27 September 2012

Senegal: 10 Years Later, Little Justice in Africa's Titanic

Photo: Francois Gouahinga/allAfrica.com
A man watches vehicles being unloaded from a ferry in Senegal.

Dakar — A decade has gone by since the Senegalese government-funded ferry MV Le Joola sank off the coast of Gambia, killing more than 1800 people - one of the worst maritime accidents in history. Today, more than ever, families of victims want justice.

On Wednesday Senegal marked the 10th anniversary of the capsizing of the Joola, on 26 September 2002. The passenger ferry which was crammed more than three times beyond its capacity, tipped over in a storm as it sailed from Ziguinchor. At the time, MV Le Joola was assuring the liaison between the southern city and the capital Dakar.

The official toll was 1,863 but families of those who vanished say the number surpasses 2,000. The vessel was only supposed to be carrying a maximum of 580 people. The number of deaths far exceeds the 1,563 who perished when the Titanic went down in 1912.

"We will all die"

Patrice Auvray is one of the 64 survivors and emotions run high as he recalls the events of that tragic morning.

"Boarding took very very long, because there were a lot of people and it was all quite disorganized." He says the boat was clearly overloaded when it left Ziguinchor. He describes the weather that night as being rough, with very strong winds. "When I gathered that the boat was overturning, I said to myself we will all die," Auvray remembers.

Anger

10 years later, a sense of injustice and bitterness still reigns among the families of the victims. Marie Hélène Mendy lost her husband in the accident and since she is unemployed, she says it is a constant struggle to look after her two children alone.

"We received as compensation, 10 million CFA Francs (15,200 euros) per family. You cannot compensate for the life of somebody. That money only brought trouble. It divided families," says Mendy.

Just like her, many are angry in Senegal. Angry because of the way the aftermath of the shipwreck was handled. What they want today is the reopening of what had been a swift and unsatisfactory judicial inquiry.

Restore the truth

Officials in 2003 concluded that the captain, who died in the wreck, was the only person responsible. Overcrowding and poor maintenance were also blamed.

That same year, the government declared the case closed after several ministers and high-ranking military officers were fired, without it ever coming before a court.

"We want the truth to be restored," says firmly Eli Diatta, an inhabitant of Ziguinchor, who represents the association of the families of victims and survivors. "This is an opportunity for the new government to re-open the case and allow justice to punish the culprits."

"Many of the families have been unable to grieve. Most of us never received the remains of our loved ones," he adds.

Closure

Relatives want the wreck refloated to gain some kind of closure and search for any remains that may still exist. Authorities promised to do so under the president Abdoulaye Wade regime but the project shows no signs of materialising. They also would like to see the erection of a monument to properly honor their loved ones.

Due to the death of 22 French students in the disaster, an enquiry was opened in April in France, which had earlier issued arrest warrants against seven Senegalese civilian and military officials.

The disaster did lead to the tightening of some maritime regulations and improved safety conditions on Senegal's busy coastal ferry route.

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