Reunited: Migrant girl who survived a 22-day crossing meets her rescuer

A screenshot from the BBC video when Aicha and Juan Carlos Serrano reunited after he rescued her | Source: BBC Video

A 17-year old migrant girl from Ivory Coast met her Spanish rescuer in a BBC video last week. Aicha was one of three people to survive a 22-day crossing from Mauritania when she was found drifting at sea by the Spanish Air Force.

Aicha is just 17 years old. She left her hometown in Ivory Coast in November, according to a BBC video report. She loves football and music and one of her heroes, shared by many in Ivory Coast, is former captain of the national team and Chelsea player Didier Drogba.

Aicha only told her older sister she was hoping to make it to Europe when she traveled first to Mauritania and then boarded a wooden boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean towards the Spanish Canary Islands a few weeks ago.


Aicha recalls her journey, drifting 22 days at sea in the BBC report | Source: BBC Video

Dozens of dead bodies, only three survivors

But, after 22 days at sea, most of the 59 people on Aicha’s boat had died and only three people survived. Aicha was one of them. According to Bruno Boelpap who made the report for the BBC, there were two dozen bodies on board the boat of people who had died.

On April 26, the Spanish military spotted the boat on which Aicha was traveling. According to the report from Bruno Boelpap for the BBC, this is one of the "biggest known tragedies involving migrant boats in the Canary Islands."

Last year more than 23,000 people arrived on the Canary Islands from the West African coast, and figures for the first four months of this year, comments Boelpap in his radio report, "show that trend accelerating." According to one Spanish NGO on the Canary Islands, about 1850 people died attempting the Atlantic crossing last year, making that route to Europe one of the most deadly.

Urgent rescue mission

"We descended to 500 feet and we discovered that there were three people who were conscious," explains one of the Spanish military crew, Captain Alex Gomez.

The Spanish military scrambled a helicopter to carry out an "urgent rescue mission." According to Victor Luis Casquero of the Spanish Airforce, the boat Aicha was found on was drifting "280 nautical miles, about 500 kilometers south west of El Hierro island."

At this distance, explains Casquero, "the helicopter is at the furthest distance it can go." The shots from the Spanish mission show a vast expanse of slightly choppy sea and a man descending on a relatively thin wire from the helicopter towards the boat.

Running out of fuel

Boelpap, in a radio report about the story for the BBC, explains that the crew "had to act quickly. Their own helicopter was running out of fuel, they were so far from land." Boelpap says that the crew "spared him the most gruesome details of what they found on board."

Sergeant Fernando Rodriguez takes up the story. "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," he comments. His crew mate Corporal Juan Carlos Serrano, sitting next to him at the airforce base says "So many factors go through your mind. But you just have to focus on getting out those who are alive."

In footage from the Spanish airforce of the rescue, Aicha can be seen sitting, partially slumped in the boat, wearing what looks like just a red cotton hooded top. There is no shade or shelter on the boat and some of the people who had died were still lying in the bottom of the boat.

'Their physical state was very bad'

"Their physical state was very bad," says Lieutenant Cristina Justo, also from the Spanish airforce. Boelpap adds that the crew said the three survivors could "hardly move" after so long at sea. "One woman was crying, but she had no tears left," explains a crew member to Boelpap.

"I thought if they don’t come back, we are all going to die," says Aicha to the camera, recalling her ordeal on board a small wooden fishing boat adrift on the Atlantic Ocean for weeks and then seeing the Spanish search helicopter above them.

Aicha explains to the BBC that after two days the 59 people on board had already run out of food and water. "On the fourth day there was no more petrol," she remembers.

Aicha’s voice wobbles and she gulps, tears run silently down her face as she remembers "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?"

Tears squeeze out of Aicha's eyes

At one point, in desperation they tried to feed some people sea water from a shoe, remembers Aicha. "At the beginning, we’d say a prayer," says Aicha, wiping away her tears. "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," Aicha adds, looking down, the tears squeezing out of her eyes.

Now though, there is a happy twist to the story. After spending ten days in hospital, Aicha met up with one of the crew of the Spanish Air Force Search and Rescue crew who helped get her off the boat. A BBC team were there to film their reunion.

Corporal Juan Carlos Serrano is filmed enveloping Aicha in a bear hug outside his family home, the rocky mountains in the background behind them. His wife and daughter wait just behind him for their turn to greet Aicha.

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'There are things you can never be trained for'

Two days after the rescue, the Spanish authorities finally towed the boat Aicha had been on to the Canary Islands harbor on Tenerife. The people who died on board will be buried in unmarked graves in Santa Cruz cemetery, explains the video.

"There are things you can never be trained for, like this one," comments one of Corporal Serrano’s teammates Captain Rodriguez.

The team are already back at work. "Unfortunately," says Corporal Serrano, in the knowledge that "there will be more missions like this one. That is what our search and rescue team is there for. We work to be ready and available."

Corporal Serrano demurs when asked if he would call himself a hero. "I consider myself a public servant," he says modestly. "Heroes are for comic books."

Meanwhile, Aicha is filmed smiling and "determined to embrace everything her new life can offer her." She is making "rapid progress learning Spanish," explains Boelpap in his radio report, "and she can stay in Spain legally, at least until she turns 18."

On her phone, she video calls her relatives in Ivory Coast and is reported to have made a full physical recovery. The scars of what she endured on the boat though, might take longer to heal.

This report was based entirely on a BBC Video report