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36 days at sea: How castaways survived hallucinations, thirst and desperation

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When video journalist Renata Brito saw the news of the rescue of several dozen men who survived 36 days at sea, she was shocked. Brito has been covering migrant crossings for years and had never heard of people on the route from West Africa to the Canary Islands surviving that long. She wondered what they might have endured during those 36 days, and so, she and photographer Felipe Dana set out to find out.

When the survivors were rescued, they were taken to Cape Verde and locked up in a school. A few days later, Brito and Dana were on a plane to Cape Verde’s Sal Island. Access to survivors, who were essentially detained, was restricted. When Brito and Dana finally managed to get inside and talk to survivors, authorities announced they would fly them back to Dakar in a few hours. It was the fastest repatriation local Red Cross workers had seen — and the AP team hadn’t even started in depth one-on-one interviews with survivors yet. The team needed to follow them back to Senegal to continue reporting.

They worked with AP Dakar colleague Ndeye Sene Mbengue to make contacts with survivors and their families in Fass Boye but found many of the survivors had gone into hiding after returning to Senegal. They feared police would want to investigate and prosecute those who had helped organize the voyage or parents who had helped their children pay for a spot on the deadly boat. It took days to find and convince survivors their story was important and needed to be told.

Together with Ndeye, they drove to more than five towns across different regions to meet with them. With Ndeye’s help they translated hours of on- and off-camera interviews. Brito kept in touch with survivors after leaving Senegal and obtained the contact of one of the rescuers who had made several cellphone videos the day they were found and brought on board.

The AP got strong user-generated content that showed what the survivors looked like when they were found, barely alive. The result was an all-formats story, immersive presentation by Darrell Allen, Panagiotis Mouzakis and Howie Rumberg and a minidocumentary produced by Bram Janssen. Creative motion graphics and illustrations helped visualize many of the things survivors described happening on the voyage that wasn’t captured on video.

For powerfully telling an exclusive story that otherwise might not have been told, Brito and Dana win Best of the Week — First Winner.

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