"I'm next": Fofana's perfect storm
The occupants of the boats Those who remain adrift, at the mercy of the waves and thirst, usually share prayers while they preserve their sanity, it does not matter if they entrust themselves to God or Allah, since they implore the same miracle. Fofana V. did not stop praying while he watched his companions die, one by one, always with the feeling that he would be next.
This 27-year-old mechanic from Ivory Coast is the only survivor of the 34 people who embarked for Fuerteventura on Friday, September 23, in a patched-up inflatable somewhere on the Sahara coast, halfway between Boujdour and El Aaiún, without knowing that they were headed to the zone of influence of a tormenta tropical which unloaded in the following three days in the Canary Islands a whole deluge, almost as much water as that which falls on some islands in a whole year.
Four boats with about 200 immigrants were surprised by Cyclone Hermine that weekend in the maritime strip that separates Lanzarote and Fuerteventura from the African coast, in the least risky journey (in theory) for those who venture on the Canary Islands Route, because it does not usually involve more than 150 kilometers of navigation, but always in harsh open ocean conditions.
Three were rescued by the boats of Maritime Rescue with very bad sea. Nothing was heard of the fourth for nine days, until 3:45 p.m. on October 1, when the Bulk Japan, a Liberian-flagged bulk carrier, issued an emergency call far away, 272 kilometers south of Gran Canaria: they had sighted a semi-sunken black inflatable at coordinates 25º 19.3N 16º 26.9W with only one person alive on board, Fofana.
The sea was so bad that his sailors found themselves unable to lower a boat. The captain had come to the conclusion that the least risky thing he could do with a 228-meter-long mass like his freighter for that castaway clinging to the zodiac it was to protect him from the wind, offer him shelter with his helmet until the rescue helicopter arrived. That, and pick up some water.
What happened to the occupants of that boat? Only Fofana V. knows it, but she doesn't feel up to sharing it. Not even the police got any details about him the day they summoned him to the police station to hear his testimony: he had only been out of the hospital for a few hours and constantly took refuge in expressions such as "I don't remember", "I felt very bad", "I didn't know to nobody".
That story has been reconstructed in the last seven months through the people who shared conversations with Fofana in the 21 days that he spent in the Hospital Insular de Gran Canaria and in the weeks that he continued in the Canary Islands until he left for France, as well as data from the autopsies of the bodies that were recovered in the pneumatics and the Maritime Rescue report on the rescue.
A number above the crossword puzzle
Everyone who spoke to him agrees on the same thing: I was very affected Not only because of the effects of dehydration, which quickly passed, or because of the complications caused by a serious infection in one leg (a "patera foot"), which took several weeks to heal, but also because of an obvious trauma. He barely counted strokes.
Remembering those nights in the Atlantic weighed on him. Only the patient with whom he shared a room and his wife made him smile. Although neither they spoke French nor he understood Spanish, the three of them worked out hospital camaraderie.
It is not known what went through his bed neighbor's wife's head when she bought him a crossword puzzle notebook. Perhaps she wanted to offer him an innocent distraction -as innocent as it is useless for those who do not know the language-, but the fact is that Breathing He took a pen and wrote a number on it.
That day he spoke for the first time with his family in the Ivory Coast. A full week had passed since he was rescued. Using a borrowed cell phone, Fofana told her brother that He almost dies tried to reach the Canary Islands, which drifted after breaking the engine and what followed was a nightmare.
An unprecedented cyclone
In the Atlantic basin, more than 2,260 tropical cyclones had been recorded to date since 1851, according to records from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But there had never been one with a track like Hermine, which formed off the coast of Senegal and Mauritania on September 23 and soon took heading towards the Canary Islands.
For the first time in history, that Saturday the 24th and Sunday the 25th all the emergency plans were activated in the Canary Islands, in a degree of maximum alert. On some islands, more than 300 liters of water per square meter fell in just two days, with no special wind damage. That, on land.
The meteorological reports of Salvamento Marítimo of those dates collect for the maritime zone of Tarfaya force 6, even 7 winds (from 50 to 61 km/h), with strong swell or heavy seas (waves of up to four meters); Very dangerous conditions for any small boat, impossible for a pneumatic one.
Thirty-two men and two womenincluding Fofana, shared that week an eight-meter-long black inflatable, with slightly less space than that offered by two Volkswagen Golf placed one behind the other.
In this report, the photos taken by the sailors of the rescue ship Miguel de Cervantes when they recovered it at sea.
Thus, numerous lines of glue can be seen along their floats, even raised edges that reveal multiple patches. The starboard float and the bow are partially deflated, a sign that the boat was falling apart.
"Nine days"was the little that Fofana managed to say on October 1 to the health workers who treated him when he disembarked from the Helimer 206, the helicopter that had evacuated him to a hospital in Gran Canaria, conscious but weak, dehydrated and hypothermic.
When the Bulk Japan found it, sunk under the water that covered the bottom of their launch, there were four bodies, all four men. One, Senegalese, the only one identified, he had in his pocket an asylum application letter and 7,000 dirhams (638 euros). Another had tied himself to the boat with a rope in an attempt not to fall into the sea and drown. He continued afloat, but could not resist the thirst.
four lifeless bodies
Why didn't you throw the bodies into the sea? Maybe they were friends or relatives? "I simply had no strength left," he explained to the person in charge of the Red Cross disappearance program who met with him at the hospital, whom he helped to identify some victims through photos, a few, because in reality he did not know no one on board. He had embarked alone, without friends.
That day he said that the engine of his pneumatic stopped in the middle of the crossing to fuerteventura, on the edge of his second day at sea, and that the boat began to fill with water. In a boat that barely protrudes one meter above the sea, it is not difficult to imagine with what anguish all those people tried to stay afloat by bailing out water, between waves of two to four meters and a constant downpour.
To the Red Cross, Fofana only told him about 31 adult men and two women, the majority from Senegal, but also from Guinea and the Ivory Coast. He did not mention any minor, but the sailors of the Miguel de Cervantes ship who recovered the inflatable to transport it to Las Palmas did not forget that, among the corpses, the warm clothes, several floats and a lot of garbage, they saw two children's shoes.
tossed by the waves
"Inflatable boat with 34 people on board has been reported sailing in an unknown situation, from Lamsid and bound for the Spanish coast." Saturday September 24the stations of the National Network for Safety at Sea began to broadcast this notice in English and Spanish to all ships in the area of the Canary Islands-Tarfaya maritime corridor to ask for their help.
At five knots (9 km/h), if there were no unforeseen events, this pneumatic should have sighted the Fuerteventura coast in less than 24 hours, but its motor broke and it was left at the whim of the wind and the Canary Current, which in that part of the Atlantic they push everything that floats towards the southwest. In the next eight days, the boat would drift more than 300 kilometers.
At a time that Fofana could specify, a good part of his companions fell into the sea. They struggled to get on the pneumatics again, at the risk of tipping it over, but they couldn't. The wheels they had on board as improvised life preservers were of no use, they drowned.
The damage shown in the Salvage photos suggests that it may have been the ones sitting on the starboard float.
Those who survived that accident were consumed with thirst. They had all spent a few days hiding in the desert before embarking with few provisions near Lamsid. And the water was missing. Most drank from the sea. Fofana, no: "I knew I couldn't prove it."
Little by little, he saw several of his companions die, whose bodies the others were throwing into the sea while they still had strength. Others jumped overboard in a state of hallucination or delirium.
It is something very frequent in the boats, corroborates a pediatrician who has cared for hundreds of immigrants on the docks of Gran Canaria: salt accelerates dehydration, sodium in the blood soars, and the body steals water from the cells to try to compensate. When that happens in the brain, the neurons die, and the person becomes delirious, convulses, and even suffers internal bleeding.
"Many times they believe that they see land nearby and they jump into the water to try to swim," says this doctor. In the Canary Route there are even documented cases of victims who assured that they were going to buy tobacco a second before jumping out of the cayuco.
Three days with no one else alive on board
It all must have happened very quickly. Autopsies of the recovered bodies indicate that these men died between the fourth and sixth day of the journey. It is believed that they were the last to die because those that were left were too weak to push them into the sea. "I'll be next," Fofana thought. all the time.
For three days, he was the only remaining life on board and he abandoned himself to his prayers, there was little else he could do. When he saw the hull of the Bulk Japan sailing towards him appear on the horizon, he gave thanks to Allah. He repeated it to all his interlocutors: "God saved me".
When he was waiting for the appointment to testify before the Police, a lawyer who assisted him those weeks informed him that they would give him a return order, so he suggested asking Spain to grant him international protection for humanitarian reasons.
"I do not care. If they send me back to my country, I accept it. I will not come back. I would not have embarked if I had known what could happen," she replied. The order was given to her, but she was not executed. Fofana V. she continued in some Red Cross apartments in Las Palmas until she managed to travel to France to meet with another brother of hers.
There he is now an irregular, someone exposed to being deported to the Ivory Coast if he is stopped by the Gendarmerie, without the protection that the status that Spain usually grants could have offered him, at the request of unhcrto vulnerable victims of tragedies like yours.
Those who spoke with him believe that he does not meet the profile of an economic migrant. "With what I earned as a mechanic in the Ivory Coast, I gave myself", told them. He wanted something else, he wanted to study in France, but there are no visas to Europe for people like him.
The EFE Agency has contacted Fofana V. twice in these months through people he trusts to invite him to tell his story directly. She has always rejected him. She doesn't feel strong enough to go back to that pneumatics. She can not.