Ten years ago a boat carrying 300 south Asian refugees sank off the coast of Sicily. After years of ignoring the event, the authorities have begun legal proceedings and plan to erect a memorial to the victims.
Thousands risk death every year in crowded rickety boats to reach Europe's shores
It was the worst shipping disaster to hit the Mediterranean since the Second World War. Ten years ago, in the early hours of December 26, an overcrowded merchant ship crammed with men, women and children from Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka pulled up off the southern tip of Sicily.
Everyone on board had paid 5,000 euros for the journey to Europe. For the last leg across rough seas between Malta and Sicily, nearly 300 people were transferred from the freighter to a tiny fishing boat. The passengers were crammed into the hold, normally reserved for the fish catches, before heading towards the Sicilian coast. It soon became obvious that the overloaded vessel was in trouble, so the freighter was called back. But the two vessels collided and chaos broke out as the smaller boat began to sink.
Thousands of refugees from Asia and Africa try to make it to Europe every year
Two dozen people survived, but 283 died. Some of their bodies remain trapped in the ship’s wreck, 108 meters below the surface.
Shahab Ahmad, one of the few who survived, recalls the horror of the tragedy.
"I saw one man use the last of his strength to climb up a rope and get back onto the freighter,” Ahmad said. "His nose and mouth were bleeding, when he made it up onto the deck he collapsed. One of the crewmen picked him up and threw him overboard. The sea was filled with bodies and the cries of the people drowning. I could only watch and cry -- I couldn’t believe that someone could
just throw another person into the water like that. I didn’t have the strength to stop it then. But I’ve been appealing to the Italian government and the European Union for justice ever since."
Just a ghost story
For much of the past ten years, the gruesome event was considered nothing more than a ghost story. The Italian government denied the tragedy ever took place, and refused to accept the testimonies of survivors, who were later smuggled onto Greek soil.
Harbor officials from the Sicilian port of Portopalo kept silent too, even though they knew what happened. Even today, only few locals are willing to talk about the disaster.
"We all found human remains in the water after the accident," said one fisherman. "I never pulled in a complete body, but I did find pieces. You couldn’t recognize them as a particular person anymore, it was clear that they were human remains. It was horrible."
A fight to uncover the truth
The fishermen may well have kept silent forever if it weren’t for Salvatore Lupo. He began speaking out about the accident in 2001, after he found one of the victims’ identification cards in his fishing net. He then helped journalists locate the wreck with an underwater robot equipped with cameras. The footage it caught proved beyond a doubt that the disaster really did occur.
The island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily is a common entry point for illegal immigrants to Europe
"The authorities didn’t want to know about the bodies when we told them about them," Lupo said. "They tried to wipe their hands of the whole affair and blame the fishermen by saying we never informed anyone, when really it’s the government’s fault the accident never saw light of day."
Salvatore Lupo’s actions cost him a lot of friends in Portopalo, and he hasn’t worked as a fisherman for five years. Instead, he’s spent his time with a group of journalists and artists, turning the story of the refugee crisis into a theatre performance that recently premiered in Rome.
Giovanni Mario Bellu, a journalist and one of the play’s authors, said the Portopalo shipwreck is just one piece in a puzzle formed by the unknown number of refugees who drown each year while trying to make it to Europe.
"The story of the so-called ghost ship is typical. But if we didn’t know exactly how the events unfolded, most people would say it was made up," said Bellu. " And even if it were a fantasy, a lot of people would still find it too far-fetched to believe."
A memorial, ten years too late
It's taken a whole decade for the tragedy to be uncovered, but thanks to the efforts of campaigners such as Bellu and Lupo, Italy has finally begun the process of remembering the victims.
Italian authorities have opened investigations aimed at prosecuting those responsible for the tragedy and Prime Minister Romano Prodi has also promised to raise the wreck and build a monument to the 283 people who perished.