When 17-year-old Aicha left her hometown in Ivory Coast last November, she told her sister that her hope is to make it to Europe by traveling first to Mauritania before boarding a wooden boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean towards the Spanish Canary Islands.
She did make it to Mauritania and got the boat, alongside 58 other migrants. But, after 22 days at sea, most of the 59 people on the boat died. Only three people survived, including Aicha. She was found drifting at sea by the Spanish Air Force.
It’s the biggest known tragedy involving migrant boats in the Canary Islands, according to a report by BBC.
Aicha’s boat was first spotted by an Air Force plane, about 265 nautical miles from El Hierro on April 26. A military helicopter subsequently went to the rescue of Aicha and the two other survivors. “We descended to 500 feet and we discovered that there were three people who were conscious,” said one of the Spanish military crew, Captain Alex Gomez.
The boat was drifting “280 nautical miles, about 500 kilometers south west of El Hierro island,” according to the Spanish Air Force crew. The BBC report said the crew had to act quickly as their own helicopter was running out of fuel. “They were so far from land,” the report said.
“As we started descending, looking at it, you could tell it wasn’t good. It was like a mass grave in the middle of the sea,” Sergeant Fernando Rodriguez recalled. Their focus however was on getting out those who were still alive.
Aicha was seen seated in the boat, wearing a red cotton hooded top. The boat had no shade or shelter and some of the migrants who had died were still lying in the bottom of it.
After so long at sea, Aicha and the two other survivors could “hardly move” when they were rescued by the crew.
“I thought if they don’t come back, we are all going to die,” said Aicha, recounting her ordeal on the boat and later seeing the crew in a helicopter above her.
She told the BBC that two days into the journey with the other migrants, they ran out of food and water. “On the fourth day there was no more petrol,” she recalled. She said: “There were men who could no longer stand up and who screamed out of thirst ‘Please, please,’ they begged, ‘I need to drink water, can someone please give me water?’”
Some people were even given seawater from a shoe, Aicha recalled. “At the beginning, we’d say a prayer… By the end, we didn’t even have the strength to do that. We didn’t even have the strength left to throw a body in the water,” she narrated.
Two days after the rescue, officials in Spain towed Aicha’s boat to the Canary Islands harbor on Tenerife. Aicha recovered after spending two days in a hospital. She has since reunited with one of the members of the Spanish Air Force Search and Rescue crew who helped get her off the boat.
The Ivorian teen is learning Spanish and looking to have an amazing future in Europe as she can stay in Spain legally at least until she is 18.
The Spanish Air Force Search and Rescue crew have also returned to work as sadly, there will be more missions like Aicha’s.
Reports say that the number of migrants crossing the Atlantic from Africa to the Canary Islands is rising, in spite of the dangers involved. From January 1 to March 31, about 3,400 people arrived in the Canary Islands.
Last year, more than 23,000 people arrived in the Canary Islands from the West African coast. About 1,850 people died attempting the Atlantic crossing last year, according to one Spanish NGO on the Canary Islands.