Fifth time lucky for Djibril aboard charity ship

Anne CHAON
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Djibril, a 24-year-old migrant from Chad, is one of more than 350 people who have been rescued in the Mediterranean by the Ocean Viking since Friday

It has taken five attempts for Djibril, a migrant from Chad, to get this far.

The 24-year-old is one of more than 350 people who have been rescued in the Mediterranean by the Ocean Viking ship since Friday.

And as the vessel operated by French charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) now searches for a safe port for its passengers, Djibril talks about the terrifying ordeals he has faced getting closer to Europe.

Sipping tea and wearing a white T-shirt on which he has scrawled a message of thanks to his rescuers, Djibril says it has "taken me five years to make it".

Each attempt to get out of Libya and on to Europe has put Djibril through a new version of hell, from people smugglers robbing him of his savings, to landing in hospital with burns from a sinking dinghy's fuel, to watching as soldiers gunned down three comrades.

And throughout, he saw dozens of his fellow migrants drown.

Djibril's first attempt, in July 2016, failed when the 12-metre boat he and 115 other migrants had climbed into sank under their weight.

"No one knew how to swim," he says, adding that they had paid for life vests "but never saw them". Only 53 of them survived, and they were picked up by the Libyan coastguard and sent back to Libya.

Djibril and three others were taken to hospital with burns from fuel that caught fire as the boat capsized, and soldiers recruited them there. The young men fled after a week.

After doing odd jobs in Tripoli for nine months, Djibril was on the move again, in March 2017, paying a human smuggler 2,000 dinars (320 euros/$360). The group of 86 migrants had hardly been at sea for five hours when the Libyan coastguard intercepted their rubber dinghy.

Djibril was brought back to a detention centre he described as a "prison", in the Tripoli suburb of Tajoura.

A soldier got him out, but then forced him to work without pay. Djibril managed to escape, was caught and escaped again.

The third attempt failed when police raided a hiding place in a small wood a two hour walk from the beach. Djibril was among a group of about 300 migrants waiting to board a dinghy.

Djibril blamed the failure of his next attempt, in April 2018, on the incompetence of the smuggler that saw the boat go adrift for several hours, then return to shore where the coastguard was waiting.

Djibril ended up back in custody.

When he tried to escape, guards shot dead three of his comrades, while Djibril was caught and sent to Zawiya, 40 kilometres (25 miles) outside Tripoli, where armed men demanded 200,000 dinars to smuggle him out.

Djibril was the least prepared for his fifth attempt -- the successful one.

"It was Tuesday evening. I wasn't expecting it. The smuggler said: 'Come on, you're getting on.' And here I am!"

- 'Race against time' -

The Ocean Viking picked him up on Friday, the first of four straight days of search-and-rescue operations that recovered a total of 356 "vulnerable men, women and children," according to SOS Mediterranee and MSF.

The charities "have now formally requested that the Maltese and Italian maritime authorities take on coordination and support finding a place of safety for the rescue survivors... given the lack of response... from the Libyan authorities."

The rescues come at a time of tension between Italy and other EU states, with Rome refusing to let migrants land on its shores unless its EU partners shoulder their share of the burden.

The Maltese authorities, contacted by the Ocean Viking after Monday's rescue, refused to take in the migrants, saying they were obliged to do so only for those picked up in the country's rescue zone.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR has asked European governments to allow the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking, as well as 150 others aboard the Spanish rescue boat Open Arms waiting off the coast of Lampedusa, to disembark.

"It's a race against time," said UNHCR's special envoy for the central Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel, warning of bad weather and storms expected in the area in the coming days.