Desperate for new lives, they took to the sea, but all they found was death

Desperate for new lives, they took to the sea

Fishermen aboard a traditional Mauritanian fishing boat, or pirogue, return after a day of work to the port of Nouadhibou, Mauritania, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Every year, hundreds if not thousands of West African migrants disappear trying to reach the Canary Islands and, they believed, better lives in Europe. The real death toll is unknown, and so many people and boats are never seen again. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Fishermen aboard a traditional Mauritanian fishing boat, or pirogue, return after a day of work to the port of Nouadhibou, Mauritania, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Every year, hundreds if not thousands of West African migrants disappear trying to reach the Canary Islands and, they believed, better lives in Europe. The real death toll is unknown, and so many people and boats are never seen again. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Every year, hundreds if not thousands of West African migrants disappear trying to reach the Canary Islands and, they believe, better lives in Europe. The real death toll is unknown, and so many people and boats are never seen again. But in 2021, something strange happened.

The boats, from the Atlantic coastal nation of Mauritania and other African nations, believed to have been used by migrants, weren't making it to the Canaries. They were emerging on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in the Caribbean and even as far as Brazil. All carried a sad cargo -- the bodies of young men and women who dreamt of a new life in Europe. Few were ever identified.

They had drifted to death.

For nearly two years, Associated Press journalists traced the origins of one boat and the people who died in it. Their remains were found aboard a white and blue pirogue -- a Mauritanian fishing boat -- drifting near the Caribbean Island of Tobago on May 28, 2021.

As they traced what became of the men, they captured their journey. And arresting images emerged -- images that conveyed the heartache, the loneliness, the futility of trying to find new lives by taking the biggest of risks.

These photos, by AP photographer Felipe Dana, chronicle the journey of these young men, of the places they left and were trying to reach. Taken together, the images show determination and desperation of the sort that many humans never experience -- and that far too many humans do.

They show the village from where the men came, and the life they were trying to leave behind. They show the shores the men left, and the ones they reached only in death. They show kids not unlike those who were lost, wearing clothing similar to that found in the doomed boat.

And, in an emotional collage, they show the clothes that the men on that unfortunate pirogue were wearing when they died -- clothes tracked down by the AP and removed from plastic bags, under watchful eyes, to gather evidence about who they were.

In one image, the single doomed boat sits on the shoreline at dusk, cleared of remains, the only physical reminder of the young lives lost. In another, a hand in a protective latex glove examines the prized mobile phones of men who will make no more calls, check no more messages. In another, a dusty Mauritanian highway speaks to the bleak life these men wanted to get away from as they looked to the sea for their next chapter.

And then there is a haunting silhouette of Soulayman Sangare of Kayes, Mali, stuck -- as he characterizes it -- in Mauritania. He might not say so, but he is one of the lucky ones. He tried to get out once, then twice, but was thwarted. He is still alive.

But how long that will last is unclear. Like those before him, those who died alone and at sea, Sangare is committed to getting out.

"I want to try and leave again. That is my decision."

Asks a journalist: "Nothing will make you change your decision?"

"Nothing. Only death."

  photo  Residents walk around the central market area in Selibaby, Mauritania, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  Soulayman Sangare of Mali, poses for a portrait in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Sangare has tried and failed to reach Spain's Canary Islands by boat. Despite being aware of the dangers of such ocean voyages and the fact he can't swim, Sangare said he was determined to try again. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  Young fishermen walk into the ocean to board an artisanal fishing boat in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  A strip of tarmac leading to the capital is partly covered by sand near Nouadhibou, Mauritania, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  A man holds fish as he walks on the beach in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  The wreck of a traditional Mauritanian fishing boat, known as a pirogue, also used by migrants to reach Spain's Canary Islands, sits on a beach near Nouadhibou, Mauritania, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. In 2021, at least seven boats appearing to be from Northwest Africa washed up in the Caribbean and in Brazil. All carried dead bodies. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  A beach is illuminated by a car's headlights at dusk near Nouadhibou, Mauritania, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  Traditional Mauritanian fishing boats known as pirogues are moored at the port in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  Adama Barra, right, and a relative, sit in his living room in Selibaby, Mauritania, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. Barra, a local teacher, knew many of the young men who went missing after boarding a boat in Nouadhibou hoping to reach Spain's Canary Islands. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  A boy runs in the street at dusk in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  Oumar Koume, left, sits with other relatives during an interview in Selibaby, Mauritania, Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. Koume's son, Djibi Koume, was among 43 people to have boarded the boat that was found in Tobago on May 28, 2021, more than four months after its departure from Mauritania in an attempt to reach Spain's Canary Islands. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  An old map of Mauritania is displayed in a hostel in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  Two young fishermen from Senegal lean on a wall after returning from a fishing expedition in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  Men prepare to dock a fishing boat, known as pirogue, at the port in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  Moussa Sako, an asylum-seeker from Mali who survived 22 days aboard a Mauritanian boat drifting in the Atlantic Ocean, covers his face during an interview in Guadalajara, Spain, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021. Sako was rescued by the Spanish Air Force on April 26, 2021. His boat was spotted by chance more than 310 miles (500 km) from the Spanish island of El Hierro — "in the middle of nowhere," as one of the rescuers described it. They had set off 22 days earlier from Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. Only three of 63 people who boarded survived. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  The engine found on the Mauritania boat that appeared drifting near Tobago lies in on a floor in the village of Belle Garden, Trinidad and Tobago, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  Fishermen clean and cut their catch in the village of Belle Garden on the Caribbean island of Tobago, Trinidad and Tobago, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  A printed T-shirt that reads "Hello, is it me you're looking for?" found on a deceased migrant whose remains were recovered from a Mauritania boat on May 28, 2021, is laid out at the Scarborough police station on the island of Tobago, Trinidad and Tobago, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  Mortuary technician Thomas Philips sits inside the morgue at the Scarborough hospital on the island of Tobago, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  A boot is seen inside a Mauritanian boat that drifted to Tobago with 14 bodies and other skeletal remains, in Belle Garden, Trinidad and Tobago, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. The boat was found by local fishermen drifting nearby on May 28, 2021 with 14 bodies and other skeletal remains inside. An AP investigation has found that the boat had departed the port town of Nouadhibou in Mauritania, Africa more than four months earlier with 43 migrants. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  A traditional boat from Mauritania known as a pirogue sits by the side of the road in the village of Belle Garden in the island of Tobago, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. The boat was found by local fishermen drifting nearby on May 28, 2021 with 14 bodies and other skeletal remains inside. An AP investigation has found that the boat had departed the port town of Nouadhibou in Mauritania, Africa more than four months earlier with 43 migrants. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  Police evidence bags containing clothing and other items found on a Mauritanian boat are laid out at the Scarborough police station in Tobago, Trinidad and Tobago, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. The boat was found by local fishermen drifting nearby on May 28, 2021 with 14 bodies and other skeletal remains inside. An AP investigation has found that the boat had departed the port town of Nouadhibou in Mauritania, Africa more than four months earlier with 43 migrants. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  In this combination of photos, clothing found on deceased migrants whose remains were recovered from a Mauritanian boat on May 28, 2021, are laid out at the Scarborough police station on the island of Tobago, Trinidad and Tobago, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. The boat was found by local fishermen drifting nearby on May 28, 2021 with 14 bodies and other skeletal remains inside. An AP investigation has found that the boat had departed the port town of Nouadhibou in Mauritania, Africa more than four months earlier with 43 migrants. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  A police officer shows one of the phones found inside a Mauritanian boat at the Scarborough police station in Trinidad and Tobago, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
 
 
  photo  A boat navigates the shore of the island of Tobago, Trinidad and Tobago, at sunset on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)