The tragedy of the 2015 Catania migrant shipwreck | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 13.12.2016
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The tragedy of the 2015 Catania migrant shipwreck

In 2015 hundreds of people died when the boat they were traveling to Europe on capsized. The trial in Catania against the accused smugglers ended with guilty verdicts on Tuesday.

On April 18, 2015, around 800 people boarded a nameless wooden boat off the coast of Libya. They came from Ethiopia and Bangladesh, Ivory Coast, Eritrea, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Somalia and Sudan, and had already undertaken long and dangerous journeys. Now they were about to embark on a perilous sea voyage to Italy.

The passengers, who are said to have paid $1,500-2,000 each, were harried onto the old fishing smack. Young men were penned together in the cargo hold and machine room, packed in as many as five per square meter with scarcely enough air to breathe - and locked in. The people crammed on the deck had it slightly better.

They carried phone numbers and photos of relatives. One had a little picture of a saint, another a little soil from his homeland. One carried a Bible, others the Koran. Many of them had sewn their passports and documents into their clothes. There were only a few women among them. More than a third were young people aged between 12 and 17. There was a child wearing jeans emblazoned with the name of an English soccer club: "Manchester United."

Only 28 of these people made it to Europe. Two of them, a Tunisian and a Syrian, were on trial in Catania, Italy, accused of multiple counts of manslaughter through culpable negligence, causing a shipwreck, and facilitating unauthorized entry. Other survivors also accused them of being human traffickers: the Tunisian, the captain and the Syrian, his helper. On Tuesday, the Italian court handed down a guilty verdict to Captain Mohammed Ali Malek and sentenced him to 18 years in jail. His first mate, Syrian Mahmoud Bikhit, received a five-year sentence for his role in the tragedy.

Italien Mahmud Bikhi Mohammed Ali Malek Kapitän Schlepper Libyen (Italian Police/Handout via Reuters)

Mahmoud Bikhit (left) and Captain Mohammed Ali Malek (right) were found guilty

Desperate screams

During the night, the overcrowded boat was about 140 kilometers (85 miles) off the coast of Libya coast. The Italian coastguard received a distress call, and alerted a merchant ship in the area. A Portuguese freighter, the King Jacob, hastened to assist, and the two boats apparently collided in the dark.

The people crowded onto one side of the boat. Survivors later said they would never forget the screams of panic from the people locked in the hold. The boat sank, and took hundreds of people with it to the bottom of the sea.

Carlotta Sami, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in southern Europe, told DW how the few survivors arrived in Sicily the following day: "They were shaking. They were very tired. They'd gone through an awful, really hellish experience."

'Out of mind'

Immediately after the disaster, there was a crisis meeting of EU foreign and interior ministers, resulting in a vague 10-point action plan on migration; soon after that, there was a special EU summit. The EU said it wanted to fight the people traffickers and extend maritime emergency assistance, which was drastically cut when the Italian mission Mare Nostrum came to an end in the autumn of 2014.

The call to distribute refugees equitably among EU members encountered bitter resistance. The Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, announced his intention to raise the wreck from the seabed, telling Italy's RAI television: "I want the whole world to see what happened." It was not acceptable, he said, for some governments to be behave as if these things were "out of sight, out of mind."

After months of preparations, the wreck, along with its dead, was salvaged from a depth of 370 meters (1,230 feet) at the end of June 2016. Water poured from it as it reached the surface - and, with it, human remains.

"This boat contains stories, faces, people, not just a number of dead bodies," Renzi wrote on Facebook. He had ordered the salvaging of the boat, he continued, in order "to give our brothers and sisters a burial" - and as a reminder to Europe about "which values really matter."

The remains of the 23-meter boat were brought to Sicily, where a climate-controlled 30-meter tent had been set up. Firefighters worked day and night to extract the human remains from the locked cargo hold and machine room, after more than 14 months underwater. They couldn't believe how tightly these people had been packed in. Psychologists were on hand to support the people at work.

Naming the victims

The team was led by Cristina Cattaneo, a forensic pathologist from Milan. They worked for months, trying to assign body parts, pieces of clothing and personal possessions, such as photos, passports and mementoes, to individuals. They took DNA samples, and documented everything. Many young pathologists-in-training volunteered to help with this difficult work. Victims whose names could not be established were given a number, and buried.

Mittelmeer Schiffsunglück Flüchtlingsboot vor der libyschen Küste gesunken (picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Imbesi)

Catania prosecutor Giovanni Salvi

UNCHR spokeswoman Sami was there. She told DW that coming so close to the people who had drowned in the refugee boat left a deep impression on everyone. After a plane crash, it's routine procedure to search for bodies and recover possessions, but it was the first time they'd had to do it in a case like this. "You can really feel that there were hundreds of people who were breathing and living and suffering in that ship," Sami said.

An AP reporter stood and watched the pathologist Cattaneo carefully rinse a pair of child's jeans with Manchester United written on them. The 7-year-old boy who wore them was among the dead.

Cattaneo emphasized how important it was for people to establish the truth about what had happened to their relatives - for emotional reasons, but also to clear up legal issues. She works in cooperation with the office for missing persons and the Red Cross.

Empathy in Brussels?

Italy invested 9.5 million euros into raising the boat and identifying the dead. Prime Minister Renzi didn't want to leave it there. He announced that he would be sending the wreck to Brussels, to set it up as a memorial in the middle of the EU headquarters.

Sami said she thought this an excellent idea - one that would support the work of the UNHCR. She saw the wreck on Sicily, and was profoundly moved by it. "It is a monument to remember," she said, adding that it was not primarily a question of getting a political message across, but about awaking people's empathy.

Renzi has now resigned. Sami hopes that the new government will follow through on his plans. It's really not that important where the wreck is exhibited, she says; what's important is that the public should to be able to see it.

The tragedy of April 2015 is by no means an isolated incident, Sami said. The situation has not improved. Thousands of people are boarding overcrowded and unsuitable boats in Egypt or Libya. More than 4,700 people have drowned in the Mediterranean this year - far more than in the whole of 2015. That's nearly 5,000 human beings, each of whom had hopes, a story and a name.


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