- BBC News World
Twenty years ago, when Mariama Diouf arrived at the port on a Thursday, the ship that would take her to Dakar was full.
“But a young man who had forgotten something in his house asked the salesman if he could give him his money back and if I could take his place, and that’s how I got into the Joola.”
Hours later, on September 26, 2002, this state-owned Senegalese ferry capsized off the Gambian coast.
The Joola operated between the south of Senegal, the Casamance region, and the capital, Dakar, with a approximate capacity of 536 passengers and 35 cars.
But in the shipwreck they died more than 1,800 people.
Mariama was four months pregnant. “I thought maybe it was God’s will that I die with my unborn child,” she tells BBC journalists Nicola Milne and Efrem Gebreab.
there was only 64 survivors. She was the only woman who was saved.
“More people died than on the Titanic but here it was not news.” “Here” is the United States, and the speaker is Pat Wiley, an aerospace engineer who worked on the Apollo program and lives in North Carolina.
Wiley, who sails and has a Coast Guard license, investigated the tragedy for 10 years and in 2013 published the book “The Sinking of the MV Le Joola: The African Titanic.”
For the American there were many unanswered questions, from what caused the boat to capsize to why the first rescue attempt took more than 10 hours.
The first to respond were the fishermen of the area. For three days, these men interrupted their work to help the survivors and retrieve bodies. They told the BBC that even a month after the tragedy they kept finding bodies when they went out fishing on the high seas.
“The boat ran into a storm that night, but it’s clear there were many factors that contributed to the capsizing and the government is responsible for that,” Wiley told the BBC.
The government blamed the tragedy on the ship’s captain, Issa Diarra, who would have disappeared in the tragedy. The president at the time, Abdoulaye Wade, pointed to intrinsic problems in Senegalese society:
“After having mourned our dead and prayed for them, we must look within, and admit that the vices that are at the root of this catastrophe are based on our habits of flippancy, lack of seriousness, irresponsibility and sometimes the greed, when we tolerate situations that we know are perfectly dangerous, simply because we benefit from them.
For researcher Pat Wiley, it’s clear that a lot of people got on the Joola without a valid ticket:
“There was a lot of corruption to get people on board without a ticket, so there were probably more than 2,000 people on board, but you have to remember that the government owned the ship and therefore responsible for the people who controlled the tickets.” .
Citizens from 12 countries lost their lives that day, but the vast majority, more than 1,000 people, came from the Casamance region of Senegal.
“Although we were already full from Ziguinchor, when we got to Carabane more people got on, so there were extra weight“, remembers Lamine Coly, the only survivor of the 35 people from his village who traveled in the Joola.
Coly told the BBC that when it started to rain, “they asked us all to go down, and when we were below the main deck we started to worry about the number of people.”
Survivors remember that first the lights flickered and then everything turned dark. “I never imagined that such a big ship could turn over, but when I saw the water, I realized that it was real, the ship had capsized,” recalls Coly.
“The confusion was total, you didn’t know who to save. All the time there were screams, some people were being dragged. You were swimming with someone and suddenly you saw them drown. I can’t forget it,” he adds.
Among the dead were 444 children.
“The 26 families of the children from the football club came to me and said ‘give us back our children’.”
Elie Diatta is in charge of the legal affairs of the Ziguinchor Victims Association. Her brother Michel was a football school coach and a former Senegalese national team player. He died with 26 of his wards at Joola.
“An image that I don’t forget is that of Michel Diatta, Elie’s brother; he came out of the helmet but when he didn’t see the children he said ‘what am I going to tell their parents?’ and with his body covered in diesel fuel he was submerged back into the water,” says Lamine Coly. never came out again.
Elie says that the day the boys’ families demanded that they be returned to them, he decided to create the victims’ association: “I’m going to return your children, but in a different way,” he told them.
Senegal national team coach Aliou Cisse lost his sister and other relatives in the tragedy. At that time he was a player for the English team Birmingham City and flew to Senegal to be with his family.
“This tragedy is not just personal, it is collective. You have to remember that there were all layers of Senegalese society on that ship. In reality, the whole region was decimated,” he told the BBC in one of the few interviews he has given to the press about the tragedy.
Over the years, the Senegalese state has compensated victims, replaced the Joola with another ship, built a university in Ziguinchor, and repaired cemeteries.
For this anniversary, the government is building a memorial in Ziguinchor.
But many of the survivors and relatives of the victims ask something that has not been answered so far: float the joola.
“Until today, no justice, no truth and no uprising of the remains has been organized, so our families continue to suffer in the water,” says Elie Diatta.
For Aliou Cisse, “if it can help some people to mourn better, if it allows them to sleep in peace, even if it’s complicated, I think it’s normal that they expect the ship to be lifted.”
In August 2003 it was announced that there would be no criminal proceedings. In 2005, the European Union granted Senegal the funds to lift the remains, which are 20 meters deep, but this did not happen.
The Senegalese government refused to answer to multiple requests from the BBC to participate in this report and the BBC’s request for access to the Joola wreck site was denied.
Researcher Pat Wiley believes, even though 20 years have passed, there is still fear of what they might find.
The Joola had been out of service between September 2001 and 2002 due to engine and mechanical damage. His activity resumed two weeks before the accident.
“They declared the ship safe to sail and yet that wasn’t true. The ship wasn’t properly ballasted, that was pretty clear,” says Wiley.
The American adds that, in his research, he discovered that lifeboats were not working and that most passengers did not have inflatable jackets.
Another researcher, Professor Djiby Diakhate of the Cheikh Diop University in Dakar, the causes of the Joola tragedy go back long before the month of the tragedy:
“The sinking of the ship reveals a series of problems in geographical, historical and economic terms.”
Diakhate considers that since the French colonization, Senegal has had most of its productive infrastructure on the coast, concentrated mainly in Dakar, the smallest region of the country and, at the same time, the most densely populated.
“There is no territorial continuity in Senegal”, says this academic and then expands: “To get to Casamance by land, the road is completely deteriorated, so people have difficulty traveling by car; the colonizer broke everything and, perhaps , we have to rebuild everything not through kingdoms but based on strong and consolidated entities”.
That happened to Mariama Diouf, who ended up on that boat on Thursday, September 26, 2002, because her older brother had organized a car trip to the north of the country, but then didn’t have enough money to do it. “So she decided to go on the Joola, it was easier.”
And that ticket he got at the last minute would mark his life.
“It’s something that those who didn’t experience it will never forget, let alone those who did. Even now, I feel it every Thursday. It’s like it’s the day of the tragedy.”
This story isBased on the BBC English documentary produced by Nicola Milne and Efrem Gebreab that you can see complete doing click here.
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