At least 58 Ethiopians drowned in the Red Sea off the shores of Djibouti on January 29. These men, women and children left their country in search of a better life in Saudi Arabia, which they hoped to reach via Djibouti and then Yemen. Their boat capsized just 500 metres from the coast and the tragedy could have been avoided if the victims had known how to swim, says our Observer, who helped rescue those who survived and bury the bodies of those who did not.

Roughly 100 Ethiopians piled into a seven-metre-long wooden boat and attempted to cross the Red Sea on January 29. The overcrowded boat encountered strong winds and capsized around 4am. Only 16 people survived.

Photo taken by our Observer on Godoria Beach.
 

Back in July 2018, we spoke to our Observer Ahmed Mohamed Kamil about how Djibouti and especially the small coastal town of Obock had been affected by a flow of migrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. Seeking a better life, people from countries in the Horn of Africa pass through Obock on their way to Saudi Arabia.
 
 
This migration route may not get as much attention as the route across the Mediterranean but the International Organization for Migration (IOM) counted at least 18,000 journeys through Djibouti between October and November 2018 alone. The IOM did specify that this number is not precise because undocumented migrants travel clandestinely and are hard to count, adding that it is possible the same individuals are counted more than once along their journey.

"These people might have survived if they had known how to swim"

Our Observer Ahmed Mohamed Kamil is a former people smuggler himself who gave up that profession and now works as a representative for the Djiboutian branch of the Red Crescent in Obock. He told us that most of the people travelling on this boat died. Local authorities, including the coastguard and the police, gave first aid to the few survivors and buried the bodies of the victims that washed up on Godoria Beach in the days following the tragedy.


Photo taken by our Observer on Godoria Beach.
 

The boat capsized only 500 metres from the shore on Godoria Beach, which is a well-known departure point for people smugglers and migrants bound for Yemen. For the crossing, smugglers charge about 5,000 Djiboutian Francs, equivalent to 25 euros, per person.

I spoke to some of the survivors and, based on their testimonies, I think that there were two main reasons the boat capsized. First of all, the boat was only supposed to carry 80 people at most, but the smuggler and his assistant forced the hundred or so migrants who were on the beach that night to get into the boat. Secondly, there were very strong winds.

In the four days after the shipwreck, we found 58 bodies on the beach, including those of the Yemeni people smugglers. We also took care of the 16 survivors who managed to cling onto jerrycans and float towards shore. Most of these migrants don’t know how to swim, which is why so many of them drowned. I think if they had known how to swim, they probably would have survived.

Some of the survivors went back to Ethiopia, while others are waiting in Obock for another chance to cross. All of the people on this boat were Oromos [Editor’s note: The largest ethnic group in Ethiopia]. Many were women and children.

Burying their bodies was traumatising. I had trouble sleeping and had nightmares in the days following the shipwreck. But it's obviously our duty to do it. Many residents of Obock turned out to help us bury them.

According to the IOM, which helps migrants in Djibouti and provides statistics on their presence in this small country, at least 199 migrants have drowned in the waters off Obock since 2014.

The France 24 Observers team reached out to the Djiboutian Coast Guard and the national police to find out more about the accident and the rescue operations that followed. We will update the page with their comments if they respond to our requests.

CORRECTION (25/3/18): The original version of this article said Ahmed Mohamed Kamil works for the Djiboutian branch of the Red Cross. He works for the Red Crescent Society of Djibouti, affiliated with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

This article was written by Liselotte Mas (@liselottemas).