On the way to La Spezia, the safety port assigned to the Geo Barents, the 49 survivors, including 32 unaccompanied minors, took time to relax and recuperate, and to talk to our teams. August 2023
InternationalMediterranean SeaTestimonies

"Six days adrift": Rescue of a boat full of teenagers in the Mediterranean Sea

On Friday, September 29, 2023

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Work six days and devote the seventh to God; it’s one of the ten commandments. And what we witnessed a few days ago is indeed a universal story, scaled down to a small point in a large sea.

Girls, boys, men, had been drifting for six full days on the Mediterranean Sea, somewhere south - southeast of Malta, "below" Italy, and "above" Libya. Girls, boys, men, helped on board our ship, the Geo Barents. One teenage girl, the age my generation were when we sat in the park drinking cheap wine and playing the guitar. Another one, not quite a woman. 49 people boarded our ship.

50 of them started the journey.

One is gone. Quietly, but not meaninglessly.

Stefan Pejović during the rescue operation carried out by MSF on 17 August 2023. The MSF team on board the Geo Barents managed to rescue 55 people, including 2 women and 43 unaccompanied minors.

The journey

After two days, they ran out of sandwiches and water – almost all of them teenagers, most of them under 18. They drank the sea to survive, some of them reluctantly. The red-hot iron of the boat seared their limbs and left bruises on their weakened bodies. I asked them if it was worse during the day or at night. They didn’t know how to answer: the day was hot and difficult; the night was cold and terrible. And dark. Dark as the darkened minds that allow this kind of suffering, I thought. It didn't matter that there were 50 of them, when everyone had only their own fears.

Girls, boys, men, travelled for days from despair to hope, then back to despair and hopelessness. Just as they had travelled for months and years from Gambia – where most of them had walked from – to Libya, then to Tunisia, the starting point of the sea route. Gambia - Senegal - Mali - Algeria - Libya - Tunisia. 6,000 kilometres. Like walking from Lisbon to Tehran. If you're lucky, you will manage to get on a boat in Libya or Tunisia. If you aren't, you stay in Libya until you somehow earn money for the trip – and you can imagine how – or until you die.

Our team heard from survivors who had spent six days at sea without food or water and had to drink salt water in a last-ditch effort to survive. 10 August 2023

An escape

One of the survivors was detained for half a year in a Libyan prison. His crime: being a sub-Saharan African.

For six months he had nothing to eat except bread, until he managed to escape with a friend. The friend was shot. The one who escaped was helped by people in Libya, later in Tunisia, before that by Algerians and others. Algerians, Libyans, Tunisians and others also turned their backs on him. He says that everywhere there are good people and not so good people – this is something that I often hear in my home countries, in the Balkans – and that he will repay them all, individually, when he earns money from playing football. That’s his dream – like millions of other teenagers.

Our team heard from survivors who had been sexually assaulted, in particular raped, while being pushed away. 10 August 2023

A man and a human

Another survivor says that before the trip, his father told him to be a man and a human being, above everything else.

His mother told him to work honestly, not to think of robbing and stealing, but to earn his money through hard work and sweat. This is what he was telling me as he gestured to wipe the sweat from his forehead. He says he loves his mother. That every day she would walk him kilometres to the bus, which would take him to school, then meet him and then take him home for dinner. He says that his mother worked hard so that he could have good food and an education. But I don't think that's the only reason he loves his mother: he also loves her simply because she's his mother, who he misses, just like he misses his little town and his friends.

People who leave or lose their homeland are cursed. You can neither really love a foreign country, nor return. That’s something we know in the Balkans.

He got his hair cut on the ship – we organise a barbershop regularly, and it's a really cheerful event for everyone on board. I teased him that his haircut was not symmetrical. We both laughed. Even though I couldn't laugh really – especially not at him.

After three and a half hours of extensive searching, two people have been found and another is still missing. 7 August 2023


A third cried inconsolably. Honestly and deeply, with the tears of a child who has lost his best friend.

The rope unwound like a human life: on the sixth day, 50 half-dead teenagers saw a bottle of water float past their boat. Tired, starving, with burnt lips and throats, two jumped to reach it, to save themselves and others. The sea current was too strong, and two more jumped to rescue them. One of them was Abe. One got back to the boat; three of them remained in the water, holding each other desperately. The current swept them away.

Abe has disappeared.

We found the other two.

They were near the oil platform in the photo above. Two black dots, with little black tires around thin waists, in a big black restless sea. Experienced colleagues say that that it would take a miracle to find a person under such conditions. And miracles do happen.

Abe did what he set out to do: he gave his life for others.

The two who jumped to grab the bottle and save others from death by dehydration were saved after a long search. The girls, boys and men, 49 of them, who had made it on to the Geo Barents, held a collective prayer before disembarking: they were praying for us to save more people.

I still do not know whether their prayer is a tragedy or a reflection of the fullness of life.

Six days after the rescue, I just know that Abe will find his place among the righteous, whatever it's called. Because there is no greater love than a man who lays down his life for his friends.


*Some names in the text were changed to protect people’s identities.

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