By Vivienne Walt
On their 10th day at sea, adrift without power, the men, women and children began to die in greater numbers. Jammed into a dinghy on the Mediterranean, the survivors prayed as they dropped the corpses of their friends, their children and their wives into the sea. They had drunk the last of their water; some were now drinking seawater and urine, eating rations of toothpaste until that too ran out, and hope evaporated under the blazing Mediterranean sun.
Thus the harrowing tales told by survivors of a harrowing voyage during last year's Libyan war, outlined in two new reports, one by the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights Leagues and the other by the Council of Europe, a 47-nation parliamentary organization based in Strasbourg, France. The meticulously researched documents, now part of a legal case filed in Paris last week, examines the circumstances in which 63 African migrants perished on a fairly crowded sea last April, after they fled the eight-month Libyan conflict during NATO's bombing campaign against Muammar Gaddafi's forces. The details of what went wrong — including how Western military forces were made aware of the refugees' plight, yet somehow ignored their pleas for help — casts a pall over a military campaign whose very purpose was saving civilian lives.
The death of the 63 Africans at sea has sparked a painful debate because they were not civilians caught in a cross fire or mistaken for combatants. "These deaths could have been avoided," says Tineke Strik, a Dutch Senator who heads the council's investigation into the incident. Of the 72 Africans who set sail from Tripoli on March 26 last year, only 11 were still alive when the boat finally drifted back to Libyan shore 15 days later; two more died shortly after. "There were so many opportunities to rescue these people," Strik tells TIME. "We cannot bring back the lives of these people, but we can do our utmost to avoid other people dying."
According to interviews with survivors, on a number of occasions NATO militaries appear to have ignored frantic calls for help from the boat, as it drifted off course and then ran out of fuel. One warship, which survivors said was French, came so close that the migrants — on the brink of starvation — could see sailors peering at them through binoculars and taking photos, according to survivors interviewed by Strik. Eleven NATO countries had naval vessels stationed in the area at that time, including a Spanish frigate, which came just a few miles within the migrants' boat. A military helicopter had circled above the boat on the migrants' first day at sea, and dropped water and biscuits to the Africans on deck. The two men aboard the aircraft gestured that they would be back to pick them up. But the helicopter, which survivors say had "Army" written on it (suggesting it might have been British or American), never returned. Hours later, the Africans placed a distress call to a priest at the Vatican, who then twice alerted the Italian military, providing the boat's GPS coordinates and saying that the group was in deep trouble. Italian officials have since said that they passed the details on to NATO. Alliance officials initially denied receiving the message, but later told Strik that one message had been received about the boat, but with little sense that the passengers' situation was urgent. When reporters in Brussels last week asked NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen about the incident, he said, "We have nothing to hide."
For her part, Strik says NATO officials have offered information only when confronted by evidence she obtained from individual countries. One problem, she says, is the confusion over who was responsible since some vessels were under the command of individual countries, rather than NATO. In any case, the report argues, international maritime law in theory obligates ships to come to the assistance of those in trouble at sea. From numerous interviews with military officials in coalition countries, Strik believes there was great confusion within the coalition, which had been hurriedly pieced together after the U.N. Security Council endorsed military action against Gaddafi's forces in March last year. In the rush to begin bombing, in order to stop Gaddafi from waging all-out slaughter on rebels in eastern Libya, coalition countries made few preparations for what to do about the thousands who might try to flee the country by sea once the bombs began dropping.
What occurred was deeply troubling. In total about 1,500 migrants drowned after trying to flee Libya last year, the deadliest year on the Mediterranean on record. When the migrants called Mussie Zerai, the Eritrean priest at the Vatican, on their second day at sea, they realized they could die if they were not soon rescued. "They were in a really bad situation," Zerai told TIME. "I called the Italian Coast Guard and told them the situation, and gave them the satellite phone number." Two days later, he called them again. "They said they had no idea what had happened. They'd located the boat 60 miles [100 km] from Tripoli, but after that had no contact."
In fact, the captain had dropped the satellite phone and compass into the sea, after the Western military helicopter hovered overhead and indicated that it would return; the captain feared being arrested at sea, if found with a satellite phone. With no food on board, it took just a few days for death to set in. "People started to die, from dehydration," Dana Heile Gebre, an Eritrean survivor now living in Milan, told investigators in a videotaped interview posted online. After several days a French-flagged vessel came within 30 ft. (10 m) from the boat, according to Gebre. "We were watching them. They were watching us. We showed them the dead bodies," he said. "They were taking pictures. Nothing else. They were taking pictures, a lot of pictures."
The lawsuit filed in Paris last week was brought by several European human-rights groups and was based on a second report, published last week by the University of London, which mapped the boat's movements over 15 days, through NATO's zone of operation. Filed against "X," rather than any specific defendant, the case alleges that a French military vessel apparently failed to come to the passengers' assistance. The French Ministry of Defense says while it was aware of a migrant boat, there was no indication it was in trouble, and a ministry spokesman said on a French radio program last week that the case was "totally unfounded."
Rasmussen told reporters last week that NATO vessels had rescued about 600 migrants on the Mediterranean last year during Libya's conflict. But while the deaths of 63 migrants are sadly not unusual, the case has offered a close-up look at the cracks in the system. The international law "left it unclear who was responsible for an SAR [search-and-rescue] zone when a country [Libya] was unable to fulfill its obligations," says Strik's report. "From this story, a catalogue of failures became apparent."