Did NATO Leave 62 Africans to Die at Sea Off Libya?

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Christphe Simon / AFP / Getty Images

People board an International Organization of Migration ship in Misratah, Libya, on May 4, 2011

Did NATO pilots allow 62 Africans fleeing Libya to perish on the high seas because their mission did not include saving desperate migrants or because NATO's tangled bureaucracy had failed? That's the allegation roiling Europe after some of the handful of survivors, who drifted for weeks after a harrowing escape from Tripoli, told of having been spotted and then ignored by Western forces.

The survivors, whose story was broken in Britain's Guardian newspaper on Sunday, told of a group of 72 Africans migrants — men, women and a few children, from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Nigeria — drifting on the Mediterranean for 16 days in late March and early April, as they watched their stocks of water and cookies steadily dwindle. Those supplies had been dropped onto their boat, they said, by a helicopter marked "ARMY," after its Ghanaian captain had phoned a refugee organization in Rome to send help. The organization quickly alerted Italian military authorities.

The helicopter pilot signaled to the passengers that a rescue vessel was on its way, the survivors said. It never arrived.

Days later, survivors say, two helicopters lifted off from a nearby warship — believed by Guardian reporters to have been France's Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier — and flew low over the refugee boat. The passengers held up the two babies onboard, to show the pilots the desperation of their plight. The pilots flew away.

Then, as the boat drifted, its fuel tanks empty, the passengers began to die of starvation, one by one, until just 10 were left alive. "Every morning we would wake up and find more bodies, which we would leave for 24 hours and then throw overboard," Abu Kurke, an Ethiopian survivor, told the Guardian. By the end, he said, "Everyone was either praying or dying." One survivor perished shortly after the boat finally docked back in Libya, in government-held Zlitan, near Misratah, on April 10.

Despite the gruesome conditions, those aboard the stricken boat clung desperately to their humanity. After their parents died, the two infants were kept alive by others who were near death themselves. "We saved one bottle from the helicopter for the two babies and kept feeding them even after their parents had passed," explained Kurke, who said he survived by eating two tubes of toothpaste and drinking his own urine. "But after two days, the babies passed too, because they were so small."

The tragedy of the 62 migrants who died at sea was just one incident in a mounting death toll of Africans fleeing Libya across the Mediterranean. U.N. refugee officials estimate that about 800 African migrants have drowned trying to flee the conflict. On Monday, a boat carrying 600 people capsized off the Libyan coast, and U.N. officials say that about 400 people were rescued. Two separate boats, each believed to have been carrying hundreds of people, have simply vanished at sea in recent months. And on April 6, about 250 people drowned when their boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa.

But the fate of the passengers of the 72 migrants on the boat from Tripoli was especially troubling because of the claim that they were spotted on two occasions by coalition aircraft. "There was an abdication of responsibility," says Moses Zerai, a Rome-based Eritrean priest called by the boat captain for help before his satellite telephone's battery went dead. "That crime cannot go unpunished just because the victims were African migrants and not tourists on a cruise liner."

Stung by the accusation of indifference, NATO and E.U. officials have been scrambling to distance themselves from any blame for the fate of the 62 dead migrants. NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero told reporters in Brussels on Monday that "NATO vessels are fully aware of their responsibilities with regard to international maritime law on safety of lives at sea." French officials originally said the Charles de Gaulle had not been in the area, and then said they could not comment when the Guardian produced documents proving that the warship had been in that location.

Even before the allegations over the migrants, European officials had been on a collision course with refugee organizations because of their efforts to stanch the flood of migrants fleeing Libya as well as neighboring Tunisia. Hundreds of Tunisians have been turned back from Europe in recent months, and France has threatened to reimpose its border controls with Italy, removed decades ago under the E.U.'s Schengen agreement allowing document-free travel across the Continent, in order to stop the influx.

Most desperate among those fleeing the turmoil in Libya are hundreds of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans. Shortly before the no-fly zone was imposed in mid-March, I ventured into Tripoli's St. Francis of Assisi Church, where hundreds of illegal African migrants converge every day seeking legal help for themselves and detained friends and to swap information about how to get to Europe. "We have tried to get to Europe many times, but we have failed," said Joseph Zewdu, a 21-year-old Ethiopian refugee. "I was at sea for eight days. Eight people drowned. Then Libyan people arrested us and took us to prison."

For years, Muammar Gaddafi had allowed his country to serve as a transit point for Africans heading to Europe. In 2004, Tripoli Airport still displayed a sign welcoming "African brothers" to Libya. But thousands who flew there found their way to Europe blocked, and migrants from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan and elsewhere have populated entire neighborhoods in Tripoli, working menial jobs in the Libyan capital while hoping to reach Europe. A typical Mediterranean crossing involves a smuggler's fee of between $2,000 and $3,000, which migrants spend years scraping together by washing windows, baking bread and cleaning streets around the capital.

When the war erupted in February, even that precarious life collapsed for many migrants. Libyan landlords evicted many African tenants, and most embassies closed, leaving them with no way home, according to Bishop Giovanni Martinelli, the Italian cleric who runs the Tripoli church. "Usually they can find some kind of work and somewhere to live," he told me in mid-March, looking over the Italianate church, whose pews were filled with Africans. "But now they have nothing." This week, I found myself wondering how many of the people I had seen in those church pews or sleeping under makeshift tents outside Tripoli Airport had been among the 62 people who drifted to their deaths last month.