A flimsy raft, more than 100 souls, and three teenage heroes—or are they pirates?
Every master is bound, so far as he can do so without serious danger to his vessel, her crew and passengers, to render assistance to everybody, even though an enemy, found at sea in danger of being lost.
—International Salvage Treaty, 1910
With the same hope I had felt in the afternoon as I waited to see airplanes on the horizon, that night I looked for the lights of ships. For hours I scrutinized the sea: a tranquil sea, immense and silent, but I saw no light other than that of the stars.
—Gabriel García Márquez, “The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor”
Abdalla Bari was hungry. It was the morning of March 26, 2019, and Bari and more than 100 other people were floating in a 30-foot-long rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea, somewhere in the expanse of water between North Africa and Italy. Men straddled the boat’s edge, each with one foot dangling above the water and the other inside the dinghy. They formed a tightly packed ring around a huddled mass of women and children. At least one of the women was noticeably pregnant. Another, Souwa Nikavogui, was Bari’s wife.
Bari was on the starboard side, near the bow. He was skinny but muscular, with hair fashioned into short, spiky locks; he had a long scar down his right arm. Nikavogui, slightly shorter, with an intense, distant gaze, braced herself to stay upright as the dinghy rocked in the waves. They were teenagers in love—Bari was 19, Nikavogui 18—and they already had a child of their own. Her name was Fanta, and they’d left her with Bari’s mother, thousands of miles away in Guinea. Fanta was two years old. If help didn’t arrive soon, she would grow up with no memory of her parents.
The cheap inflatable dinghy wouldn’t make it to Europe. Bari and Nikavogui knew that before they climbed aboard in Libya. Their only hope was to be rescued before the boat sank. Bari watched as the bow bent upward, working its way up a wave. A small outboard motor strained to nudge the rest of the vessel over the crest of water.
For Bari and Nikavogui, this was the last leg of a long journey, stretching across four countries and a swath of the Sahara desert. They had spent the past four months in Tripoli, living in what migrants call “the campo,” a massive warehouse that smugglers use as a staging ground before moving people across the Mediterranean. The night before they left, the couple were approached by a man demanding money for their uncertain passage, although they’d already paid once. Bari and Nikavogui did as he asked, and early the next morning they loaded into a truck that rattled them to the water’s edge. Smugglers inflated the dinghy; the migrants climbed aboard. As they pushed out to sea, they knew it might be the last time they saw land.
Still, they were relieved. Libya was hell, and certain death if you stayed there too long. A man on the dinghy—I’ll call him Victor, a pseudonym, for his safety—was making his third attempt to reach Europe. The other two times, his group was intercepted before they could get on a boat. After the most recent try, Victor, who’d fled violence in his home country of Nigeria, was sent to one of Libya’s notorious migrant detention centers. Human rights organizations and the media have exposed the facilities as rife with torture, slavery, extortion, and other horrors. Victor bribed his way out for nearly $1,000. Then it was back to the campo, into the hands of another smuggler, and finally onto the dinghy.
The boat motored north. The harsh sun rose higher in the sky as the migrants searched for any speck on the horizon, a disturbance in the endless blue that might grow larger, take shape, become their salvation.
Finally, someone cried out, “A plane!”
Bari jolted at the sound. Suddenly, people around him were talking. As the plane approached, some said they saw a Spanish flag painted on its tail; others thought it was Italian. Either way it was European. That’s what mattered.
The plane passed overhead, and the people on the boat waved and yelled, as if they could be heard over the roar of the engines. Bari counted in his head as the plane circled the boat: once, twice, three times. The pilot had spotted the dinghy, that much was clear. After the fourth pass, the plane flew toward the horizon and out of sight. Those on the boat were left to wait one last time.
A few miles away, aboard the oil tanker El Hiblu 1, a radio crackled to life.
Partial transcript of radio communication between an aircraft deployed by the European Union’s Operation Sophia and the El Hiblu 1 on March 26, 2019; obtained via a nearby ship.
EH1: I am going to Tripoli port. My destination is Tripoli port, Libya.
OS: Sir, there are lives at sea, can you assist them?
EH1: OK, no problem. What assistance do you need?
OS: We need you to proceed to the area and help the boat in the water.
EH1: Where is it? Can you give me the latitude and longitude, please?
OS: Position three-three-three-seven north, zero-one-four-two-zero east.
EH1: This is the position?
EH1: OK, I will proceed to this position. OK.
OS: We are flying over the area. If you can see us, we are flying over the boat.
EH1: OK, I will check your—OK.
OS: Thank you, sir.
[Ninety seconds pass.]
OS: El Hiblu 1, El Hiblu 1, this is the maritime patrol aircraft. We are coordinating with the Libyan coast guard. Sir, you need to rescue those people, because the Libyan coast guard boat is out of service.
At first all that Bari could tell about the ship coming toward the dinghy was that it was big and painted red. He hoped that it was an NGO boat, maybe the Spanish Open Arms or the German Alan Kurdi. Like others attempting the Mediterranean passage, he’d watched countless YouTube videos of these humanitarian ships rescuing people at sea. He knew what came next: A smiling European crew would climb onto small high-speed boats, zip to the dinghy, and hand out bright orange life vests. They would transfer the migrants to the larger ship, ten at a time, where there would be blankets, medical supplies, and food. Then they would make land in Europe, where it would be safe, where there was work. From there, Bari hoped, he and Nikavogui could provide for Fanta and the rest of their family.
But as the ship came closer, Bari realized that this rescue was going to be different. The El Hiblu 1 wasn’t a humanitarian ship—it was a 170-foot bunkering vessel, used to move oil between larger ships. What Bari couldn’t know was that the plane he’d seen, the same one that had radioed the tanker, was part of Operation Sophia, a European military effort aimed at stemming migration from Libya. It took its name from a baby born to a Somali mother on a German frigate in the Mediterranean in 2015.
That year, European ships, planes, and submarines began patrolling international waters off the coast of Libya, rescuing migrants and destroying their boats. But the smuggling networks found more boats—smaller, cheaper ones that were far less seaworthy. In response, Operation Sophia began training, funding, equipping, and directing a new Libyan coast guard that could do what the Europeans legally could not: take the people intercepted on ships back to where they came from, even if they had already made it out of Libya and into international waters. (Under international law, this is called refoulement, from the French for “turning away.”) Operation Sophia organized the effort despite mounting evidence of atrocities committed against migrants by Libyan smugglers, security forces, and the coast guard itself. In September 2018, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees declared that nowhere in Libya should be considered a place of safety for people rescued at sea. Six months later, the Women’s Refugee Commission released a report detailing widespread sexual violence against migrants in the North African state. “Everyone knows when a man says, ‘I’ve gone through Libya,’ it is a euphemism for rape,” a source told the organization.
That people continued to attempt the journey across the Mediterranean in large numbers prompted yet another shift in strategy: On the same day that Operation Sophia radioed the El Hiblu 1, EU member states decided to stop sending ships out on patrol and focus instead on surveillance flights. The planes would identify migrant boats and direct either the Libyan coast guard or nearby ships, including commercial ones, to stage rescues.
This was the scenario that the El Hiblu 1 found itself in. The tanker was empty, save for six crew members en route from Istanbul to Tripoli. The lack of cargo weight caused the bow to perk upward, as if the ship were popping a wheelie. As the tanker moved toward the dinghy, the driver of the rubber craft shut off the outboard engine. The waves were getting bigger, and the migrants worried that they might be swept under the ship as it approached.
When the two vessels were close enough, a crew member on the El Hiblu 1 threw down ropes and a ladder from the tanker’s deck. People crowded together to climb one by one off the dinghy. Bari and Nikavogui queued up. But six people stayed put. One of them said that he thought the ship was Libyan. What if it took them back?
Those still aboard the dinghy begged the wider group, now amassing on the deck of the El Hiblu 1, to come back down; the dinghy could keep going north, toward Malta. No one descended the ladder. Instead, the people on the tanker implored those on the dinghy to reconsider. It was clear that the dinghy, now nearly empty of people, was deflating. It bobbed limply up and down on the waves.
Don’t go, Bari and others shouted down at the boat. Just come up to the ship. These people are going to help.
Instead the men let go of the ropes that connected the boat to the El Hiblu 1. They started up the dinghy’s motor once again and headed north, eventually disappearing from sight. Malta was still more than 100 miles away.
Nader El-Hiblu was the tanker’s first mate. He was Libyan, and he shared his name with the ship because his brother, Salah, owned it. Slender and balding, with high cheekbones and a beard, Nader asked if anyone spoke English. “I do,” said a teenager who, like Bari and Nikavogui, was from Guinea. Through the translator, Nader was able to explain that he’d been called by the crew of a military airplane to rescue the people on the dinghy. He was still awaiting instructions about what to do next.
He asked where in Libya the group had embarked: Garabuli, Zawiya, Zuwara, Tripoli? All were well-known departure points for migrant boats in Libya, but Nader said their names with a familiarity that made some of the migrants uneasy. Was he Libyan? They began to whisper among themselves, their many languages quietly colliding.
“Where are you going to take us?” someone yelled in English.
Nader repeated what he’d said about the plane.
“Yes, but are you taking us to Libya?”
Bari, standing with Nikavogui, wondered if the people who’d stayed on the dinghy had been wise. What if he’d come this far only to be turned back, to have nothing to show for his journey?
He and Nikavogui were from Mamou, a small village in the Guinean interior. Bari was the eldest of nine children. His father had been a vegetable farmer, while his mother took care of their seven boys and two girls. In 2017, Bari was in his first year of university, studying sociology, when his father died. He quit school to support his family, going to work in the fields like his father had. Still, there were times when they couldn’t afford food. Before long, Bari had more mouths to feed: Nikavogui’s and Fanta’s. Survival meant leaving Mamou—following “the route,” as many migrants from Africa call the passage across the Mediterranean. Nikavogui decided to go, too.
Bari left first, toward the end of Ramadan in 2018. He traveled by day on an empty stomach from Guinea to Mali to Algeria, where he spent two months waiting for a safe opportunity to cross the border into Libya. By September, he’d arrived in Tripoli and found work pouring concrete on construction sites. Nikavogui joined him soon after, and by the end of the year the couple were staying at the campo, waiting for their chance to leave for Europe. There was little food or privacy at the warehouse; tuberculosis was rampant. Outside, Libya was in the midst of a civil war. The people in the campo heard the same refrain every night: the boom, boom, boom of gunfire in the distance. They were locked inside and told to keep quiet. “We didn’t scream,” one woman who spent time there told me. “We didn’t do anything. Even the children didn’t scream.”
Now, aboard the El Hiblu 1, Nader uttered the words that the migrants didn’t want to hear. He explained the ship’s original course: Istanbul to Tripoli. Word rippled through the crowd, and arguing quickly ensued. Victor, the man from Nigeria, was determined to never go back to a Libyan detention center. He declared that it was better for the tanker to leave them to die at sea.
In the telling of some of the people present that day, Nader tried to calm the group by swearing on the Koran that he would help them get to Europe. He pointed at the sky and talked again about the plane. He said that the Europeans would send a rescue ship and that he was only waiting to learn the rendezvous point. He climbed up to the ship’s bridge and turned the vessel away from Libya. The migrants considered it an act of good faith. “He swore in front of all of us, saying that he had the courage to take us, to help us,” the pregnant woman, whom I’ll call Mariama, later told me.
The tanker went north for a while, then turned west, moving slowly toward the setting sun. Placated, people settled onto the deck. They clustered toward the bow, where a raised section of the ship provided some protection from the elements. There were only a few blankets to share, and no food. Night fell, but Bari and Nikavogui knew they wouldn’t sleep much. She was seasick, and it was cold.
Bari couldn’t hear what Nader was saying in the ship’s cabin. Over the radio, Operation Sophia requested that the El Hiblu 1 pick up a second boatful of migrants, situated a few miles from the tanker’s location. Nader said that he couldn’t.
Partial transcript of communication between Operation Sophia aircraft and the El Hiblu 1 on March 26, 2019.
OS: El Hiblu 1, El Hiblu 1, thank you for your cooperation, sir. We ask for the other boat. Can you proceed to the other one?
EH1: I cannot proceed because I have big problem. Let me put—they don’t let me to move from my position, OK? They want to go to Europe, Spain or Italy.
EH1: Airplane, El Hiblu 1.
OS: Sir, we are cooperating with the Libyan coast guard. They tell us to say to you that you can move those people to Tripoli.
EH1: I take the people to Tripoli?
EH1: Airplane, airplane navy, El Hiblu 1.
OS: Sir, we are coordinating—we are under the coordination of the Libyan national coast guard. Don’t go and rescue the other boat. You can proceed to Tripoli.
EH1: OK, send to me their support please, because I cannot move from my position because the people is very crazy here.
OS: Thank you, sir. Thank you for your cooperation. We are calling for assistance.
EH1: It’s no problem for me, but the people is very crazy here. They make me big problem on board now. Big problem on board now.
OS: Thank you, sir. I’m sorry for the inconvenience. Please, I’m going to turn [inaudible].
[Four minutes pass.]
OS: [Inaudible] the situation on board.
EH1: Very bad. Very bad.
OS: Can you give us any information about the situation on board?
EH1: I want any assistance from the other ship, please. Because he refuse—anything and made to me too much problem on board here. If you can send me other ship for [inaudible].
OS: Sir, we are doing all we can to [inaudible].
OS: El Hiblu 1, this is maritime patrol aircraft. Libyan authority is now aware of your situation. They come to your position as soon as possible.
EH1: I’m waiting here in my position. I’m waiting here in my position. I need assistance, please.
OS: Thank you, sir. They are on his way.
It was early morning when one of the migrants spotted land. In the weak light of dawn, he climbed a set of stairs to look over the ship’s bow. There was a dark strip in the distance. The man cried out. Bari heard his voice; he sounded happy. Other people ascended the stairs to see for themselves.
Joy quickly gave way to fear. Some of them thought they could see lighthouses—ones they recognized. Then someone got a signal on their cell phone. It was from a Libyan network.
Nader hadn’t held his position at sea. Around 12:30 a.m., he had given up waiting for the Libyan coast guard. He locked the door to the cabin, turned the El Hiblu 1 south, and pushed the throttle. As he headed toward Libya, Nader finally spoke with the coast guard; they told him that soldiers were preparing a boarding party, which would find the ship and detain the migrants.
Those on board didn’t know that the Libyan coast guard might be on its way, but seeing land was enough for them to feel tricked. Some began to cry and yell. “Oh, Libya! Oh, Libya!” one person screamed.
People threatened to throw themselves off the ship. Bari heard voices shouting at Nader to stop, to turn around. A group of people picked up tools and pieces of wood from the deck and began banging on the tanker’s surfaces. They moved toward the bridge to confront Nader.
Bari later said that he was near the bow at that point, with Nikavogui. She was still sick, and they were both exhausted. But Bari decided that he had to do something. Angry people had surrounded the ship’s cabin. If the situation escalated, someone could get hurt or killed, or all of them could wind up arrested and tossed into a Libyan detention center. The previous fall, a group of more than 90 people had barricaded themselves inside a cargo ship that rescued them at sea and returned to the Libyan port of Misrata. Ten days later, Libyan authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets to remove them from the ship.
Bari climbed to the bridge, where men held sticks and metal objects in their hands. They chanted, “No Libya! No Libya!” Shielded by the walls, windows, and locked door of the cabin, Nader could see that the tanker was six miles from Tripoli. He changed course, turning the El Hiblu 1’s prow toward the open sea. “I don’t know why the captain turned,” Bari recalled. “But I know that I saw people protest, and it worked.”
In several of the migrants’ recollections, Nader unlocked the cabin and came outside. He told the group that he would take them to Europe. No one believed him—not after what had happened overnight. They kept chanting and banging the items they’d scavenged from the ship. Nader seemed to recognize the teenager who’d translated for him the day before. “You,” Bari remembered Nader saying. “Come in. I’ll show you the direction we’re going.”
The translator, who was 15 years old, went into the cabin. Another young man, only a year older, joined him. So did Bari. He felt like it was the right thing to do. He stayed near the cabin’s door as Nader showed the translator the ship’s controls and navigation system. Satisfied, the teenager returned to talk to the angry group. “Calm down, the captain is right,” he said, poking his head out the cabin’s door. “We’re going to Malta.”
Bari stepped farther inside to look at the ship’s compass. It was true: The ship was heading due north. “Everybody calm down,” Bari shouted.
Bari and two other men decided to stay inside the cabin with Nader. He had misled them before, Bari thought. How could they trust him not to do it again?
As the tanker’s engine growled and morning slid into afternoon, the migrants’ anxiety subsided. They ambled around the deck; some dozed at the ship’s bow. Bari could hear Nader talking on the radio, trying to explain the situation to Maltese authorities, who told him the ship didn’t have authorization to enter the country’s waters. Still, Nader didn’t seem agitated—none of the crew did—so Bari wasn’t worried. As long as the tanker stayed its course, he thought, things would get better.
On land, however, stress about the El Hiblu 1 was mounting. Word of the tanker’s situation made its way to the media. Before they set foot in Europe, Bari and the two other men in the ship’s cabin were labeled criminals of the worst kind.
“Rescued migrants hijack ship, demand it head towards Europe,” read an Associated Press headline on the afternoon of March 27, as the tanker plowed through Mediterranean waves. Other news stories described migrants “seizing control” of the ship amid a “desperate” situation. The Maltese military told local media that there was “a pirate ship” and that soldiers were “on alert.” Italy’s interior minister at the time, far-right politician Matteo Salvini, took to Twitter. “They aren’t shipwreck survivors; they are pirates,” he wrote. “They should know that they’ll only ever see Italy through binoculars.” The ANSA news agency quoted Salvini saying, “Poor castaways, who hijack a merchant ship that saved them because they want to decide the route of the cruise.” Meanwhile, the AP reported that Salvini “had a message for the pirates: ‘Forget about Italy.’”
Bari and the other migrants weren’t aware of the mounting media firestorm—they knew only that Nader was taking the ship closer and closer to Malta. At 12:51 a.m. on March 28, the El Hiblu 1 was just over 24 nautical miles from the island nation. If it moved any closer, it would enter Maltese jurisdiction on its way to Valletta, the capital and main port. The Maltese coast guard radioed the ship. Bari later said that he was asleep during the exchange.
Transcript of communication between Maltese Armed Forces (AFM) and the El Hiblu 1 on March 28, 2019.
AFM: El Hiblu 1, this is Maltese patrol vessel Papa 21. You are still proceeding towards the Maltese islands at a constant speed. You have already been given instructions to not continue entering Maltese territorial waters. Please stop your vessel.
EH1: OK sir, but the migrants, my vessel not under command now. My vessel not under command.
AFM: Captain, stop your engine now. You are still proceeding at ten knots, at ten knots. You are still proceeding at ten knots.
EH1: OK, roger sir. OK.
EH1 [a different voice]: Good morning, sir. Good morning. I am one of the migrants. Good morning, sir.
AFM: Good morning.
EH1: Please, listen to me carefully. Listen to me carefully. We are not proceeding—the ship to go to Malta. But the situation is very bad, we have children, 12 children. They are not even talking anymore. Three days now, no food or water. Please. We are not allowed to go back. Please. Three days now, we do not have food. We are 19 women, 12 children. Please help us. None of us are well. We are all sick. Please, please, no one get—please, for God’s sake, please help us. Not allowed to go back.
AFM: Copy that, sir. For now your instructions are to stop your vessel immediately and to wait for further instructions. You are not allowed to continue proceeding to go to Malta. Stop your vessel immediately.
EH1 [Nader’s voice again]: We have already stopped, captain. Already stopped. My engine is stopped now.
AFM: Copy that. Stand by. Stand by on this channel for now.
EH1: OK, thank you, sir. Thank you.
AFM: El Hiblu 1, El Hiblu 1, Malta patrol vessel P21, do you read?
EH1: Yes. I have now 100 people Africa on board. He change my course to Valletta, to Malta, to Valletta by force, by force. I am not under command. Please, if you can send to me Malta coast guard, I will thank you in advance.
AFM: Are there any crew members injured?
EH1: Yes, now I have—crews injured on board here. Many people fight with me yesterday because I don’t want to come to Malta. My destination was from Tuzla, Istanbul, to Tripoli, Libya—all the people on board fight with me, broken my vessel, by force. That’s why change the course to Malta. I called the Libyan navy many times but no, they didn’t answer. Also, for put me in the situation, military aircraft, when I proceed from Tripoli, I proceed from the Tripoli port, military call me for change my course for some place and rescue people from the port.
AFM: Captain, instructions for now are to hold the course one-four-five. Course one-four-five.
EH1: One-four-five, to where? To where?
AFM: Wait further instructions, so you are in good stability for the ship. For now, hold the course and wait for further instructions. Minimum speed.
EHI: OK, but please, if you can send to me the coast guard I will thank you, because I am not under command.
Bari was still asleep on the ship’s bridge when he heard one of the crew members yelling. “Hurry up,” the man barked. “Get out. Your friends are out. The soldiers are coming.”
It was 5:30 a.m. and dark out except for a sliver of peach-colored sun to the east. Maltese special forces had arrived by boat to storm the El Hiblu 1, still a few miles away from land. The soldiers, including members of Malta’s counterterrorism unit, wore tactical gear and balaclavas. They carried automatic weapons. They climbed onto the tanker, and a handful hurried to the ship’s control room. In a video of the raid, edited by the Maltese government to include a triumphant instrumental soundtrack, a soldier waves one arm while holding his weapon with the other, urging two men in the cabin to step away from the window. They both appear to comply with the soldier’s command.
Bari had gone to find Nikavogui. He felt relieved: They were finally in European territory. But Nikavogui was terrified. In her experience, armed soldiers had never meant anything good.
Soldiers manned the El Hiblu 1’s bridge as Maltese ships escorted the tanker to a wharf near Valletta, a harbor frequented by luxury cruise liners. As they pulled into port, the migrants could see TV cameras lining the concrete shore. Police were there, too—they supervised as people disembarked and entered Malta via a gangway painted bright yellow.
Bari and Nikavogui stepped off together. As they did, someone told Nikavogui that Bari couldn’t come with her—he would be put in a different vehicle than the one that would take her to a migrant reception center. Only when she saw zip ties being placed around his wrists did she realize that he was being arrested.
Bari and the other two young men who stayed in the cabin with Nader—both minors whose names Maltese authorities have withheld—were soon charged with nine crimes, including seizing a ship, destruction of private property, confining people against their will, forcibly moving people across a border, and issuing threats of violence. Maltese prosecutors added terrorism riders, which carry a life sentence, to two of the charges.
A judge denied the defendants bail, because they had no means to pay it and no established ties in Malta.
Word quickly reached the media that Nader was also under suspicion. The Times of Malta reported that police were “investigating the possibility that the skipper could have ‘misled’ the authorities by claiming he lost control of the vessel.… Investigators are not ruling out that he could have reported such a situation over the radio to be allowed in Maltese waters.” Police, it turned out, had found no damage to the ship or weapons on board.
Was it possible that Nader had wanted to be a good Samaritan but also avoid criminal charges? If so his concern was well founded: According to OpenDemocracy, more than 250 people in 14 European countries have been arrested, charged, or investigated for aiding migrants. Among them are the crews of NGO ships in the Mediterranean. Operation Sophia had introduced a new complication by compelling civilian ships to return people to Libya.
In the Maltese legal system, a magistrate must decide if there is enough evidence to bring a case to trial, based on testimony, forensics, and other materials. In early April, Cedric Mifsud, a defense lawyer, questioned Nader in court. The El Hiblu 1’s first mate demanded to know why he was being treated as a villain.
Cross-examination of Nader El-Hiblu on April 10, 2019, by defense attorney Cedric Mifsud, with magistrate Aaron Bugeja presiding. Recording provided by a source who attended the hearings; Malta has yet to release official transcripts.
AB: Nobody is saying that you are a criminal. You are explaining what happened. You are a witness. I explained to you your rights before you start to testify, not to do harm to yourself. So please, tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. That is what you swore before Allah. And this what I expect from you, nothing more, nothing less. Thank you, Mr. El-Hiblu. Continue.
CM: I am suggesting that not from the beginning that you wanted to take them to Malta. You had never any intention to take them to Malta. What I am suggesting to you, when you were just a few miles away from Tripoli, the port, and they found out that you were very close, and the 20 to 25 were protesting with the hammers and the tools and the whatever, you called in these three and said, “We have a problem,” and you discussed this problem.
AB: Change question.
CM: I am going to suggest to you that with the Maltese authorities, you escalated, you increased, you told them that the problem was far more serious than it was, because you wanted them to leave your ship.
CM: I’m going to tell you how you did that. That you told them various times that you had no control of the ship when you always had control of the ship.
NEH: I don’t have control, I don’t have—
CM: You told them that your crew members were injured, and it never had any injured. I am suggesting to you that you told the Maltese authorities that the problem—I’m not saying you didn’t have a problem—the problem is far larger than it actually was, because you wanted to end your problem. That you shift your problem on the Maltese army.
CM: So tell me why you told— There’s a transcript, and I think there are CDs where we can actually hear you say you have injured crew members. Who was the injured crew member?
NEH: I don’t say it like that.
CM: You don’t say like that?
NEH: I don’t say like that, “I have injured crew members.”
CM: You did not say to the Maltese authorities that you have an injury?
NEH: I didn’t say that I have injured.
CM: So the Maltese army is lying?
Five days after Nader’s testimony, the court ruled that the case against Bari and the teenagers could go to trial. Nader wasn’t charged with any crimes. “From the statements from the crew and the immigrants themselves, we didn’t have any suspicion or any conclusive motive that the crew was involved,” Omar Zammit, lead prosecutor on the case and head of the Maltese police’s counterterrorism unit, told me. Soon after the announcement, the El Hiblu 1 departed Malta for Tripoli. Nader and his brother, the ship’s owner, both declined to be interviewed for this story. I wasn’t able to ask Nader about discrepancies between his testimony and what he said at sea, or between what the migrants remembered and what he claimed on the radio.
For its part, the defense team told me that context is everything with the El Hiblu 1 incident. “The prosecution is treating this as a terrorism case and are ignoring the migration case,” said Neil Falzon, a member of the team. In demanding that they not be taken back to Libya, Falzon explained, the migrants were acting in the sincere interest of their safety. A similar argument has held up in court before: In 2018, the Vos Thalassa, a commercial vessel, was called on to save 67 people off the coast of Libya. At first the crew intended to deliver the rescued group to the Libyan coast guard, but when the migrants protested the crew turned the Vos Thalassa toward Italy. Two people were charged with hijacking the ship but cleared of all charges by an Italian court. The judge wrote that the takeover constituted a “legitimate defense” against the prospect of returning to Libya.
Bari’s lawyers made that point before the Maltese magistrate. Zammit, the prosecutor, dismissed it as preposterous. “This is like saying that when my child is sick, I go to steal to help my child,” he said in court.
I brought up this quote when I interviewed Zammit at Malta’s police headquarters, where lofty marble hallways led us to a large dining hall paneled with stone and wood. Zammit was bald and stocky, and he wore a pressed white shirt. I asked what he would do if his child was sick and he couldn’t afford medicine—would he steal it? Zammit fidgeted in his chair. “I prefer not answer that question,” he said. (This was a common refrain in our interview: Zammit was hesitant to share details about an active case.) A crime is a crime, he continued, though punishment can “be mitigated—that’s fair enough.”
Later, as we walked through one of the building’s regal halls, Zammit came back to my question. “If my son were sick, I would do anything to protect him,” he said. He stopped walking when he spoke and looked me in the eye. He started moving again before concluding, “Still, if it was against the law, I would face the consequences.”
When I met with Bari, he’d been in Malta for three months. He was behind bars at Corradino Correctional Facility, an imposing stone building that has housed prisoners for more than 150 years. It sits in the center of a small town across the harbor from Valletta, and it was calm when I arrived. In Bari’s block, two floors of cells flank a common area, where a long table and benches sat beneath an arched ceiling. Most cell doors were flung open, allowing prisoners to move around. Large ceiling fans circulated the summer air. It was close to 100 degrees and humid, the kind of heat that sets life in slow motion.
Bari and I met in a room where inmates typically speak to their lawyers. It was cramped, with chipped paint and an old wooden door. Two beat-up office chairs sat on either side of a small table. A top-of-the-line security camera watched us from the ceiling.
I asked about his treatment in the facility. Bari shrugged. “It’s been fine,” he said. “But it’s still prison.” Since the court green-lighted his case for trial, there had been two evidentiary hearings. Three more hearings were scheduled but canceled. As of this writing, the trial itself had yet to be scheduled. One of Bari’s lawyers told me that the case could take years to resolve. Until then, Bari and the two other accused would remain in prison.
As we spoke, Bari was sometimes indignant and angry. In other moments, when talking about family, he cried. I offered more than once to end the interview if it was too much for him, but he insisted on continuing. When trying to remember a specific detail about the El Hiblu 1—the ship’s layout, when and where each event occurred—he squinted his eyes in concentration.
Bari said that he’d thought he could make things better by intervening when they spotted Libya. A group of people were angry and protesting, and he defused the situation. Still, sitting in prison, he regretted the choice. “If I had known what was going to happen,” he said with a sigh, looking at his hands on the empty table, “I would have stayed with my wife.” He missed Nikavogui; Fanta, too.
When Bari talked about Nader, he stood and waved his hands in the air. “He told the judge that he’s not afraid of the three of us in the cabin—he was afraid of everyone outside,” Bari said. “And we’re the terrorists?” He sat down again and rubbed his head, as if for an instant he wasn’t sure what to say or do.
Bari had been surprised to learn that Nader was allowed to leave Malta. “He used us to get out of trouble,” Bari said. He took a breath, and when he spoke again there were long pauses between his words: “He betrayed us.”
Limbo is painful, but Bari has allies. In May 2019, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Malta to drop the terrorism charges against Bari and his codefendants. A press release noted that some of the migrants saved by the El Hiblu 1 “exhibited clear signs of torture and ill-treatment” from their time in Libya or before. Going back wasn’t a humane option.
In all, 105 people from the rubber dinghy went to an immigration reception center in Marsa, a town across from Valletta’s harbor. They were interviewed by police, seen by doctors, and given the chance to apply for asylum, a process that usually takes between six and eighteen months. After a few weeks, the group dispersed to Malta’s open migrant centers, where residents can come and go freely. Some people in the centers hope to stay in Malta; others want to leave and go to the European mainland. If someone doesn’t apply for asylum, or if their application is denied, they won’t necessarily be deported. Many people remain in Malta and find work in the cash economy. It’s a bureaucratic purgatory: They’re in the country illegally but lack the documentation to leave without being detected. They keep their head down and hope never to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I made contact with some of the people rescued by the El Hiblu 1. Many were worried that speaking publicly could jeopardize their legal situation or cause trouble with the police. I met Nikavogui one day at a café near the migrant center where she’s living. She had a strong, matter-of-fact way of speaking but struggled when talking about Bari. When she reached an emotional point in her story, she would trail off and look down, as if searching for her next word somewhere on the floor. A few seconds would pass before she’d raise her head, take a slow breath, and keep talking.
Without Bari, she felt strange, unsafe, and alone. She’d seen him only once since they’d arrived in Malta. Arranging visits in prison, she said, was nearly impossible. She hoped that the court would find him innocent. “I don’t understand what they want,” Nikavogui said. She told me that she still feels panic when she thinks about being at sea. “I thought we were all going to die,” she said.
Victor, the man from Nigeria, said that Malta wasn’t without problems. Just nine days after the El Hiblu 1 docked in the country, a man from Ivory Coast was killed and two others were injured in a drive-by shooting near one of the migrant centers; police arrested two Maltese soldiers in connection with the crime. Still, Victor said, Malta is better than Libya—anything is better than Libya, he added. He was thankful that he didn’t give up on getting to Europe. Two months after we spoke, a migrant detention center near Tripoli, like the one where Victor spent time before finally making it into the dinghy, was hit by an air strike. At least 53 people died; scores more were badly injured.
Mariama, pregnant when the El Hiblu 1 rescued her, gave birth to her second son four days after arriving in Malta. When we met, she wore the infant strapped to her back, swaddled in fabric. Her older son, who was three, sat nearby sipping juice; he’d been saved by the tanker, too.
Mariama told me that she often thinks about Bari and the teenagers in jail. Without them, where would she and her children be? Perhaps in a Libyan detention center. Perhaps on another rubber raft. Perhaps dead. “They aren’t terrorists,” Mariama said of the three men. “They aren’t criminals.”
She doesn’t hold ill will toward the tanker’s crew. “It’s because of them that we are alive,” she said. “Otherwise our boat wouldn’t have lasted another two hours.”
How long did the rubber dinghy survive? According to recordings of marine radio chatter, Operation Sophia tracked the deflating boat and its six passengers late into the evening of March 26. Then the mission’s planes ran low on fuel and were forced to return to their base. An Operation Sophia spokesperson told me that the El Hiblu 1 eventually picked up the remaining migrants—an account contradicted by those actually on board the tanker.
If by some miracle the dinghy made landfall unassisted, the relevant authorities would know. Maltese and Libyan officials told me that the the boat didn’t reach their countries. Frontex, the European border agency, and the Italian coast guard wouldn’t comment on the matter.
It’s as if, when the dinghy blurred to nothing on the Mediterranean horizon one spring afternoon, it vanished forever.