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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

-- Barbados police in contact with Interpol
By Norman Faria
NORMALLY, Carlisle Bay on Barbados’ south west corner is, during the non-hurricane months from December to June, the main anchoring area of small ocean going cruising yachts from all over the world.

Skippers and crews relax after crossing the Atlantic from Europe or South America, enjoying the warm, clear harbour waters and welcome of friendly populace before continuing on to other destinations in the Caribbean.

On Sunday, the last day of April, a Barbados Coast Guard boat towed in a rusting, dismasted yacht-like hull with 11 bodies on board. They had all starved to death.

The authorities in the most easterly of the Eastern Caribbean island chain had little to go on. There were no identification papers of either the deceased or the name and registry of the boat. The only clues were an airline ticket linked to one of the airlines of Senegal on Africa’s west coast and a sum of Euro currency. To try and find out more, the international police body INTERPOL was contacted.

Autopsies on the men, who were all of African descent, showed they died of starvation and no foul play is suspected. Barbadian health authorities burned a number of items found on board. The hull, which appears to be a steel hull of French design and approximately 40 feet long, is tied up at the Coast Guard base at the Careenage Harbour in Bridgetown.

It appears that the dead men are refugees who tried to use the boat to reach Spanish territory such as the Canary Islands or that of another European nation. This is the slant of a continuing series of articles by Barbados’ largest daily newspaper, the Sunday Sun. One of their articles carried an interview with a reporter from the Spanish newspaper La Voz De Gallicia to back up this view. The reporter Tomas Garcia, is reported as saying that this year alone some 500,000 Africans have tried to get to the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago lying off the African coast, from Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea and Sierra Leone. In the last six months, the Spanish Red Cross recorded 1,200 deaths among the refugees.

There are likely many more whose boats, often overcrowded and ill-equipped to make ocean passages, are shipwrecked at sea.

This is apparently what happened with the boat which ended up in Barbados. While 11 bodies are found, knowledgeable observers in the shipping sector in the island such as former Commander of the Barbados Coast Guard Captain David Waithe, suggest several more were on board.

“It’s probable there could have been over two dozen more. As the weak died first, the stronger and more healthy threw the bodies overboard. As they themselves got too weak, they succumbed until no one was left alive, “ he said in an interview with the Guyana Chronicle.

Waithe said it would have taken an experienced person to sail such a boat against the winds and current from Senegal, if indeed the doomed voyage did start from there, to the Canaries to the north.

He figured something went wrong, perhaps the small auxiliary engine seized up, and the boat was caught up in the westward setting tide and wind pushing it westward to the Caribbean. If there was insufficient crew and water on board for what was probable many more onboard, they were doomed as the boat tossed about for weeks on the sometimes merciless Atlantic Ocean.

What about the possibility that they could have been rescued by a passing freighter, or “cargo boat” as they say in the islands?

Waithe, who captained super tankers before he came ashore to be with his Barbadian-born wife, said the drifting route of the boat crossed shipping lanes. “The problem here is that a boat this size and colour - its hull is white which easily blends in with the white wave tops - you have to be at least a mile near to a passing ship to be seen and even then you have to be lucky to have an alert watch on the bridge. The Atlantic is a very big place.”

Sadly, there have been cases where ship captains simply will not stop for refugees. “This happened during the Vietnam War. I know of at least one shipping line which instructed its captains not to stop for refugees. It is against international maritime law to refuse to render assistance (to those in trouble at sea) but ship’s owners know that they have to be responsible for the welfare of the refugees having picked them up.

“Some countries require that the rescuing ship take the refugees back out of their waters”, he said.

Whether this actually happened in the perplexing yet sad case of the unnamed boat which ended up in Barbadian waters with the nameless bodies, we may never know. INTERPOL may help, after contacting Senegalese authorities.

From reports, the bodies were found huddled together in two groups. Huddled together in death, as they probably did in life searching for a better life, they may become yet another mystery of the seas.

Guyana Chronicle
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