Interview: Eritrean Human Trafficker Accused of 243 Missing Migrants

Eritrean Human Trafficker Accused of 243 Missing Migrants

 

Interview: Eritrean Human Trafficker Accused of 243 Missing Migrants

 

 

“I Was Helping Those People. I Was Helping Myself.”

 

www.medium.com | January 21, 2017

 

 

What we found out from the witness we’ve been chasing for a year.

Smuggler. Refugee. Middleman. Scapegoat. Part of a human trafficking ring responsible for the disappearance of 243 men, women and children? Or an innocent relative also searching for the missing?

These are the many reputations of Measho Tesfamariam, one of the closest people to the center of the Ghost Boat mystery, and the man who we’ve been trying to meet forever.

There are so many conflicting opinions of him, and so many ambiguities, but there is one thing we know for sure: that Tesfamariam was there in Libya, at the warehouse that was the last known location of the passengers of the Ghost Boat, before they left for the Mediterranean coast in the early hours of the morning on June 28th, 2014. That means he was one of the last people to see them before they vanished without a trace.


It’s been almost one year exactly since I first tried to conduct this interview. In the fall of 2015, I spent eight weeks traveling throughout Tunisia and Italy attempting to uncover the fate of the 243 missing Ghost Boat passengers. As leads turned into dead ends and evidence dried up, our progress began to slow. But Measho’s name kept coming up.

He was the man who answered the phone when family members tried to contact their relatives, the one who was at the warehouse where they were housed before departing. We kept circling back to what he might be able to tell us.

As time went on, he seemed like the one tangible link we had to the missing people — an eyewitness to the moment before everything was plunged into a labyrinth of uncertainty. Maybe, just maybe, he would have answers. At the very least he might have information that would allow us to sharpen our search. And most importantly, he seemed to be accessible, unlike the passengers who had disappeared and the other smugglers who were beyond our reach in the danger and chaos of Libya.

Back then, Measho was already in prison in Catania. A couple months after the Ghost Boat disappeared, he had crossed the Mediterranean to Italy and then made his way to Germany, where he applied for asylum. One Ghost Boat family member, however — Berhane Isayas — had tipped off police about Measho’s whereabouts, and he was soon arrested and sent back to Italy . There, he was convicted for his involvement in the smuggling ring that sent at least 23 packed vessels (including the Ghost Boat) across the Mediterranean in the summer of 2014.

Last December, when he was due to be sentenced, the judge, prosecutor, and Measho himself had agreed to us interviewing him. So I went to Catania to be ready when the time came. But things didn’t go as planned.

The sentencing was delayed long enough that our request became entangled in Italy’s complicated legal bureaucracy, and a sudden, unconnected freezeon press interviews across the country’s justice system froze our hopes indefinitely.

By then, it was the end of February, and Measho’s lawyer had decided to appeal. That meant we didn’t know when he would be able to talk to us — if ever. So we gave up on the idea, and tried everything else we could to find out what happened on the fateful night the Ghost Boat disappeared.

But as time wore without answers, we started to grapple with a difficult question: What if we are never able to solve this mystery? And that’s the question we have been struggling with been for months, until — with no warning — we received a message. Measho was out of jail, and he was willing to talk.

We’d finally be able to meet.

 

When I finally see Measho in person, he is smaller than I imagined. There’s something boyish about his face, but he’s clearly an older man than the one I had seen before in highly-edited, smiling Facebook pictures. He seems emotionally exhausted, and holds himself as if the fatigue has settled like a physical weight on his body. His close-cropped hair is starting to thin above his temples and on the crown of his head, and there are wrinkles forming at the corners of his eyes. He’s 28 years old, and was just recently released from prison after two years.

He isn’t free though — not yet. Measho is serving what’s left of his four-year-and-two-month sentence for people smuggling under house arrest on the outskirts of Catania, in eastern Sicily. The compound where he lives is run by a charity, and the low, plant-covered walls that surround it mark the limit of his world for now.

Standing in the building’s fluorescent-lit dining hall, Measho seems quiet and shy. His shoulders are slumped, his hands folded in front of him, and his eyes are cast towards the floor. Occasionally he throws a quick glance in my direction. As I stand there, I struggle to reconcile the mild-seeming man in front of me with everything I’ve heard. I’m trying to temper my expectations for a meeting that has seemed so significant for so long.

 

Moving to the room that he shares with two other people, Measho sits on his bed. It’s a small cot, and his lawyer sits next to him. Gianni Cipriano, the photographer who has accompanied me since the beginning of this journey, and I sit on two chairs facing the bed.

On the floor there are a couple of plastic bags with clothes in them. A crucifix and a picture of Jesus stand next to a bottle of Coca-Cola, some cologne, mouthwash and shower gel on a dresser that’s pressed up against a plain wall next to the bed.

It’s cold in the room, and Measho is wearing a blue, nylon coat with a gray T-shirt underneath. A rosary dangles from his neck. Behind me, a rainstorm beats against a large, grated window.

 

Measho begins by speaking in Italian, which he’s learned in prison, but quickly switches to English, which is a little rusty, but also good. As he starts to tell his version of events, his initial shyness fades away. He’s more animated and sometimes seems less defeated, even flashing a youthful, disarming smile.

He’s got a certain charisma, and he’s clearly intelligent. But when I ask difficult questions, he shifts nervously on the cot or, when he recalls certain details, his face grows somber and the weight seems to return to his body, instantly making him look older.

Still: He lays out his story, willingly.


According to Measho, he arrived in Libya from Sudan in the middle of June 2014. At that point he was with some of the people who would end up on the Ghost Boat. It wasn’t his first time making the trek across the Sahara: He had fled Eritrea in 2009, when he was 21, to avoid indefinite conscription in the country’s notorious national service. At the time, he harbored dreams of continuing his education and — as a singer and piano player — thought he might become a full-time musician.

That first trip turned into a nightmare, though.

He was kidnapped in the Sahara and held for ransom. When he managed to escape, the Libyan police arrested him and threw him in prison for two months as an illegal migrant. After his release, he found work in Tripoli as a welder, trying to earn enough to afford the passage to Europe. But before he had the money, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi signed a deal with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to crackdown on clandestine migration. With the route from Libya to Europe essentially closed, Measho retraced his steps back across the Sahara, where he was once again thrown in prison after reaching Sudan.

By then, it was 2010. Measho says that after he got out of prison a second time, he worked odd jobs. The next four years included stints as a gold miner, chauffeur and more welding. He returned to Libya in June 2014 to attempt again to cross to Europe, where he stayed at a warehouse outside of Tripoli with several groups of other refugees — most of whom ended up on the Ghost Boat.

Why was he the point of contact for family members? Measho confirms that he was answering phone calls and easing communication between the loved ones of people in the warehouse and the main smuggler, a Sudanese man named Ibrahim. But Measho says he was just trying to help people who were in a difficult situation.

“There were a lot of people… who don’t have money,” he says. “Ibrahim doesn’t know our language. He only knows Arabic, and me, I speak Arabic. I was forced to negotiate between Ibrahim and those people who didn’t have any money.”

But several family members I spoke to said that Measho wasn’t just a translator.

They insist that he was part of the smuggling organization even back in Khartoum — working the streets to find passengers and handing them off to the bosses. He was also, they say, involved in making payments happen. The smuggling networks have people in countries all over the world who collect money from family members, and provide them with a code. The relatives pass that code to the people making the journey and, when they reach Libya, they confirm they have paid by telling the smugglers their password. According to the family members, Measho was the person who would receive the code in Libya.

When I asked him whether he earned money for the help he was providing to Ibrahim, he started to shift uncomfortably.

“Me, I’m also the same like [the other refugees]. We will do anything to help ourselves at that time because, at that time, Libya was in the middle of a war,” Measho said.

“It cannot be said I was working for Ibrahim. Just, I was helping those people, and just I was helping myself. Nobody had given me money.”

There seemed to be a fine line separating the different versions of events. But as I started to get sucked into the details of what Measho had or hadn’t done, I realized I was getting off track.

Whatever his role, the man sitting in front of me was not a kingpin smuggler. He did not send people to their deaths in the Mediterranean in unseaworthy boats. Even in the leaked court documents we had from the investigation that led to his arrest, he was never referred to as having direct responsibility for the Ghost Boat, or any other journey across the sea. Those claims only appeared — apparently unsourced — in several articles about his arrest that were published later on.

At worst, Measho was a low level functionary in a smuggling organization for a short period of time, at best a refugee in a difficult situation who did what he felt was necessary to help himself survive. In the murky world of clandestine migration, the lines — just like the information — tend to blur and shift. And whatever his true role, Measho was convicted. He is serving his time.

Some of the Ghost Boat family members were upset when I told them Measho was no longer in jail, and out on house arrest. They wanted somebody to be held responsible for their suffering, and to them, it seemed like he was getting off easy. But, they agreed, the most important thing was what he could tell us about the circumstances surrounding the disappearance itself.

That’s what I had come to find out.

 

According to Measho, the warehouse controlled by Ibrahim was a long, low cement building in a rural area outside of Tripoli called Tajura.

Inside, the only windows were small slots close to the ceiling, and — just before the Ghost Boat left, it was crowded with more than 150 people, sleeping on the ground and waiting for their time to depart.

On the night of June 27th, 2014, two other smugglers brought more people to the warehouse.

“The boat was filled by three smugglers… one that is Ibrahim. He’s the boss,” explained Measho. “The other is Jamal, they called him Jamal Al Saudi, and the third was Jaber.”

All three were working under another man.

“The owner of the trucks, the owner of the warehouse, the owner of the boats… the big boss, they call him Hajj El-Nasser.”

But El-Nasser wasn’t there at the time the passengers were preparing to leave.


As we know, there were at least 243 people — including children, women, some pregnant, as well as men. After one of Ibrahim’s helpers recorded the passenger names to keep track of who had paid, a tractor trailer pulled up outside and the entire group was loaded into the back. They were made to squeeze in next to each other so they all would fit, Measho explains, pulling his arms and legs close to his chest to show me how they were forced to sit.

The last thing Measho saw was the truck pulling away.

He wasn’t able to leave the warehouse, and only Ibrahim accompanied them to the beach. Measho says he thinks the departure location was a place called Al-Khums, about 100km to the east of Tajura. At least, that’s where Measho departed from several months later when he crossed the sea.

Frustratingly, Al-Khums is just outside the search zone we’d been looking at when we were conducting our satellite image search of the coastline, which could be another reason why we had come up empty-handed. Still, Measho could not be 100 percent certain that the Ghost Boat left from the same place he had. Did he even know if the passengers got on the boat?


He said he couldn’t be sure.

“I cannot say anything because I don’t know about this, but Ibrahim said that the boat has left. That is all the information that I know. Ibrahim said to me that the boat had left at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

In the following days and months, Ibrahim said a lot of other things to the family members — and to Measho — before communication was cut off.

First he said that the boat had arrived safely. Then he said that there had been hashish on the boat, and that the passengers were detained by police because of it, which is why they hadn’t been able to contact their relatives. The lies kept coming, and each one turned into another rumor. Maybe they were in Tunisia; maybe they were in Malta or Egypt; or maybe they had been sold into slavery.

As Measho explained his side of all this to me, it struck me: These were beginning threads of the mystery I had first heard in January 2015. Despite being so close to the center of the mystery — being there when the passengers left for the shore — Measho was essentially in the same place as us, and everyone else who has looked into the disappearance. He didn’t really know what had happened, and even the extra details he did have couldn’t get us closer to an answer.


Some of the Ghost Boat families said that they thought Measho was lying, that he had to know more than what he was saying. I couldn’t be sure, so I went back to visit him again the next morning.

I pushed him on some of the questions, tried asking in different ways. But if there was anything else he knew, he wasn’t going to tell me — and it wasn’t apparent what he had to gain from keeping anything secret any more. He seemed sincere and even upset about the absence of answers. It was personal to him, he said: His cousin was on the Ghost Boat. He, like the other family members, wanted to know what had happened.

“That day, I cannot forget it: 28 June 2014… I cannot forget those people,” Measho said growing emotional.

“Our families cannot be lost just without any information. We cannot sleep like this. We cannot sleep without knowing [what happened to] those people. At least they will get cadavers. At least we have to get something that makes us believe that this boat has sunk. Everything is possible because there were no cadavers from this boat. This is the unique boat that was lost in this way; without leaving any information, without leaving and evidence, without leaving anything.”

I’ve been hearing the same words from Ghost Boat family members ever since I started investigating.

I asked Measho how I could trust what he was telling me. He gave me his cousin’s name, and I checked it against the passenger manifest that we have. The name was there.


Instead of clearing up the mystery, the interview complicated the picture even more. We have some more information — the location of the warehouse, extra details of the smuggling ring, new names — but now we have extra uncertainty around the subjective parts of the story, and still no answer to the most important question: What happened?

 

As the interview draws to a close, Measho seems drained. His lawyer left part of the way through to attend to other business, and now Measho is sitting on the cot alone.

He’s not allowed to use the internet and can only receive phone calls from his family. I ask him what he does with his time.

“I spend my time thinking… about anything,” he says. “About my life I have lost. I think about my family… I don’t know if I will see them. I have lost the ability to do anything… Mentally, I am destroyed.” His eyes well with tears.


 

Many of the Ghost Boat family members want to see Measho face more punishment. They will not believe his story, and say he is hiding the truth to protect himself.

I don’t know what to think. I’m skeptical about some of the details of his version of events, but nothing about my interactions with him made it seem like he’s hiding some darker truth. If anything, he seems self-protective and broken.

I’m disappointed that speaking to Measho did not open up new avenues in the investigation, but after working on this story for so long, it wasn’t unexpected. When the opportunity to finally speak with Measho arose, it was something I had to do because there was always the chance he could lead us somewhere. But by the time it happened, my hopes for revelation weren’t high.

For the family members, however, it was a renewed source of hope.

“When you said that you will meet him, I just hoped that we will hear new things or he will lead us to a new chapter,” Yafet Isaias, the man whose story first pulled me into this investigation, wrote to me after I told him about the interview. “I don’t know what [else] we can do.”

I don’t know either, but I knew that I had to grapple with the difficult question that has been at the heart of this story from the beginning. How do you go on with life not knowing whether your loved ones are dead or alive? What if we will never know what happened? That’s what I had been grappling with all summer — and why I needed to go back to where this all started.


This story was written by Eric Reidy, edited by Bobbie Johnson, with art direction by Noah Rabinowitz. Photography by Gianni Cipriano for Medium.

Source: https://medium.com/ghostboat/i-was-helping-those-people-i-was-helping-myself-1bf44a76cadb#.z34muqo7w