The Shipwrecked

  A sad tale of "accidents" in the off-shore waters of Italy in the last few years. An eloquent tale, one that allows us to appreciate what rhetorical lengths the Italian government would go to, transforming the disasters caused by its policies into fortuitous events.
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by Antonello Mangano – translated by Gordon Poole – Italian version


The Italian seas have become cemeteries for the bodies of Albanians, Kurds, Tunisians, and Pakistanis. Italian military personnel have turned into killers, either first-hand as in the Sibilla case or indirectly as in other circumstances. The Italian press has either been shedding crocodile tears for the “nth sea tragedy” or falling back on omertà, a silence swelled with hypocrisy. Politicians ofevery stripe have blamed the mafias (embodiment of absolute evil on which we can discharge all our guilt). Relatives and fellow citizens of the victims have been spewing out words of hatred, early warnings of a wall of rancor, harbinger of new, still graver tragedies.
These are not just apocalyptic predictions; they are already being fulfilled, although generally ignored. The border closures mandated by the convention for applying the Schengen Treaty and the other European Community agreements have transformed the Italian and Greek coastlines into the southern bulwarks of fortress Europe. An illusory, violent construction, which has decreed the de facto deportation or death of those who seek entry without enough money in their pockets. Those killed number in the hundreds by now.


For a long time the Italian authorities stuck to their denial that there had been a shipwreck on Christmas night in investigations of the Greek police, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Reggio Calabria and a number of relatives of the victims for the terrible truth to come out: in that night 289 Indians, Singhalese and Pakistanis drowned off of Cape Passero, the southernmost point of Sicily.
The story is a long, tangled one. Some 400 people, each of whom had paid thousands of dollars, were embarked at Cairo on a ship run by traffickers. The passengers had converged on Cairo from Istanbul, India, Antalya (a Turkish port), Colombo, Karachi, via Athens. Long, makeshift voyages, haphazard, degrading lodgings, after years of toil to raise the money for the traffickers. A well-oiled system took charge of getting the immigrants to the gathering places, awaiting transfer to Europe.
In fact, the ship Friendship stayed in the harbor at Cairo for twelve days, in order to ship a full load (400 people) before sailing. Departure was forestalled, and the immigrants were trans-shipped to the Yohan, a 1500 ton cargo ship flying the Honduras flag. This time the ship sailed. About 470 passengers shut up below (two hours of air at the most), forced to slog on for twenty days with a daily liter of water and loaf of bread.
A few days before Christmas, the Yohan reached a port in Sicily. It could have been the good chance to disembark, but the Coast Guard intercepted the ship, forcing it to flee. At this point the immigrants had to wait for a Maltese boat to take them to land.
It was Christmas Eve when the boat, the F 174, showed up; it was made of boards held together by cords to keep it from coming apart. The passengers of the Yohan were exasperated; they paid no heed to those who advised them to land in small groups. Most of them boarded the Maltese boat, 18 meters long, already with 50 passengers.
When the F 174 left port, there were 400 persons on board and a breach in the bow, caused by a collision with the Yohan. She made for the Sicilian coast, thirty kilometers away. The boat was leaking badly, and the efforts of the immigrants to bail it out with buckets failed. As the boat began to sink at the prow, the Yohan, having been called for help, reached them. The two vessels collided, the F 174 split into three pieces and sank. Some twenty persons were saved on lifesavers launched by the Yohan, but the rest drowned.
The ship sailed for Greece, risked shipwreck, and finally unloaded the survivors and other passengers. The traffickers warned them all not to speak of what had happened. A few escaped and informed the Greek police; others were arrested, but they, too, told the story. The Yohan was blocked on February 28 after it had debarked 150 Asians to the south of Reggio Calabria. The belongings of those who were shipwrecked, converging testimonies and the bodies of the drowned found floating days later, all show what happened.
The Italian authorities were reluctant to admit that the incident took place. The English press showed more interest in the event than the Italian press did. The Pakistani Embassy transmitted a list of the missing persons to the Farnesina [Presidency of Italy] but got no answer.


At least 85 people at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea. The tragedy that took place during the night of March 28 in the Otranto Canal was just the last and most dramatic episode marking the recent neo-colonial relations between Italy and Albania, but also one of the more dramatic results of the policies of fortress Europe, pushed to their extreme consequences.
Still, March 28 will probably be remembered as an historical date not only in the context of the relations between the two countries but also for the relations between the “north” and “south” of the world. That night, when the self-centeredness of the people of “good faith” turned murderous, words full of hatred and a lust for vengeance reached us from Albania.
The facts are well known, but it is worthwhile to recall them in this era of disposable news and loss of memory. It was during the revolt against the criminal president Berisha (great friend of Italy) and the financial gyp games. It was when the exodus toward the Italian shores had intensified and the media were up in arms about criminals from the Balkans. Already by March 23 five Albanians embarked from Valona had died in the attempt to reach the Italian coast. Nobody had been moved by the fact, indeed there was an almost universal impulse to stop the refugees by any means possible. The government decided to put a naval blockade into effect, the code name of which was “Operation white banners.” The orders to Navy craft were to stop all refugee vessels. The mine sweeper Kater 1 Rades, a very old Navy ship readapted to ferry passengers, raised anchor from the isle of Saseno, a gathering point for refugees. Thirty-five kilometers off Lecce, in international waters, the Kater 1 Rades was picked up by Italian ships and followed for a short distance. The Italian vessel that came closest was the corvette Sibilla, which ordered the Albanians to stop and kept on coming. The refugee boat did not stop either, perhaps because she was unaware of the danger or simply because the rough seas made it impossible to do otherwise. The Sibilla rammed the Kater broadside. Dozens of people drowned in the cold water, mainly women and children
The crocodile tears started March 29 and lasted a few days. Berlusconi [leader of the Parliamentary opposition] went to Brindisi to put on a show, ignoring the fact that his daily newspaper, Il Giornale had led the pack in the violent, racist campaign against the Albanians. The government mumbled its muddled apologies, failing to recall the prophetic words of the UNHCR, the UN office that deals with refugees. In fact, as soon as the news arrived about the naval blockade, the UN released heavy criticisms against an action that was intended to halt refugees in international waters. It is well to recall that the acceptance of the refugees was a duty for the Prodi government in observance of the Constitution (art. 10) and international treaties.
March 30, Easter Sunday, the first survivors reached Brindisi. Relatives of the victims shouted “Italians – assassins” into the television camera. This moment marked the high point of dismay even for the most hard-core racists. Only the top ranks of the Navy remained unaffected; Admiral Mariani explained to the reporters that the irresponsible Albanians were at fault, “because it was they who ran into us.”
But even the sorrowful, distraught countenances seen just after the tragedy were false and hypocritical, proof of which lies in the facts listed above. The Adriatic and the other seas that bathe Italy continue to be seas of death, even without rammings and mass slaughters. Unfortunately, the steady trickle of shipwrecks is of no interest to the media nor to the Italian government, whose attention is taken up with finding more efficacious means for deporting refugees and hermetically sealing the borders. In November, about seven months after the massacre, the bodies were at last recovered and shipped to Albania, where the funerals were held in the presence of Albanian and Italian authorities. Word was that this put an end to the matter.
But the slaughter is not over. A little later, on November 21, there was still another shipwreck in the lower Adriatic. Two rubber dinghies sank, five Albanians drowned, eleven were declared missing and eleven others survived. After sailing from Durazzo, they had been at the mercy of a storm for four days. One of the boats showed damage only a few hours out of port. When help reached the scene, they found only a few survivors, worn out by hunger and cold. Among the victims was a five-year-old girl who died from cold in the arms of her mother, who. like the rest, was clinging to the wrecked dinghy. The survivors accused the ferryman of looting, and also denounced the behavior of some ships which, they said, “sighted us but did not stop.”


The death list for the Channel of Otranto is a very long one. On December 31, 1992, a boat struck a reef; nine Albanians and a Greek lost their lives, while only one person survived.
During the night between Wednesday the 12th and Thursday the 13th of October, 1994, still another tragedy, ten nautical miles south-east of the Cape of Otranto. A boat with a group of Albanians sank, rescue craft came, saved thirteen people and retrieved the bodies of two women. About ten persons were missing, including a child, almost certainly drowned. In a seven-meter, fiberglass boat with an outboard motor but no lifesaving equipment, the group had left Albania late Wednesday evening, in hopes of reaching the coast of Salento.
At about the same time another boat was being rescued, that had risked sinking with 25 Albanians on board. The Albanian trafficker, seeing that tragedy was inevitable, had called for help with his cellular phone. Civilian and military craft were patrolling the zone in the stormy seas. After a few hours (time was lost on account of an error in signaling the location), the two boats were sighted. Some were saved; for others it was too late.
On October 18, 1994 the remains of two new-born babies were found half buried in the sand on the Cesine beach near Otranto, probably the only remaining, dramatic evidence of a shipwreck of Kurds about which nothing is known.
Toward the end of 1995 other Albanians died; a rubber dinghy sank on November 30 with 19 persons, whereas another one caught fire on September 11, causing the death of fifteen. This latter tragedy was brought about by an inept attempt on the part of someone to signal their location by burning gasoline-soaked rags. The dinghy caught fire, and the twelve survivors suffered serious burns.
The Albanians who died on the evening of December 1, 1995, were drowned when their goal seemed near at hand and the lights of the Salentine coast could be seen. A wave more violent than the others dashed the six-meter-long boat to pieces, throwing 22 persons overboard. Two of them drowned, five managed to reach safety, the others were declared missing, “Everyone looked out for himself,” stated one of the survivors, who remained hanging for eight hours on the floating wreck of the dinghy. Together with four others he was sighted and rescued by the German military ship Kln; they were taken to the Otranto facilities. Limi Balabani, 24, another of the survivors, told about those moments: “Help, my God – the others were saying. A few oaths and they drifted away from us, who could do nothing for them. One after the other. I didn’t know them, had never laid eyes on them before Thursday when weembarked for Italy. I have been lucky and thank God.” It is hard to understand what is happening when one is suspended between life and death. “I don’t know what happened, it all took place so suddenly. We all fell into the water together. It was cold. It’s nothing short of a miracle that I’m here to tell you about it.” On the same day of that shipwreck, December 1, another Albanian was found in very serious condition on the shore between Torre Vado and Santa Maria di Leuca. He had fallen on the rocks while disembarking from a rubber dinghy.
On the night of Thursday, April 25, 1996, six Singhalese were swallowed by the waves in the lower Adriatic, off of Vieste. For a few days they were listed officially as “missing,” but Bari Port Authority search teams and Dutch Navy helicopters found no trace of them. The fourteen survivors told the Dutch Navy personnel, the Bari border police and the Port Authority what had happened. While their boat was swamping, as if by miracle a rescue craft showed on the scene, a rubber dinghy that took thirteen men and a woman on board. Four other men and two women failed to save themselves. A few days after the calamity, the public prosecutor’s office at Foggia had two Italians arrested who had been found on a Russian ship in the zone of the shipwreck. Both of them were charged with multiple homicide and importing illegal immigrants as well as failure to offer assistance.


The little isle of Pantelleria is located in the Sicilianchannel, not far from Tunisia. Late in the evening onFriday, August 1, 1997, a large group of Tunisians hadalmost reached their goal. Then, a few miles off the coastof Pantelleria, they wrecked. Three of them were rescuedalmost at once, identified and sent home to their families.The other five were only recovered after fifteen days. Theirdecomposed remains were laid out in the Pantelleria morgue.
The carabinieri photographed the remains, put the photos inan envelope and mailed them to Palermo. In the mean time,the relatives of the victims had come to the TunisianConsulate in Palermo in order to identify the dead. Afterthe photographs had been seen, the Public Prosecutor’soffice at Trapani (which has territorial jurisdiction)finally authorized the bodies to be sent home for burying.The remains reached Africa on a ferry that left fromTrapani. Among the dead was a blind man, Mohamed Boughnahmi.He had tried to reach Italy in order to have an operation.Of course he would have preferred going through legalchannels, but the European laws would not grant him entry.The toll of the wreck was eight dead and thirty-twosurvivors, including the skipper and the engine officer.They were locked up in prison at Marsala (near Trapani) onthe charge of multiple homicide, criminal negligence causinga shipwreck and abetting illegal immigration.
The Isle of Lampedusa lies to the south of Sicily, evennearer to Tunisia, and is the first piece of Europe oneencounters when sailing from Africa. Landings go on all thetime and military surveillance is constantly beingintensified. On the morning of April 26, 1996, fourteenpersons were lost at sea off Lampedusa, wrecked in theattempt to reach land.
The following day a patrol boat of the Revenue Officersstarted looking for survivors, or at least the bodies ofvictims. Later on, military units went into action, and alsoa number of fishing boats. Only the body of one man wasfound, washed ashore by the waves on the island, in the BaiaGalera zone. It was impossible to rescue the others becausea strong wind prevented helicopters from being used. Thisgroup of North Africans had embarked at Sfax, on the coastof Tunisia. There were five survivors, who were put up forone night at the hotel Vega at the city’s expense.


Greece is one of the crossroads for the passage ofimmigrants. Therefore, the Greek waters are filled withships and boats loaded down with men, women and childrenbound for the West. So it is that here, too, unbelievabletragedies take place. In 1993 a vessel coming from Izmirshipwrecked, causing the death of twenty-five persons. Itwas a boat organized by the Turkish mafia, who handleillegal immigration in an eastern area from Greece to Turkeyal the way to Albania. In May of 1977 a Turkish ship headedfor Italy shipwrecked in the Aegean. The news was onlycarried by the Turkish TV. Twenty-four people died, andthere was a sole survivor.


Besides the tragedies, there have been the near misses,avoided by pure chance, thanks to a series of coincidencesand, in a few instances, due to the arrival of rescuers.
On August 11, 1995, a group of twenty-six Albanians, whowere in difficulty in the channel of Otranto, were rescuedby a patrol boat of the Port Authority. On board there weretwo babies only a few months old. On April 25, 1996, nearSiracusa, a Lebanese merchant ship caught fire. The disasterwas avoided. It would have been a terrible one, consideringthat there were 275 immigrants on board and twelve crewmembers. But the most disturbing aspect of the case is thecause of the fire, a tracer rocket fired by the Coast Guard.In January 1997, a Turkish ship unloaded 31 people on theIsle of Rhodes. On account of a sea storm the trip had to beinterrupted. For 24 hours the immigrants were alone with noaid.
Towards the end of May of that year a motorboat, Manyolia 1was saved from sinking near the Salentine coast. Some of thepassengers were wounded or had been poisoned by fumes fromthe engine room. There were about 154 persons, mainlyPakistanis, but also Kurds and Burundis. They had one squaremeter per person, had paid thousands of dollars to theTurkish mafia ferrymen, and were lucky to be alive.
On June 5 a somewhat mysterious event took place. In theprovince of Catanzaro, off the coast of Botricello, theRevenue Officers intercepted a motor ship, Salimah, flyingthe Lebanese colors, that had sailed from Cyprus with acargo of 250 Kurds who had not eaten anything for at least24 hours. Fifty of them leapt into the sea to avoid capture.Only twelve were recovered. The others either managed toreach land somehow or drowned.
Many times the traffickers abandon the immigrants at sea atthe slightest sign of danger. During the night of May 4,1995, thirty men were thrown overboard by the traffickers,so that they could make their getaway. They had encountereda Revenue Officers’ patrol boat in the channel of Otranto.


The data in the table (based on the facts presented in thepresent article) indicate 550 dead in five years’ time. Thenumber is dramatic, but it refers only to certifiedshipwrecks, and thus is only a part of the total.
Who can be held accountable for the dead no one knowsanything about? Who will answer for those who died insilence, swallowed up by the waves? For the shipwrecked wehave mentioned here, there are at least some scapegoats, afew traffickers charged with crime in the Italian courts.
Naturally, no charges will ever be filed against theEurocrats whose aim is to put the good life under lock andkey. No one will incriminate the xenophobic laws or theover-zealous military personnel who enforce them. Not fornow at least. But there is a day coming when someone willhave to answer for these deaths and for those still to come.If things continue the way they have, those who today aremerely “desperate extra-communitarians” will raise theirvoices and demand justice for all. Justice for Mohammed, whowanted to be operated in Italy, for the Kurds fleeing theirtorturers, for the three hundred who drowned in the phantomshipwreck on Christmas Eve, and for the men, women andchildren killed at sea by the corvette Sibilla.

SOURCES: News dailies for October 15, 1994; August 12, 1995;December 2, 1995; April 27, 1996; August 17, 1997; November21, 1997; and from March 28 to April 3, 1997. Narcomafie(September 1997).

Date  place  died  survived
December 31, 1992  Otranto coast  10
1993 Aegean Sea 25   ?
October 12, 1994 Cape of Otranto 12 13
October 18, 1994  Cesine (Otranto)  2  0
September 11, 1995 Channel of Otranto 15 12
November 30, 1995 Channel of Otranto 19 ?
 December 1, 1995 Channel of Otranto 17 5
April 25, 1996  lower Adriatic, Vieste  6  14
April 26, 1996 Lampedusa 14   5
December 24, 1996 south of Cape Passero 289   29
March 23, 1997 Channel of Otranto 5 0
March 29, 1997  Channel of Otranto  85  38
May 1997 Aegean Sea  24  1
 August 2, 1997 Pantelleria 8 32
November 21, 1997 lower Adriatic 16  11
tot. 547 tot. 161


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