“I spoke to the migrants, I alerted the authorities. People were on that boat waving babies in the air when the naval vessel passed, and yet they still died of hunger and thirst,” said Father Moses Zerai, an Eritrean priest based in Rome. He received a panicked phone call from the boat, which had left Tropoli for Lampedusa carrying 72 sub-Saharan Africans on 25 March but had run out of fuel.
On Tuesday Zerai, along with three of only nine survivors of the boat trip, were interviewed in Rome by the Dutch senator Tineke Strik, who is heading a Council of Europe inquiry into claims that a military helicopter dropped water to the migrants but then vanished and that a naval vessel simply ignored them.
“What I have heard today is horrific,” said Strik, who is planning interviews with officials from Nato and the Maltese government, which the Italian coastguard says was alerted to the boat’s plight. “I still see the people dying before me when I sleep,” said Abu Kurke, 23, an Ethiopian survivor who met Strik. “The helicopter gave us water but did not save us – are we not human beings?” Kurke had spent 12 months in a Libyan jail before attempting the dangerous sea crossing.
Zearai, founder of a group assisting migrants in Italy, said he had received about 50 desperate calls from migrants on board sinking or drifting vessels this year thanks to the broadcast of his number on African radio programmes. The UN says that of 28,000 sub-Saharan Africans who have boarded rickety vessels in 2011 to flee persecution and bombs in Libya, 1,500 have never been seen again, either drowning as their overcrowded vessels sank or dying from hunger and dehydration.
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