"We only saw dead birds"

Toufic, 28, and Hasan, 30, are both from Syria. They would never have imagined the journey they would have to survive.

04 March 2024

Toufic, 28, and Hasan, 30, are both from Syria. They did not know each other before this afternoon of 16 February 2024, when they embarked together, along with 20 other people, on a boat from Libya in an attempt to reach Europe.

They would never have imagined the journey they would have to survive.

Hasan: We left around 1pm. We sailed from 1pm until around 10pm. I’m afraid of the water so I covered myself with the sweater and slept. When I woke up, the waves were already striking us. The waves were between 2 and 2.5 meter high and they were entering the boat. We saw a light blinking from far distance. We thought it was a ship, so we headed towards there. When we came closer, we realized it was an oil rig. We went around it four or five times, while screaming, “Help us, save us! Whoever is inside, save us; we are dying.” But, there was no response.

Toufic: A big wave struck us and the boat was filled with huge amount of water. We could not control it and we panicked. We were between 8 and 10 meters away from the rig. We threw ourselves into the water and we swam there [to the oil rig]. Three people stayed on the boat. We don’t know what happened to them. We were at risk of dying.

Hasan: It was dark already. I saw people jumping into water, so I jumped directly. I didn’t look who jumped in and who stayed on the boat. I held the bars at the basement of the rig. Then someone shouted, “There are stairs”. We stayed at the stairs all night long. The wind was strong.

Toufic: We climbed the metallic stairs, hardly, one by one. We reached up, but no one was there; the platform was abandoned. Our clothes were soaked in water. In the morning, we climbed higher and we saw fishing boats. We shouted, “Help us” but they didn’t respond. A ship passed near us; we screamed a lot, until our voices disappeared but, they didn’t respond. At night, we were anticipating our deaths. We started thinking who from the group will die next, since we had no water or food or anything else.

Hasan: We looked for food and water but didn’t find anything. We only saw dead birds on that platform. At night, one man with us said, “There is a plane circling above us”. We went up and saw the plane. We tried to signal ourselves with our phones. The plane went on circling above us around 10 times. Two hours after that, a Tunisian boat came as close as 10 meters away [from the platform]. We asked them to save us or give us food. We saw there was someone inside as they turned the projector on us, one by one. They saw us.

Toufic: After the plane left, the Tunisian National Guard boat came. The boat stopped underneath the oil rig. It had the [Tunisian] flag. We felt happy because we thought the plane had requested the boat to come to rescue us. We shouted, but they didn’t answer back. We went all the way down, no answer. We screamed a lot, no answer.  If they had thrown us inflatable buoys, we could have reached them. But, they left us and went away.

Hasan: We concluded that we would die. I was looking at the dead birds: one bird only had the leg bone left, another only the wing bones. Each shattered into different parts on the ground. I started imagining myself ending up with the same destiny. I started thinking about my daughters, how I left them, and my parents. I wished I never had left.

"We concluded that we would die." Hasan, 30 years old man from Syria.

Toufic: At some point, we found internet connection available in one of the rooms of the oil rig. We contacted people we know in Libya and told them we were dying. We told them some people stayed on the boat and we don’t know anything about them. We told them we had no food nor water.

Hasan: After three or four hours, we saw something far away that was blinking light towards us. We thought it was the Libyan Coast Guard; we were afraid. We preferred to die here [on the oil rig], instead of surrendering to the Libyan authorities because we know we will end up dead if they bring us back to a detention facility. We stayed, hiding, until the morning. 

Toufic: When the sun rose, the [MSF] rescue teams came and they started speaking in foreign languages; we felt relieved.

Toufic and Hasan on board of Geo Barents.

Toufic and Hasan on board of Geo Barents.

In the early hours of 18 February 2024, the MSF team rescued 19 people, among whom Toufic and Hasan, from an abandoned Tunisian oil rig in the international waters. The survivors reported that they swam to the oil rig on the 16th of February around 11:00 pm. While MSF team arrived on scene, they could not find any boat in the vicinity of the platform. MSF informed all the relevant authorities regarding the boat drifting boat in distress with three other people. As of today, these three people remain missing.