The red backpack had been floating for two weeks in the central Mediterranean between Libya and Italy when a rescue boat came across it. Inside, along with clothes and some notes in Arabic, was a simple treasure: two wedding rings engraved with hearts and the names Ahmed and Doudou.
For rescuers with Open Arms, a nongovernmental organization that picks up migrants making the perilous journey by boat to Europe, the discovery Nov. 9 was "like a punch," Riccardo Gatti, director of Open Arms Italy, said.
Wreckage found later on the day of the discovery only heightened their dread.
"We didn't know if it belonged to someone that died or had a shipwreck — or someone alive," Gatti said.
It might have remained yet another presumed loss in the notoriously perilous Mediterranean crossing that migrants from North Africa have made to reach Europe.
"Who are Ahmed and Doudou?" the Italian newspaper La Repubblica asked.
But in an unusual stroke of luck, the rings will be reunited with their owners, an Algerian couple who survived a capsizing in late October in a boat from Libya and were found two weeks ago by Doctors Without Borders representatives who have been providing support to the migrants in Sicily.
When they saw pictures of the newly found rings, they "couldn't believe it," said the couple, who declined to provide their last names for privacy reasons.. The rings were broken, and Ahmed, 25, and Doudou, 20, had wanted to repair them after arriving in Europe.
"We had lost everything, and now the few things we had set out with have been found," they said.
The couple are among 15 survivors of a boat that left Zawiya on the coast of Libya in October. After a two-day journey in the Mediterranean without food or water, the boat ran out of fuel about 40 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa, according to Doctors Without Borders. As the weather worsened, a wave capsized the ship, and five people died, including a 2-year-old girl. It is one of at least nine vessels carrying migrants that have sunk in the central Mediterranean since Oct. 1, according to the International Organization for Migration, a U.N. agency. In one sinking this month, at least 74 migrants in a boat from Libya drowned, and in total at least 900 have died this year while trying to reach Europe.
More than 11,000 others intercepted at sea have been returned to Libya, the U.N. agency said.
Fishermen rescued Ahmed and Doudou from the ocean, and the pair were put into quarantine as a coronavirus prevention measure before being moved to a reception center in Agrigento, Sicily. The backpack and the clothes inside have been washed and will be returned to the couple as soon as possible, Gatti said. While they were happy about the discovery, Ahmed, Doudou and others from their boat were still haunted by the loss of their companions, said Ahmad Al Rousan of Doctors Without Borders."They are still asking themselves if there was any other possibility to help the others," Al Rousan said.
One of the survivors, a 9-year-old boy, lost his mother and his sister, he said.
"We are very happy," the couple added in their statement, "but we are still mourning our friends who didn't make it."