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I thought I would be next – survivor of migrant sea disaster

ADFIFT on the Atlantic Ocean, the migrants from West Africa resorted to drinking seawater to quench their unbearable thirst. Then they started dying one by one.

Disposing of the bodies became a daily trial for those still alive on the brightly painted wooden fishing boat.

“I thought I would be next, that one morning, I too would be dead and in the sea,” said Birane Mbaye, one of 101 men and boys who set off from a fishing village on a wild stretch of Senegal’s coastline last July hoping to reach Europe.

They never made it. Back home in Fass Boye, a huddle of low-rise concrete buildings hemmed in by a patchwork of fields and the ocean, Mbaye recalled the five-week ordeal and explained why he would risk his life again for a chance to better provide for his young family.

A drone view shows rows of fishermen’s boats, known as pirogues, on the shore at Fass Boye, Senegal, February 1, 2024. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Mbaye (right) sits on a pirogue with other survivors on the beach in Fass Boye, Senegal, February 1, 2024. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Earning as little as 2,000 CFA franc ($3.28) per day as a fisherman for hire, Mbaye shares a sparsely furnished room with his wife and 1-year-old daughter in his parents’ half-built house. They sleep on a mattress on the floor and wash in water from a plastic kettle.

Entrenched poverty and tales of fortunes earned abroad drove Mbaye and a close friend, Omar Seck, to squeeze onto the boat bound for Spain’s Canary Islands, some 1,400 km (870 miles) from their village.

Record numbers attempted the perilous Atlantic crossing last year after other routes to Europe across the Sahara Desert and Mediterranean Sea became more heavily policed. Over 39,900 people reached the Canary Islands from West Africa, an all-time high, according to Spain’s interior ministry. Most were from Senegal or neighbouring Gambia.

But rickety boats, motor failures and bad weather are just a few of the dangers that too often lead to disaster. At least 6,007 people are believed to have died on this route in 2023, according to migrant rights group Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders). Others likely left and were lost without trace.

Mbaye looks on as he speaks about the boat journey in his room in Fass Boye, Senegal, March 20, 2024. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Mbaye points at a picture on his wall of his fishermen friends in Fass Boye, Senegal, March 19, 2024. Three are now in Spain, and one died trying to get there. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Mbaye wears a ring that belonged to another friend who died during their boat journey, in Fass Boye, Senegal, March 19, 2024. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Lost livelihoods

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Dozens of wooden fishing boats, known as pirogues, line Fass Boye’s sandy beach, a sign of fishing’s central role in the local economy. But like many coastal communities, the village about 100 km north of Senegal’s capital, Dakar, has seen hundreds of its residents leave in search of more opportunity.

Diminishing fish stocks and soaring living costs have made it hard to make ends meet, locals say. They blame overfishing by international trawlers and say their small boats can’t compete.

Mbaye carries his 1-year-old daughter Maguette past drying fish in Fass Boye, Senegal, March 20, 2024. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Mbaye, who is in his mid-thirties, started thinking of trying for Europe after the birth of his daughter, Maguette, in April last year. He worried about the family’s financial future after he spent all his savings on traditional festivities to mark her arrival.

He recalled his excitement on July 10 when he heard that a boat would be departing clandestinely that night.

A man holds a rope attached to a pirogue on the beach in Fass Boye, Senegal, February 1, 2024. REUTERS/Ngouda Dione

He and Seck hurried to buy rice, biscuits and fresh water for the trip. He was happy to be travelling with his friend. They had known each other since childhood, learned to fish together and were constantly in each other’s company, he said. The possibility of work as farm labourers in Spain had dominated their conversations for weeks.

Mbaye called his mother to ask her to pray for him. As a final step, he took what he described as a mystical bath in herb-scented water – a local tradition meant to ward off bad luck.

A vendor waits to buy fresh fish from fishermen in Fass Boye, Senegal,  March 20, 2024. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Fish are spread out to dry on a beach from which migrant boats leave to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, in Fass Boye, Senegal, March 19, 2024. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Laden with passengers and supplies, the open-topped pirogue slipped into the dark ocean at around 10 p.m. and started the journey north up the West African coast, Mbaye said. They expected to reach the Canary Islands within a week or so.

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The mood was festive for the first few days, despite the cramped conditions and lack of shelter from the scorching sun.

“We all thought that upon our arrival we would all find work in which we could flourish,” Mbaye said.

Then the wind picked up, and violent swells lashed the boat’s sides. Sometimes the pirogue appeared to be going nowhere, as if glued to the roiling water, he said.

One day, he isn’t sure how long into the trip, the outboard motor fell silent. They had run out of fuel.

Ndeye Mbaye, 52, mother of Birane Mbaye, checks drying fish in Fass Boye, Senegal, March 19, 2024. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Adrift

For days, they drifted. At some point, they drank the last of their water. They still had biscuits, which they rationed out each day, but their mouths were so dry they struggled to eat.

“You couldn’t even spit,” Mbaye said.

That’s when they started drinking seawater, which speeds up dehydration through salt buildup.

“It was very hard to drink, and that’s what killed a lot of people,” he said, pausing as if to steady his voice. “We would talk to someone, and the next day, they would be dead.”

From then onwards, Mbaye’s memories of the voyage are hazy, but vivid nightmares about his friend still shock him awake at night, screaming.

He remembers helping to drop Seck’s body over the side of the boat, letting it sink into the depths like many before it.

“We didn’t really have a choice. We had to control our emotions and throw them into the sea,” he said.

He took Seck’s silver ring as a keepsake.

“When I wake up and look at the ring, I remember … how I lost a dear friend,” he said. “Sometimes I see him as if he were real and sitting next to me.”

Rescue

Weeks passed, and Mbaye began slipping in and out of consciousness. He recalled thinking, “If we weren’t found the next day, I would die.”

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But on Aug. 14 – after 35 days at sea – their luck turned. A Spanish fishing vessel spotted the pirogue about 140 nautical miles northeast of Sal Island in the Cape Verde archipelago, Spain’s Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre said. They had drifted over 350 nautical miles west of their intended route and were nearly as far from the Canary Islands as when they started.

Only 38 people survived. Seven bodies were recovered, and 56 people were reported missing, presumed dead. Most were from Fass Boye.

Mbaye (right) prays with his friend and fellow survivor Modou Boye, 30, in the courtyard of his family’s house in Fass Boye, Senegal, March 20, 2024. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Mbaye has no memory of the rescue, but news footage from the time shows exhausted-looking people being helped off the Spanish boat in Cape Verde the next day.

Doctors rushed Mbaye to hospital, where he was treated for kidney damage that kept him behind after Senegalese authorities flew his fellow survivors home. When Mbaye later returned to Fass Boye, his feet were so swollen he had to use a cane to walk.

He is now back working on fishing boats, toiling at night on the open sea, even as he battles enduring kidney problems and painful flashbacks.

Mbaye holds his 1-year-old daughter Maguette as he stands next to his wife Khady Gueye, 21, at their family’s house in Fass Boye, Senegal, February 2, 2024. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Gueye carries her daughter Maguette on her back as she cooks in their kitchen in Fass Boye, Senegal, March 19, 2024. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Mbaye (right) checks the coffee pot in his mother’s room in Fass Boye, Senegal, March 19, 2024. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

The Wider Image

Photography: Zohra Bensemra

Reporting: Ngouda Dione and Zohra Bensemra

Additional reporting: Portia Crowe in Dakar and Emma Pinedo Gonzalez in Madrid

Writing: Bate Felix Tabi Tabe

Video: Ngouda Dione

Photo editing and design: Maye-E Wong and Eve Watling

Text editing: Alessandra Prentice and Alexandra Zavis

By NGOUDA DIONE and ZOHRA BENSEMRA

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