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Survivors of Migrant Boat Disaster in Greece Share Harrowing Story

An overcrowded fishing boat carrying migrants.
The smugglers didn’t let anyone bring lifejackets, a survivor from the disaster said. Credit: Hellenic Coast Guard

The survivors of the migrant boat disaster off Greece last week have been sharing their harrowing stories as the search for hundreds of migrants missing continued Tuesday.

On Monday two more bodies were recovered by the Greek Coast Guard near where the boat sank, raising the death toll from 78 to 80.

As questions continue to be asked about whether or not more could have been done to prevent this tragedy, the Coast Guard has again defended its conduct, saying it acted according to maritime law.

Some Pakistanis who survived the sinking incriminate Greek coastguards for the incident, saying the ship was “deliberately sunk” and no rescue was provided.

“They have done this [on purpose]. They have sunk it themselves,” one of the survivors said, while the other added that they had been still for five days and six nights before the ship sunk “in a minute”.

“We did not sink for five days […] so why would we sink now?”

They recounted that the ship’s engine had broken down, leaving them becalmed for almost a week.

“We did not drown even though our engine had [completely] shut down. On the sixth night, around 2:30 am [… ] I checked the time; it was 2:15 am. Around 10 minutes later, this incident occurred,” one of them said, adding, “It [the boat] sunk because of the tow rope they threw into the boat.”

Deaths occurred before the migrant boat sank off Greece

A report in the Guardian newspaper says that the ship’s crew forced Pakistani nationals to remain below the deck, where the chances of survival were less.

“The testimonies suggest women and children were effectively ‘locked up’ in the hold, ostensibly to be ‘protected’ by men on the overcrowded vessel,” the Guardian report said.

The report mentioned that the Pakistanis were maltreated “when they appeared in search of freshwater or tried to escape” from the hold.

The report claimed that the situation on the vessel was so “bleak that even before it sank there had already been six deaths after it ran out of fresh water”.

The publication, quoting a Moroccan-Italian activist, said the people onboard the vessel cried out for help.

“I can testify that these people were asking to be saved by any authority,” she said.

Smugglers didn’t let anyone bring lifejackets

Ali Sheikhi, a Kurdish man from the war-scarred town of Kobani in northeast Syria, had hoped the vessel would take him to a better life in Europe, AFP reports. Then, he would eventually bring over his wife and three young sons.

He told Kurdish TV Rudaw that he and other relatives from Kobani, including a younger brother who died, had agreed to pay smugglers $4,000 each for the trip — a sum later raised to $4,500.

“We said ‘no problem,’ so long as the boat was big and in good shape,” he told Rudaw late Sunday, speaking by phone from a closed reception center near Athens where survivors have been moved. “They told us we should not bring any food or anything else because it is all available on the boat.”

The smugglers didn’t let anyone bring lifejackets, and threw whatever food the passengers had into the sea, he added, echoing accounts from other survivors.

Sheikhi said he and his companions were directed to the ship’s hold — a deathtrap where hundreds, including women and children, are believed to have drowned — but got onto the deck after paying extra money to the smugglers.

By the time the ship sank, they had been five days at sea. Water ran out after a day and a half, and some passengers resorted to drinking seawater.

Migrant boat Greece
Survivors of the boat disaster at the Malakasa migrant center. Credit: AMNA

Migrant boat sank off Greece “as a vessel tried to tow it”

Crucially, Sheikhi said the trawler went down after its engine broke down and another vessel tried to tow it.

“In the pulling, (our boat) sank,” he said. “We don’t know who it (the tow boat) belonged to.” Similar claims have been made by other survivors in accounts posted on social media, and other survivors were anonymously quoted in Syrian media Monday saying the ship was being towed.

“One side went up and the people fell from there into the sea,” Sheikhi told Rudaw. “The people started to scream” in the dark. “Every person tried to hold on to the other and pull him under so he stayed above water. I thought then no one will survive.”

Zohaib Shamraiz, a Pakistani man living in Barcelona, didn’t know if his 40-year-old uncle, Nadeem Muhamm, was alive.

“I spoke to him five minutes before he got on the boat. I told him not to go. I was afraid. He said he had no choice,” Shamraiz told The Associated Press.

In their last conversation, Muhamm described being herded onto the ship with others by smugglers carrying swords, Shamraiz said. “He told me there were too many people but if the (passengers) didn’t get on the ship, they would kill them.”

The survivors have been moved to a migrant center in Malakasa, north of Athens.

“I couldn’t help anyone,” one of them told Greek daily Kathimerini. “All I shouted (when we were sinking) was ‘take off your clothes’ because I knew that when you are in the sea that will help you. But I didn’t help anyone […] I still hear their voices in my head.”

A Syrian citizen who was on the deck of the iron fishing boat told a Greek newspaper that the problems with the boat’s engine started already on the second day of the voyage. “It took seven to eight hours to fix it so we could continue the journey,” he said, adding that supplies also ran out very quickly.

“From the second day the water ran out, the food ran out. The ship, because it was carrying too many people, was going left-right, left-right. From the beginning things were not normal. But we started to feel fear when the food and water ran out,” he says.

“On the third day (i.e. Monday), people started fainting from hunger and thirst,” adds one of his compatriots.

Migrant boat Greece
The overcrowded boat shortly before it sank. Credit: Hellenic Coast Guard

Conflicting accounts on migrant boat disaster in Greece

Nine Egyptian nationals have been charged with being the traffickers responsible for the tragic shipwreck and will be brought before a Greek examining magistrate on Tuesday.

According to the lawyer of one of the suspects, his client – who was the first to testify – denies all charges and claims that he is innocent, saying he had no part in nor gave assistance to the transfer of the migrants on the sunken fishing boat and that he is also one of the migrants.

In the statements they had given to the Greek authorities last week, the suspects had not mentioned an attempt to tow them by the Coast Guard.

However, appearing before the judge on Monday one of the suspects changed his account and described the events that led to the sinking as follows:

“The Greek ship tied a rope to the front of our ship and started pulling us slowly, but the rope broke. Then they tied another rope, twice tied this one. (…) The second time they tied it, at first we felt that we were being pulled, then our ship tilted. The Greek ship developed speed, and we shouted in English “STOP”, we all shouted, but they did not understand us.

“When they initially threw the rope, we were calm because we thought they were going to take us to Italy. The first tilt was to the left and then to the right and then our ship turned upside down.”

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