Sold as a ‘slave’, fleeing FGM, orphaned at 11: Lives of Aquarius

From seeing co-passengers drown to receiving emergency toys for children on board, stories from a now-famous journey.

Migrants wait to disembark from the Aquarius rescue ship after arriving to port in Valencia
After a gruelling journey at sea, more than 600 migrants and refugees arrived in Valencia on Sunday[Kenny Karpov/SOS Mediterranee via Reuters]

Valencia, Spain – Ibrahim, a 20-year-old, had travelled to Libya to look for work, but after he arrived he was abducted and sold for 1,000 dinars ($738).

“[My owner] was drunk,” he said. “He came and took some other black men to his truck and shot them. A friend and I had to pick up the bodies and bury them.”

A year later, in the country’s southwest, he was tortured by another group of men.

“I was beaten with an iron bar while the men filmed and laughed at me. They were filming to force my family back home for money, for my freedom. They kept sending videos and images of them beating me daily, demanding more and more money,” Ibrahim told Doctors Without Borders (MSF), one of the organisations that operate MV Aquarius, a charity rescue ship that saves refugees and migrants in distress at sea.


Ibrahim was among those on board the ship’s now famous journey, an odyssey which has fractured Europe and highlighted the severity of humanitarian crises in Africa and the Middle East.

A young mother from Sierra Leone was also on the ship. She had fled across the Sahara to Libya to protect her daughters from female genital mutilation (FGM), which has a 90 percent prevalence in her home country.

Five years ago, another passenger, also from Sierra Leone, watched as her grandmother took her final breath after being shot in the head. Her parents had died earlier in a car crash.

She was 11 years old when her grandmother died, and suddenly had to fend for herself.

“All I ever wanted is to become a person who went to school and become a doctor,” she told MSF. 

There were 627 other refugees and migrants on board the MV Aquarius, carrying few belongings but weighed heavily with their stories of physical abuse, sexual abuse, extortion, and inhumane conditions.

Among them, there were six pregnant women and hundreds of children and unaccompanied minors.

They had set off from Libya and were heading to Italy more than a week ago.

But after discovering that their weak and overcrowded boats capsized off the Libyan coast, Italian maritime authorities called the MV Aquarius, which is also operated by SOS Mediterranee, and asked the charities to help rescue the migrants.

An Italian coastguard boat approaches the Aquarius ship [Salvatore Cavalli/The Associated Press]
An Italian coastguard boat approaches the Aquarius ship [Salvatore Cavalli/The Associated Press]

As the sun began to set over the deep Mediterranean waters, crew members spotted two rubber dinghies. 

One had collapsed, sending dozens into the sea without life jackets.

A small rescue craft was dispatched and began a gruelling six-hour operation in darkness.

With the help of Italian navy vessels and a helicopter, more than 200 people were saved.


One 20-year-old Nigerian man dragged from the waves had stopped breathing. Volunteers carried him on deck by stretcher and cut off his soaked clothes. Still unconscious, they attached him to an IV drip to minimise the risk of hypothermia. He woke up in the ship’s clinic, frail and desperate to reach dry land.

Since the former fishery protection vessel was repurposed by SOS Mediterranee and MSF in 2016, Aquarius has saved 30,000 people in 170 search and rescue operations. 

But never, until June 11, had it been denied access to a safe port, a clear requirement under international maritime law.

Italy’s new far-right, anti-immigration Interior Minister Matteo Salvini –  who has accused NGO rescue boats of colluding with people traffickers – banned the Aquarius from docking at any of the country’s ports.

The 77-metre ship was well above capacity. Under the instructions of the Italian coastguard, the Aquarius had taken on board another 400 people, rescued from four other operations.

They represented more than 20 nationalities, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, but also the Middle East.

The immediate reaction on board was fear, anxiety and disbelief.

“I don’t believe you anymore. I don’t trust you anymore. You will return us to Libya,” accused a man from Sudan.

Conditions in Libya are so unbearable that refugees and migrants often claim they would rather die than be returned there.

The man on board threatened to throw himself into the sea rather than return to Libya’s migrant detention camps, where he had been tortured.

Some of those rescued had attempted crossings before, only to be intercepted by the Libyan coastguard, which has received European Union (EU) funding to turn back migrant boats, including those in international waters.

Italy urged Malta to take in the overburdened ship, which was running low on food and water, but the island nation declined, claiming it was Italy’s responsibility. 

I don't believe you anymore. I don't trust you anymore. You will return us to Libya.

by Sudanese migrant

The ship would remain in international waters, 27 nautical miles from shore, for 36 hours.

Soon the world would know all about the Aquarius, a floating reminder of Europe’s profound failure to prioritise the lives of vulnerable migrants over the security of its external borders.

Only days later, by comparing the stories of those rescued, would the crew learn that two people had been left behind during the night-time chaos. They are presumed drowned.

As the ship sat idle awaiting instructions after Salvini’s rejection, MSF doctor David Beversluis grew worried.

Many had inhaled seawater and risked serious pulmonary issues, others showed signs of pneumonia, infection or had suffered chemical burns from leaking fuel. 

The sun on deck and the burning heat below deck were not helping.

Most of the people on board were from sub-Saharan Africa, but also the Middle East [Kenny Karpov/SOS Mediterranee via Reuters]
Most of the people on board were from sub-Saharan Africa, but also the Middle East [Kenny Karpov/SOS Mediterranee via Reuters]

European diplomatic fallout 

By now the Aquarius had become a pawn in a much bigger game. French President Emmanuel Macron slammed Italy’s “cynical and irresponsible” decision while Salvini implied Macron was a hypocrite for failing to deliver on France’s promise to admit thousands of migrants from Italy.

It was newly-appointed Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez who ended the tennis game of responsibility, offering refuge to avert what he called a “human catastrophe”.

But the ship’s coordinators said it could not make the 1,500km journey with so many vulnerable people on board, especially as rough weather was forecast.

The next morning, 270 people were transferred to the Italian coastguard vessel Datillo, and 250 to Italian navy cruiser Oriones, which had agreed to accompany the Aquarius on its voyage to Valencia.

While ordering supplies as the ship passed Sardinia, MSF coordinator Aloys Vimard, made another request. 

“On the bottom of the list, I wrote, ‘If you could bring some toys for the children it would be very much appreciated,'” he told Al Jazeera.

Soon coastguard ships arrived with boxes of toy cars, dolls and plush animals. Volunteers organised a small ceremony, handing out the toys one by one to the excited children. 

“It was a fantastic moment,” said Vimard.

Waves of up to four metres rocked the boat, causing nausea. One mother attempted to breastfeed her child while trying to contain her vomiting due to seasickness.

But spirits rose as the Aquarius sailed closer to Valencia, with the group praying, singing and sharing stories. 

It had been agonising to see land so many times. 

The coastlines of Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands rose above the horizon, taunting them with safety, only to fade into the haze. This time, the Iberian coast would not abandon them.

At 7:30am on June 16, the first batch of migrants arrived in one of the coastguard ships, the Datillo. The Aquarius was next.

Standing on deck, MSF’s Beversluis glimpsed a familiar face – the Nigerian man who had come close to death after being hauled out of the water unconscious.

As he stepped down the gangway, he smiled widely, anticipating the unmistakable feel of dry ground.

The interviews with refugees and migrants in this piece were carried out by MSF after Spanish authorities restricted media access to those on board who were so distressed after their journey.

Source: Al Jazeera