Updated at 6:50 p.m. ET on 2019-05-28
Belal Ahmed appeared dazed, his eyes bloodshot, as he talked about the haunting cries: His three nephews were gasping for breath, crying for help while flailing to stay afloat during a boat disaster amid big waves in the Mediterranean Sea.
Belal, a 31-year-old Bangladeshi stone trader, said his relatives drowned one after the other, but he could not rescue them. They were in pitch-black darkness and he was trying to save his own life.
“My nephews were screaming for help. After sometime, they were silent,” he said. “They were yards away from me. But I could not save them.”
He said he survived by clinging onto a rubber boat after it suddenly lost air pressure and started to take on water on May 10, when he, his nephews and other migrants were attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. As many as 70 people drowned and at least 16 others, including Bangladeshis and Moroccans, were rescued, U.N. migration officials said.
The toll was the largest number of migrants killed since a Jan. 19 sinking in which 117 migrants were reported missing and presumed dead, according to an International Organization of Migration (IOM) official.
On Tuesday, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called upon her countrymen not to go abroad while risking their lives.
“I personally think, there is no need to go abroad illegally. But many people go abroad to search for a better future without knowing their destinations and the nature of the jobs,” Hasina told a Bangladeshi community reception during a visit to Japan.
“Many people are going abroad by selling their houses and properties at the allurement of the brokers by risking their lives without having proper knowledge whether they will get the jobs or salary for it,” she said.
As many as 19,830 migrants had entered Europe by sea as of May 22, IOM said in a statement Friday. It was not immediately clear how many Bangladeshis were included on that list of migrants this year.
Last year, Bangladesh became the country with the biggest number of migrants on boats seeking a new route to a better life in Europe, IOM officials said.
Between 2012 and 2016, about 33,000 Bangladeshis had entered Europe illegally via six routes by sea, land and air, according to Mohammad Jalal Uddin Sikder, a researcher with the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit, a Dhaka-based NGO.
Citing information from Italian officials, he said more than 4,600 undocumented Bangladeshi migrants had been registered in Italy between January and April 2017.
“Those who are opting for such a perilous journey are rich. We have to find out why they are leaving country in this way,” Sikder told BenarNews.
Journey through several countries
Belal, the survivor of the disaster, narrated his horrific account when he spoke to BenarNews at the airport in Dhaka, after being repatriated to Bangladesh on Friday.
He said the boat tragedy came about when he and his three nephews – Abdul Aziz, a sanitary mechanic; and two undergraduate students, Liton Ahmed and Ahmed Hossain – on their own volition sought a better life by attempting the perilous journey to Europe.
Belal, a resident of northeastern Sylhet district, said a Bangladeshi travel agency lured them into the trip with a false pretense of enjoying a relatively “secure life” in Italy, where they were hoping to get jobs as semi-skilled laborers.
Belal was traumatized by his experience, Mafiz Uddin, another nephew, told BenarNews by phone days after the interview.
“After coming back, Belal cried for days,” he said.
Another survivor, 30-year-old Mahfuz Ahmed, not related to Belal, plugged the missing details about the human smugglers. He said he boarded a Dhaka flight that took him to North Africa, via Kolkata, New Delhi, Sri Lanka and Mumbai.
“From Mumbai, we were taken to Qatar and then Tunisia by air,” he said.
His harrowing experience began in Misrata city in northwestern Libya, where he said he was taken by boat from Tunisia with 82 other Bangladeshis.
“In Misrata, they started beating us up,” he said.
Mahfuz, a technician in Bangladesh, said that while in one such building, their handlers gave them 12 kilos (26.4 pounds) of rice and half a kilogram (about a pound) of lentils. That food had to be shared by 82 people for two consecutive days.
“On the third day, we were not given any food or water,” he said. “We called our family members back home and urged them to pay an additional 500,000 taka (U.S. $6,000) for each of us.”
On the third day, they were taken to the Libyan capital.
“We were confined to a room in Tripoli. They started torturing us again,” Mahfuz, said.
After the uprising that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, countless armed factions waged bloody battles for territory in Libya, allowing smugglers to work unchecked along the coast, according to rights groups. The human smugglers often coordinate with inland gangs to detain migrants in squalid buildings.
“We again called our family members and suggested paying them 300,000 taka (U.S. $3,560),” he said. Despite the additional payments, they were required to stay for another month, Mahfuz said.
Turned over to Libyan traffickers
On May 7, their “handlers” took them by land to a remote Libyan neighborhood, where they met 50 Arab and Libyan nationals, 10 Egyptians and two African migrants being detained by three human smugglers.
On the same day, all of the 144 migrants, including the 82 Bangladeshis, were turned over to Libyan traffickers, who herded them to a room and showed them how to operate a compass and taught them survival techniques in the open sea.
“In the three days, were not given any food and water,” Mahfuz said.
“At around 3 a.m. on May 9, they started beating us with sticks and sharp weapons,” he said, without elaborating.
They walked for hours until they reached the shoreline at 7 a.m., he said.
The migrants then boarded a fishing trawler. Two rubber boats were tied with it and it sailed for around 14 hours, Mahfuz said. At about 9:30 p.m., he said, the traffickers told the migrants that they were near the Italian coastline.
They were then asked to jump onto the two inflatable rubber boats that were supposed to serve as their pathway out of poverty. The first boat led the journey with 50 to 55 people on board, Mahfuz said.
“Then they told us to get on board the second boat which could at best accommodate 30 to 35 people,” he said. “As many of us refused to jump, they started beating us up. Finding no alternatives, all of us got on board the boat.”
The fishing trawler left them on board a rubber dinghy that carried more than double its capacity. In less than five minutes, the boat began taking water and they could hear the cries of people drowning, he said.
“Many of us might have survived if we were given food regularly. But we were all exhausted and weak,” he said.
Mahfuz said he held on tightly to the deflated boat with 14 other Bangladeshis, including Belal.
“We floated in the sea overnight,” he said.
At the break of dawn on May 10, the survivors saw a Tunisian fishing trawler.
“We started screaming for help,” Mahfuz said. One of the Bangladeshis died after he was rescued by the Tunisian trawler, he said.
“We were so weak that we could not talk. We would not survive if the ship was delayed for 10 to 15 minutes,” he said, adding that the fishermen then handed them to the Tunisian coast guard.
At least 54 Bangladeshis were on the boat that capsized and only 15 of his countrymen were rescued, he said.
Embassy official: Dozens more with Libyan smugglers
Last July, in a bid to make it harder for smugglers to transport migrants to Europe, the European Union adopted limits on the export of inflatable boats and outboard motors to Libya. Foreign ministers of the 28 EU states made the decision to help violence-torn Libya stem the flow of migrants to Italy, reports said.
In the first four months of this year, one person has died in the central Mediterranean for every three that have reached European shores after departing from Libya, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
“Across the region, we need to strengthen the capacity of search and rescue operations,” said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR's special envoy for the Mediterranean. “If we don’t act now, we’re almost certain to see more tragic events in the coming weeks and months.”
Meanwhile, A.S.M. Ashraful Islam, the labor counsellor at Bangladesh’s embassy in Tripoli, told BenarNews he was informed that more than 100 Bangladeshis were with human smugglers in several areas in Libya.
“At this moment, this is impossible for us to rescue the Bangladeshis held by the traffickers,” he said.
“We cannot go five kilometers beyond our embassy in Tripoli. But most of the camps of the traffickers are located at least 500 kilometers off Tripoli,” he said.
“The ongoing civil war makes Libya into a lawless country,” he said. “We, the embassy officials, cannot go out.”