21 October 2016
Migrants sit in a rubber dinghy during a rescue operation by SOS Mediterranee ship Aquarius off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa

Snakehead left shipwreck survivors to drown in the dark

Survivors of a migrant shipwreck in the southern Mediterranean were prevented from rescuing others by a knife-wielding human trafficker, leaving them to drown in the dark.

Muaz Mahmud, 25, from Oromia in Ethiopia, managed to escape the packed vessel as it was sinking and clambered onto a nearby boat but a smuggler prevented other survivors from helping others still in the water, ordering them to leave immediately, Reuters reports.

Up to 500 people are believed to have died in last week’s disaster when an overcrowded boat sank in the southern Mediterranean.

Just 41 people were eventually saved by a passing merchant ship and brought to Greece on April 16.

“I told him ‘don’t start motor please we have to save these people’. He took a knife. ‘I am going to kill you, we don’t stand here,’ and then I just cried,” Mahmud told reporters, speaking in broken English.

He had been with his wife and two-month-old baby, having paid US$1,800 each for the passage. They are feared drowned.

While the handful of survivors recounted their tales of horror, families of those still missing, many of whom were believed to be from Somalia, described how their relatives had hoped to reach Europe and escape poverty.

In Somalia’s bombed-out capital, the parents of Mohamed Farah, 25, are still awaiting word of his fate.

His family and friends had scraped together thousands of dollars to help him to make the perilous trip over land and sea to Europe. They have been told his picture was not among those of the survivors.

“Is he alive or dead? His mother has not eaten food for days,” said Ali Nur, his 23-year-old cousin and friend. “The agent [trafficker] is the criminal behind the disaster. He got rich from the Somalis drowning in the sea.”

The stories from the survivors and grieving relatives give a clear time frame for one of the worst such tragedies in recent years, showing not just the dangers of the journey but also the relative sophistication of the human trafficking ring.

More than 150,000 migrants reached Italy by boat last year, with some 25,000 arriving so far this year. About 800 are believed to have died trying to make the crossing since January.

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Migrants sit in a rubber dinghy during a rescue operation by Mediterranee ship Aquarius off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Photo: Reuters

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