellite phone.
A man named Petrus, a Christian who prayed constantly, dialed a number in Italy and spoke with a priest he knew at the Vatican. "What should we do?" he shouted into the phone.
Fighting for an Investigation
Father Moisse Zerai, a priest from Eritrea, has been helping fellow Africans in distress at sea for more than a decade. He said that he would have someone call them back to determine the boat's location.
The padre is sitting in the refectory of the Collegio Etiopico, directly behind St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. It is mid-May.
Father Zerai says that he immediately notified the Italian coast guard on that Saturday in March, just as he always does when refugees are in distress at sea en route to Italy. Half an hour later, he says, he called NATO headquarters in Naples. He points out that his mobile phone log proves that he made the calls.
Zerai doesn't know what went wrong. But if what the survivors are reporting is true, he says, the helicopter crew could be found guilty of the crime of failure to render assistance in an emergency. He is fighting to have the case investigated, and he wants a trial. He says that he is willing to do anything to make it happen.
No Record of a Call
Vittorio Maggiore, a major in the Italian coast guard in Rome, confirms that Zerai did indeed call. The boat was then located, he says, about 60 nautical miles north of the Libyan coast, and his staff notified their counterparts in Malta.
The coastal nations have divided up the Mediterranean into search and rescue zones. The government of Malta is responsible for an enormous area stretching from the seas around Lampedusa far to the south and east. When someone is in distress within this zone, the Maltese are required to dispatch helicopters or ships to the scene.
The Maltese authorities say that there is nothing in their records about a call from Italy, and that they were unaware of the drama unfolding in the refugee boat. Besides, the boat was adrift in the vicinity of the dividing line between the Maltese and Libyan rescue zones. "We cannot determine conclusively whether the boat ever made it into our rescue zone," says Maltese Major Ivan Consiglio.
If the boat was still south of the Maltese zone, it would have been up to the Libyans to help, but there is a war going on in Libya. And for Gadhafi, refugees, dead or alive, have become weapons in this war against the West.
But where were the men in the helicopter from? Which country is at fault? Naturally, the helicopter crew would have been required to send help, no matter what the circumstances were. The word "navy" is painted on American naval helicopters, and not the word "army," which the refugees allegedly saw. British naval helicopters are identified by the words "Royal Navy," French helicopters by the word "marine" and Italian helicopters by "marina." So far, no government has admitted to knowing anything about the helicopter.
Driven to Drinking Seawater
The odyssey of the 72 refugees began after the helicopter had turned away and the captain had thrown his satellite phone into the sea. For the next two or three hours, they traveled in the direction in which the helicopter had disappeared. Then they ran out of fuel.
Now they were huddled on board a rudderless boat, at the mercy of the sea. When a boat is adrift, it automatically turns in such a way that the waves hit it from the side. Then it pivots wildly and keels over slightly. The current was now pushing the boat back toward Libya, and the men fought over the last can of Red Bull that Kabbadi had brought with him.
That evening, they squeezed out two tubes of toothpaste, mixed it with salt water, dipped their fingers in the paste and licked it off. Now they had used up the last of their provisions, including all of their drinking water. There was not as much as a single cookie left on board. At some point Petrus, the Christian, said: "Now everyone should pray to his god."
On the third day Marjam, one of the young women, complained that she was dying of thirst. The men urinated in plastic bottles and drank their own urine. But Marjam couldn't do it, not in front of the men, and so she scooped up seawater and gulped it down. But salt leaches water out of the cells in the body. Anyone who drinks nothing but pure saltwater ends up drying out from the inside. It is a horrible death.
Now the sea was no longer calm and harmless. Dark rain clouds approached, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped to 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) at night. Sometimes they saw lights in the distance, perhaps coastal villages but more likely fishing boats. They leaned over the side of the boat and paddled with their hands.
Series of Deaths
The first refugee died at dawn on the seventh day. His name was Ondassir, a gaunt boy with downy facial hair. Elias, one of the survivors, says: "He couldn't stand the fact that we were drifting away from the light. It drove him crazy." Apparently Ondassir jumped up suddenly and shouted that he was going to saddle up his donkey and buy water for the children, and that they shouldn't worry, because he would be back soon. Then he jumped overboard.
The men threw him the last life preserver, knowing that he couldn't swim. They heard his screams for a few minutes longer, and then it was quiet. Silently, they continued scooping water out of the boat, while the women wept.
Three women died that night: the girl who had drunk saltwater, a woman named Rachel, who had hardly said a word other than her name, and Jamila, a young mother from Eritrea. Her two-year-old son crawled around on her lifeless body and wailed, while the men tried to distract the boy with games and singing.
They waited two more days and, after checking to make sure that the women were in fact no longer breathing, they slid the bodies into the sea. There was no ritual and no group prayer. Each person said his own prayers silently. They lacked the strength to do more. Soon afterwards Yussuf, the child they had lifted up in the air when the helicopter came, died. Jamila's son died a few hours later.
Fighting to Stay Alive
The Ghanaian captain died on the 11th day. He was sitting slumped together when he fell asleep and didn't wake up again. Without saying a word, they threw the body into the water, to make the boat lighter and make room for the surviving passengers. On the same day, a man jumped into the water after his dead wife was thrown overboard.
By now five or six people were dying every day. It was normal, says Elias. Each of the refugees was fighting to stay alive, fending off thirst, the cold and apathy. The worst of it all, says Elias, was to experience the body no longer responding to the brain, and to be crawling around on all fours, vomiting and almost unconscious. With each day that passed, he felt as if he were becoming more disconnected from the world. What could possibly protect him from going mad? It was his prayers. He mumbled verses from the Koran like a mantra, and the verses kept him alive.
On the afternoon of the 12th day, they awoke from their delirium to see a ship about 300 meters away, possibly a NATO aircraft carrier. "It was a light color and long," says Elias, "and bigger than any ship I had ever seen before."
With the last of their strength, they waved the scarves and shawls of the dead women. They saw a few uniformed men on board, and something that looked like flashing cameras. They were convinced that their odyssey was finally over and they had been discovered. But the ship slowly sailed on until it vanished from sight. Eremias, an Eritrean, jumped wildly around the boat, screamed, ripped his clothing off, ran toward the edge and jumped. Then there was silence again.
Who Is to Blame?
An entire NATO fleet is traversing the waters off Libya. The same laws apply to both military and civilian ships: A captain must do everything in his power to rescue a boat in distress, unless it would require endangering himself. This is stipulated in the international SOLAS ("Safety of Life at Sea") convention, which was created after the sinking of the Titanic. Violations of the SOLAS convention are treated as criminal offences.
But who exactly violated it? Who is at fault for the drama on the high seas? NATO, which denies any culpability, has examined the logbooks of the ships under its command. These records are kept very meticulously on warships. According to a NATO spokesman, none of the logbooks contains any reference to the refugee boat.
The French ship Charles de Gaulle, however, was not sailing under NATO command during the entire time period in question. But the government in Paris says that its aircraft carrier was never less than 160 nautical miles from the Libyan coast. If this is true, it would have been far behind the horizon from the vantage point of the refugee boat.
The Mediterranean is crawling with fishing boats. Many catch squid using clay pots that are tied together and lowered to the sea floor. The fishermen are often at sea for long periods of time while they pull up the pots. Did the soldiers mistake the crowded boat for one of these fishing cutters?
Judith Sunderland, who is investigating the incident for the organization Human Rights Watch, says that perhaps the soldiers saw the refugees but simply did not recognize that the boat was in distress. Sunderland wants to see changes made to the regulations that apply to ships in the Mediterranean, so that from now on each of these overloaded refugee boats is treated as if it were in distress -- even if it is still afloat and the engine is still running.
Thrown in Jail
The wind was raging on April 9. There were still 10 men and one woman alive in the boat. In the morning hours, it ran aground on a rock, sprung a leak and capsized. The surf washed the survivors to the shore, all except the last surviving woman on the boat, whose name was Rahima, who drowned before she could feel the ground under her feet again.
The three survivors in the Shousha refugee camp can hardly remember what happened next, except that they were lying on the beach, face down. Then they heard voices speaking Arabic -- Libyan soldiers.
The current and the wind had driven the refugee boat on land near Zlitan, a Libyan coastal city between Misrata and Tripoli, 140 kilometers from the spot where they had set out to sea two weeks earlier.
"Shut up, sit down!" the soldiers shouted. They took away the refugees' mobile phones, destroyed the SIM cards and deleted the photos and videos of the voyage. Then they took them to a prison near Tripoli, where the men were crowded into a windowless cell, with just as little space as they had had in the boat. A man named Tariq died after two days, leaving only nine survivors. The saltwater had corroded the dark skin on Elias's arms and legs, leaving only red, light-colored skin that itched terribly. In his condition, he should have been hospitalized and put on a drip.
A fellow prisoner from Bangladesh lent him his mobile phone. Elias called a relative in Tripoli, who bought their freedom for $100 apiece and took them to the bishop of Tripoli. They were finally given medication and clothing, and nuns tended to their wounds.
As more and more bombs fell on Tripoli, the survivors separated. Three apparently ventured out into the Mediterranean again. They are either dead or in Lampedusa, says Elias. He fled across the border with Mohammed and Kabbadi, after the nuns had put them on a bus. They have been living in the Shousha camp for more than a week now, but the ground still feels unsteady beneath their feet. Elias weighs only 45 kilograms (99 pounds), and the days at sea have left him with deep lines in his face.
People from the UN refugee agency visit him every day. They come from the Hotel Odyssey in the resort town of Zarzis near Djerba and ask him questions. They want to know what he saw, and what exactly the ship and the helicopter looked like. They want to find out whether there is someone in the West who is to blame, someone who is partially responsible for the deaths of 63 people. Or is it possible that these 63 people died because no one felt that they were their responsibility?
'You Let Us Die Slowly'
"What's the point of all this?" Elias asks. "The truth wouldn't change anything. Europe doesn't want us. You don't kill us directly. Instead, you let us die slowly, unnoticed, on the open sea."
He sleeps next to Mohammed and Kabbadi at night, the three men crowded closely together the way they were on the boat. He says that he can't sleep for more than a few hours at a time, because of his bad dreams. When he wakes up moaning from a nightmare, he lies there and stares at the desert sky.