by Shaun Gardiner
On the 27th March 2011, a boat carrying 72 people, all of them from what is called Sub-Saharan Africa, left Tripoli. The uprising against Muammar Gaddafi had begun. Libya was dangerous enough before for African immigrants, who constituted a large part of the country’s labouring class. Now it had become deadly. The refugees directed their boat north towards the Italian island of Lampedusa. A little over a day into their journey they ran out of fuel. They drifted.
By the time the currents brought them back to shore, landing them near the Libyan town of Zliten, two weeks had passed, and 11 of the boat’s occupants remained alive. One of these survivors, a woman, collapsed and died shortly after they came on shore. The remaining survivors were detained by Libyan authorities. Another died a few days later. The 63 who lost their lives during the abortive journey included three children.
At the time the Libyan War was in its second month. The Mediterranean was the most crowded stretch of ocean in the world, freighted with vessels from a dozen nations, under the auspices NATO’s Operation Unified Protector. During its drift, the refugee boat encountered several potential rescuers, including a helicopter and a warship. No rescue was attempted. The crew of the warship reportedly photographed the refugees before abandoning them.
Abu Kurke Kebato (above), one of the boat’s nine survivors
The incident, which has come to be known as the ‘Left-to-Die Boat’, has been the subject of investigations by the Council of Europe and Forensic Architecture, a unit at Goldsmith’s, London. In spite of evidence gathered by these investigations and complaints filed in various European courts, no prosecutions have been made, no charges brought, no crime, indeed, acknowledged. It is, compared to, say, the later tragic death of Aylan Kurdi, not even widely known. Perhaps our consciences suffer from a policy of inclusion akin to Wikipedia’s: the deaths of 63 people in the Mediterranean, under the eyes of several potential rescuers, fails somehow to meet the criterion of notability. The possibility should worry us.
The Boat is, for what it’s worth, part of my attempt to correct things. It is an extract from my long poem The Crisis, which recounts the full story of the Left-to-Die Boat. Included here are the first section – an opening chorus – and part of the second section, depicting the refugees’ departure.
The entire poem, written in a combination of blank verse, free verse and found text, recounts not only the refugees’ disastrous voyage, but also the outbreak of the Libyan War itself – its long dormancy and sudden eruption, followed by the intervention of global powers.
“The judges were unanimous that The Boat was a really strong insight
tied to the current cultural conversation around climate change, mass
migration and the idea of the “good Samaritan” being missing in society.
The judges really liked the imagery of celestial bodies and thought
there were some great turns of phrase.” – JOHN BYRNE AWARD
Through these events the poem also depicts, in miniature, the global crises that are now in play. Mass migration, wars for resources, increasing political division and conflict. Behind all these, a parent to urge them on, the warming planet.
The story of the Left-to-Die Boat provides a lens through which the future – more accurately, a present whose edge we seek to dull by referring to it as the future – may be brought into clarity. One that I hope is sharp. Not to say cutting.
Figures for migrant deaths in the Mediterranean were first recorded in 2006. In 2011, the year of the Left-to-Die Boat, 1,500 migrants died attempting the journey to Europe. Again, this was despite the Mediterranean being crowded with warships engaged in a humanitarian intervention.
It’s easy to fall into a numbers game. (cummings put it well: ‘Q:how numb can an unworld get? A:number’) After all, what’s 63 in one and a half thousand? In itself, nothing but a minor contributor to a monstrous tally. The numbers seem to excuse themselves by their very size. They imply, in direct proportion to their size, their apparent inevitability. The greater the number, the less, it seems, there is to be done.
When I first writing this article, the International Organization for Migration reported that this year 1,154 migrants had died or gone missing attempting to cross to Europe. Ten days ago an overloaded fishing boat capsized in near Greece. Over 500 are reported to have died. The number now stands at 1,871. It will have increased further by the time you read this.
About Shaun Gardiner
Shaun Gardiner is a writer and artist based in Stromness, Orkney, where he lives with his wife Anna, plus their dog and two cats. He was born in Bahrain, moving to the UK when he was 16. The first volume of his graphic novel, The Boy with Nails for Eyes, partially inspired by his experiences during the Gulf War, was listed for the Myriad First Graphic Novel Award in 2018 and published by Cast Iron Books in 2022. An online version of the story, combining comics with music and animation, will be launching in 2023.