From the Sea to the River,
the deadly violence of Europe’s borders

#border_violence #borders #violence #forensic_architecture #migrations #Alps #Mediterranean

4 September 2023


Over the last years, investigative practices combining scientific methods, art and architecture have allowed to shed new light on human rights violations. Emerging out of the pioneering London-based agency Forensic Architecture and the Forensic Oceanography research project, in 2021 a new investigative agency – Border Forensics – was established. Border Forensics focuses specifically on documenting and contesting violence related to the existence and management of borders.

This article presents material from the installation “From the Sea to the River – Border Violence Across Illegalised Migrants’ Trajectories” that Border Forensics designed in 2023 for the Zürcher Theater Spektakel. The installation brings together two investigations two investigations: “The Death of Blessing” and “The Left-to-die Boat”.

Text by Border Forensics


Located in border zones more than a thousand kilometres far from each other, unfolding across radically different scales, and investigated 10 years apart, “The Death of Blessing” and “The Left-to-die Boat” cases are nevertheless connected on a number of levels.

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Location map

The Mediterranean and the Alps are successive rims of border control located along the trajectories of illegalised migrants seeking to move between Africa and Europe. Classed and racialised populations from the Global South, and from Africa in particular, are denied their right to move by restrictive European policies. Those who attempt to migrate despite these restrictions encounter Europe’s violent borders long before they reach EU territory – as they cross the Mediterranean, but also the Sahara desert.

Even if they arrive safely on European shores, they continue to run up against Europe’s borders as they seek to live and move within and between European countries. For people like Blessing or the passengers of the Left-to-die Boat, the violence of borders follows them as they move in space, often intersecting with racial profiling.

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Blessing Matthew pictured on the day of her graduation
Photo shared by her sister, Christiana Obie.

“The Death of Blessing Matthew” was the first investigation led by the newly established agency Border Forensics (2021-2022); it analyses the conditions that led to the death of Blessing Matthew, a young Nigerian woman, near the Alpine border between Italy and France. She was found dead in a river on the 9th of May 2018, two days after she had been chased by the a group of agents of the Mobile Gendarmerie (gendarmerie mobile) [1] across La Vachette, a village upstream.

“The Left-to-die Boat Case” was the first investigation led by the Forensic Oceanography (2011-2012); it follows the trajectory of a boat with 72 migrants mainly from Ethiopia and Eritrea onboard who were attempting to escape from Libya in 2011 by crossing the sea. Despite calls for help, they were abandoned in NATO’s surveillance area. As a result of the inaction of all state actors involved, only 9 of the passengers survived.

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Reconstructing the Left-to-die Boat’s trajectory.
Photo : Forensic Oceanography.

In each of the investigated cases, the harm that police or military officers inflict involves both action and inaction – blurring the very boundary between these terms. Violence is further mediated by particular geophysical environments – the sea and a mountain river. Landscapes that may be idyllic for some are made deadly for the othered and the dispossessed as a result of restrictive migration policies and bordering practices.

While over the last years an increasing number of acts of direct violence – such as beatings by border guards – have been documented at the borders of Europe through photographic or video images, the challenge of documenting the indirect violence at work in these cases was heightened by the scarcity of images recording them. Refusing that those responsible for these deaths be protected by their invisibility, we developed innovative methodologies to register traces of these lethal events.

In the Left-to-die Boat case we mobilised surveillance technologies against the grain to trace the trajectory of the drifting boat and locate the military vessels in vicinity that failed to assist them.

In the Blessing case we re-enacted the police chase and generated the missing images of the events so as to map the sequence of actions and inactions that led to Blessing’s drowning in the river.

In neither the Blessing or the Left-to-die Boat cases has the demand for truth and justice of survivors and families been met. Impunity for these crimes has been perpetuated despite the light these investigations shed on them and litigation efforts. In these conditions, we believe it is all the more important that the voices of the survivors be heard and these investigations be presented beyond the forums of the law, including in cultural spaces, so that we may collectively refuse that the law’s blindness become our own.

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Public visiting the installation in Zurich, August 2023.
Photo : © Kira Kynd.
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Public visiting the installation in Zurich, August 2023.
Photo : © Kira Kynd.

The death of Blessing Matthew.
A counter-investigation on violence at the Alpine frontier

On the 9th May 2018, the body of Blessing Matthew, originally from Nigeria, was discovered in the Durance River, in the French Hautes-Alpes near the border with Italy. Blessing had last been seen in the village of La Vachette in the early hours of the 7th of May when a group of agents of the Mobile Gendarmerie sought to stop Blessing and her two travel companions, Hervé S. and Roland R. While the judicial police investigation cleared the gendarmes of all responsibility and the court dismissed the complaint against them in February 2021, Border Forensics’ counter-investigation has challenged these findings.

Border Forensics conducted its counter-investigation to support the demand for truth and justice of Blessing’s family and the NGO Tous Migrants, based in Briançon. However, despite the new elements put forward, the public prosecutor refused to reopen the investigation. An application before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was filed in October 2022 concerning the lack of an effective investigation. In the words of Christiana Obie, one of Blessing’s sisters, “my sister will continue to scream” until the truth is known and justice is done.

To lead our counter-investigation into the conditions leading to Blessing’s death, we proceeded in several steps.

First, we produced a spatio-temporal analysis of the accounts of the events provided by the gendarmes to the judicial police investigation, and demonstrated that the gendarmes’ statements were highly contradictory and inconsistent with the constraints of space and time.

Link to watch the video: The Death of Blessing Matthew, The Analysis

Second, we went to La Vachette with Hervé S., one of Blessing’s fellow travellers, and recorded in situ his testimony of the unfolding of events from the moment the gendarmes started chasing them up until Blessing fell into the river. We further positioned a video camera close to Hervé at key moments in the events to verify that it was possible for him to see what he described and, in the process, generated the missing images of the events of the 7th of May 2018. We then located these images in a 3D model and produced a cartographic analysis of Hervé’s testimony, which is as precise as it is consistent and is further corroborated by several other elements of evidence. Finally the practices of the gendarmes he describes have been repeatedly documented. Our analysis suggests that the actions and inactions of the gendarmes may have led to Blessing’s deadly fall into the Durance.

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Video still showing the in-situ audio-visual reconstruction of Hervé S. testimony accounting for the police chase. The camera held by a tripod is positioned so as to document Hervé’s point of view at the time.
The Death of Blessing Matthew – In Situ Testimony, Border Forensics (2022, 21 min)
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Video still showing the projection of one of Hervé’s points of view recorded by video and projected into a photogrammetric model of the village.
The Death of Blessing Matthew – In Situ Testimony, Border Forensics (2022, 21 min)

Link to watch the video: The Death of Blessing Matthew, In Situ Testimony

Chain of events leading to the death of Blessing Matthew according to Hervé S.

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Map of the chain of events leading to the death of Blessing Matthew according to Hervé S.
Visualisation: Border Forensics.

Around midnight on the 7th of May, Blessing Matthew, Hervé S. and Roland E. left Clavière, the last Italian village before the border with France. They first walked through the mountains to avoid being intercepted and pushed back, then, joining the main road towards Briançon so as not to get lost.

Stage 1
At about 4:00am Hervé, Roland and Blessing arrive at the entrance of the village of La Vachette via the national road RN94. Roland sees torches and they hide by the side of the road. After ten minutes, Roland gets up and continues to walk along the road. He is once again lit up by the torches and the gendarmes order him to stop. Blessing and Hervé come out of their hiding place and run in the direction of the church.

Stage 2
They arrive at the bridge in the centre of the village. Blessing drops her bag just before the bridge, Hervé bends over to pick it up. He sees four gendarmes coming towards him on foot, from two different directions, their torches on.

Stage 3
Being chased by the police, Blessing and Hervé cross the bridge and continue to run towards the church. Hervé goes down into a garden below the church, where he hides by lying in high grass. Blessing goes down the stairs into the same garden. A gendarme arrives running behind her saying “Stop, if you don’t stop I’ll shoot”.

Stage 4
About 4:20am. Blessing continues to run in the garden, the gendarme runs after her. She stops when she finds herself blocked by the river. Cornered by the gendarme, she continues along the riverbank. She says to the gendarme, in English, that she will jump in the water if he continues to chase her. The gendarme reaches her, grabs her by the arm, she struggles. She screams in English: “Leave me! Leave me! Leave me!” Then Hervé no longer sees her. He hears her voice grow distant as she shouts in English “Help me! Help me! Help me”.

After Blessing falls into the water, Hervé sees the gendarme go up and join his colleagues in the garden. He hears the gendarme say: “She fell, she must have crossed to the other side”. The gendarmes stay in the garden for longer than ten minutes, searching and looking for Hervé. Then, three gendarmerie vehicles stop in the parking lot, and the gendarmes join their colleagues. At 5 am the street lights come on. Hervé crawls to a hut to hide better. He sees torches on the other side, on the left bank. He stays hidden for about an hour. He is later caught by the gendarmes, who beat and handcuff him before being pushed back across the border to Italy.

Important note: In September 2023, Hervé S., Blessing’s travel companion and the main witness of her death, is threatened with deportation from France. Please sign this petition in support.

Credits for the Blessing’s investigation

Project team: Sarah Bachellerie, Cristina Del Biaggio, Charles Heller, Svitlana Lavrenchuk, Lorenzo Pezzani, Giovanna Reder and Santiago Rivas Sola.
Production: Border Forensics.
Coproduction: Tous Migrants
Support: European Cultural Foundation, Investigative Journalism for Europe, Pro Helvetia, PRO ASYL Foundation, Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation, République et Canton de Genève, Utopiana and Ville de Genève.

The Left-to-die Boat Case.
A counter-investigation on violence at the Mediterranean frontier

In March 2011, 72 passengers left the Libyan coast heading in the direction of Italy on board a small rubber boat at the time of NATO’s military intervention in Libya. Despite several distress signals relaying their location, as well as repeated interactions with at least one military helicopter and a military ship, they were left to drift for 14 days and only nine people survived.

To corroborate the survivors’ testimonies and register the traces of these lethal events in the near absence of images, we critically mobilised different sources of meteorological data and means of surveillance.

First, on the basis of survivor testimonies and the georeferenced positions generated by the migrants’ distress calls, we reconstructed the trajectory of the migrants’ boat up to the moment it ran out of fuel. To determine the trajectory of the boat during its fourteen days of deadly drift, we called upon an oceanographer to model the boat’s drift vessel on the basis of wind and current data. In the process, we brought the winds and the currents to bear witness to the events.

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Richard Limeburner, senior research specialist in the Department of Physical Oceanography at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, created a drift model for this report to simulate the path of the migrants’ vessel after it started floating without any use of its motor. Limeburner’s model provides hourly positions of the vessel on the basis of ocean current data and wind. Tidal currents, which can influence drift track, were ignored for this model as they are relatively weak within the area in question, and only occur periodically within a 24-hour cycle.
Visualisation: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Second, with the migrants’ boat’s trajectory determined, we sought to locate ships in the vicinity. We relied on synthetic aperture radar imagery. The relatively low resolution of the images we accessed (50m and 75m pixel resolution) only allowed us to detect the large military and commercial vessels in the vicinity of the migrants’ boat which itself remained under the threshold of the images’ resolution.

Third, we carried out a detailed analysis of the range and precision of the sensing technologies used by states in order to prove that the naval assets had the means to detect the drifting migrants’ boat. We demonstrated that state actors knew of the passengers’ fate, but failed to act upon this knowledge as they are bound to by international maritime law.

Forensic Oceanography’s report served as the basis of several legal complaints filed by the survivors in front of the courts of states whose ships were deployed off the coast of Libya in 2011. However, more than 10 years after the events, the survivors’ claims for truth and justice have still not been met.

Chain of events leading to the death of the Left-to-die Boat’s passengers

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Map reconstructing the chain of events of the Left-to-die Boat case.
Visualisation: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

The vessel left the port of Tripoli between midnight and 2:00 am (all times GMT) on 27 March 2011 with seventy-two migrants on board. At that time, as part of the military operations in Libya, NATO was enforcing an arms embargo in the central Mediterranean. As a result, during that period it was the most highly surveilled area of sea in the world.

At 2:55 pm on 27 March, the boat was spotted by a French aircraft that transmitted its coordinates (point A) to the international Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC).

After proceeding toward the Italian island of Lampedusa for between fifteen and eighteen hours, the migrants placed a distress call by satellite phone. The vessel’s GPS location was determined at 4:52 pm on 27 March 2011 (point B) by the satellite phone provider Thuraya. Shortly thereafter, the MRCC in Rome signalled the boat’s distress and position to all vessels in the area. It also alerted Malta’s MRCC, and NATO HQ Allied Command, in Naples.

The migrants’ vessel continued its course for approximately two hours before being flown over by a helicopter. The approximate location of the sighting is provided by the last signal detected by Thuraya before the satellite phone fell into the water, at 7:08 pm on 27 March (point C). The migrants were visited a second time by a military helicopter. It dropped some biscuits and water onto the boat before leaving.

At approximately 7:00 am on 28 March, after having probably entered the Maltese Search and Rescue (SAR) area, the vessel ran out of fuel and began to drift SSW (point D).

The boat drifted SSW for seven to eight days before it encountered a military ship between 3 and 5 April (point E). Despite approaching them in circles and witnessing the distress of the passengers, the ship left without assisting them.

The boat continued to drift until April 10 when it landed southeast of Tripoli at Zlitan. Upon landing, eleven migrants were still alive; two died shortly thereafter.

Watch the full video: The Left-to-Die Boat (18 min).

Read a short Interview with Charles Heller from Border Forensics: «The disobedient gaze», Zürcher Theater Spektakel, August 2023.

Credits for the Left-to-die investigation

Project team: Charles Heller, Richard Limeburner, Samaneh Moafi, Rossana Padeletti, Lorenzo Pezzani and SITU Research.
Production: Forensic Oceanography.
Coproduction: Forensic Architecture.
Support: Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW).

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