10 years on, survivors of Senegalese ferry tragedy still seek justice

Victims' families demand justice a decade after overloaded Senegalese vessel sank, killing 1,863

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 September, 2012, 3:52am


Ten years after one of the worst maritime disasters in history, a handful of survivors gathered in Senegal to pay homage to victims of the Joola, a Senegalese ferry that sank off the coast of Gambia, killing at least 1,863 people.

That is 361 more than were killed when the Titanic went down nine decades earlier.

The passenger ferry - which provided a key link between the north and south in a country almost bisected by the long, narrow nation of Gambia - went down in the Atlantic in a storm on the night of September 26, 2002.

The Joola was licensed to hold only 580 people, including crew, but was found to have been carrying well over 2,000 when it sank after setting sail from Ziguinchor in Senegal's southern Casamance region.

Just 64 people were rescued. The true number of victims has never been established. The Senegalese government says 1,863 people died, but victims' families say the real figure is 2,133.

A decade on, the tragedy still brings bitter memories for families who accuse the government of failing to deliver justice and keep its promises.

"Ten years later, the pain is still there, even more because many things have never been done," said Maimouna Badji, 22, orphaned by the disaster.

"We wanted the ferry to be raised ... [to] see the final resting place of the people we loved.

"But nothing has been done yet. We have nothing but this to remember," she said, pointing toward the graves containing unidentified victims at a cemetery in Mbao, on the outskirts of the capital Dakar.

About 500 recovered bodies were buried in mass graves, most unidentified, at four cemeteries.

On Wednesday, families in Ziguinchor went to the city's port, where they threw bouquets of flowers into the Casamance River, then laid a wreath at the foot of a commemorative marker nearby as hundreds of people looked on.

Prime Minister Abdoul Mbaye was to lay a wreath of flowers at Memory Square in Dakar, which faces the sea - a site where victims' families are demanding that a Joola museum and memorial be built.

As they have every year for a decade, victims' families also called for the government to provide money for orphans, haul the Joola to the surface and put officials on trial.

In 2003, authorities said the captain, who died in the wreck, was the only person responsible. Overcrowding and poor maintenance were also blamed. Since then-president Abdoulaye Wade lost an election earlier this year to Macky Sall, victims' associations have been lobbying the new regime to reopen the case.

Additional reporting by Associated Press