After several days with no news, Estelle began to worry about what had happened to her sister. She travelled from Switzerland to Algeciras, fearing the worst: Larisa had fallen victim to the negligence of the rescue services, which had failed to come to her rescue.
On Thursday 12 January 2017, a boat carrying 11 people was travelling the Strait of Gibraltar route. Salvamento Marítimo received an alert from one of the boats and mobilised a search operation before suspending it when the Moroccan authorities agreed to “take charge” of the rescue mission. Larisa, a woman from Ivory Coast who was living in Morocco, was one of the passengers on board the boat.
A day later, on 13 January, the Spanish operation was re-launched after a new alert was received: a boat carrying three women and five men had left Morocco at dawn and was heading for the Spanish coast. The people on board the boat called the Ca-minando Fronteras hotline several times during their journey. They complained that their inflatable boat “might have a puncture” and that the current was carrying them towards the Alboran Sea. At that point, the helicopter and speedboat mobilised by Salvamento Marítimo managed to locate the vessel. The body of a sub-Saharan African person was washed up on the beach at Bolonia that afternoon, obliging the rescue mission to continue. However, when night fell, the search for the people on board the drifting boat was suspended for the second consecutive night. In 2017, the suspension of rescue operations by the Spanish search and rescue services on the Strait of Gibraltar route was an anomaly that did not occur in the Alboran Sea, where searches lasted for as long as necessary to save the lives of people missing at sea.
The next morning, a Sasemar 101 plane spotted a small raft floating 30 miles to the east of Ceuta. It was a wooden boat carrying eight people, seven of whom had survived. One of the women, who was from the Democratic Republic of Congo, had died during the journey and her body was lying next to the survivors, who all had symptoms of hypothermia.
Unfortunately, Larisa was not so lucky: her boat was never found, there were no survivors and many of the bodies washed up on the coasts of Spain and Algeria. One of them was hers.
During Larisa’s time in Morocco, her sister Estelle spoke to her every day from Switzerland, where she was living. One day, she was suddenly unable to get hold of Larisa. A friend of Larisa’s contacted Estelle to inform her that the girl had tried to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain. Estelle was shocked when her sister’s death was confirmed. “Larisa never mentioned her plans to cross to Spain by sea. When she was still in Ivory Coast, we tried several times to apply for a visa for her from the Swiss embassy but our applications were rejected so I decided to pay for her to go and work in Morocco”.
“When they told me Larisa had died, I felt a deep hatred towards the people who killed her by offering her a way to get to Europe and causing her to lose her life. But I took a deep breath and managed to get the contact details for Helena from Ca-minando Fronteras, who I was told would be able to explain how to proceed. She explained everything: the inflatable dinghy carrying 12 people had capsized and several bodies had washed up on the coast of Cádiz, but there were no known survivors”.
Devastated at losing her sister, Estelle travelled from Switzerland to Algeciras to try and identify one of the bodies, which seemed likely to be Larisa. Ca-minando Fronteras supported her throughout the process. She struggled to grasp what had happened: “So many young African lives lost”.
“The next day, we met the Civil Guard at the morgue and prepared to go in and identify the body. I remember the officer speaking to me in French with affection and respect. I was able to identify her: it was Larisa. I embraced her and kissed her forehead as I sobbed. I wanted to take a photo. I needed to take a photo so that my family could see it was her and understand that Larisa was really dead! But it wasn’t possible.”
Despite the difficult circumstances, Estelle said that she had felt supported and protected during her time in Algeciras. Her sister’s funeral was attended by a large group of residents from the city, who take to the streets after every tragedy to mourn the dead and demand accountability. One rainy Saturday in February, Larisa was buried. A mass was held to respect her mother’s wishes and her body was laid to rest near the sea where she died.
The process of transforming pain into justice allowed Larisa’s family to reconstruct the events surrounding her death and begin to mourn. “It’s hard to talk about all this, but it’s good to talk about Larisa. I’m glad because every time we talk about her, it’s like we’re paying tribute to her life”, said Estelle gratefully. “Since I lost her, people have written to me from Africa and Europe and her life has been commemorated on social media with a great deal of affection. Sharing our stories and feeling that solidarity really helps”.