Ten years on, little justice in Senegal shipwreck disaster

The Aline Sitoe Diatta was put to sea to replace the Joola, which capsized off the coast of Gambia on September 26 2002. (AFP)

The Aline Sitoe Diatta was put to sea to replace the Joola, which capsized off the coast of Gambia on September 26 2002. (AFP)

Senegal on Wednesday marks the 10th anniversary of the capsizing of the Joola, a passenger ferry that was crammed more than three times beyond its capacity and tipped over in a storm as it sailed from the west African country's south to the capital Dakar.

The official toll was 1863 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 1 500 or so who perished when the Titanic went down in 1912. Only 64 people survived.

Year after year, victims' families demand the reopening of what had been a swift and unsatisfactory judicial inquiry into the Senegal disaster.

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

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

Families seek closure
"Many of the families have been unable to grieve. Most of us never received the remains of our loved ones," said Eli Diatta, a resident of Ziguinchor, the main city of the southern region of Casamance.

Her football-trainer brother perished along with 26 youngsters he was chaperoning.

"The trauma remains. It shows up in many ways: dementia, sickness, school dropouts," Diatta added.

Wednesday's anniversary will be marked by prayers, religious readings and the cleaning of cemeteries. About 500 recovered bodies were buried in mass graves, most unidentified, at four cemeteries.

After then president Abdoulaye Wade lost the general election this year to Macky Sall, victims' associations are lobbying the new regime to reopen the case, but Marcel Mendy, a spokesman for the justice ministry, said such a move was not planned.

"The state has acted according to its capacity," he said.

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

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.

'Case closed'
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 Wade regime but the project shows no signs of materialising.

"It's a delicate matter and any decision on the refloating must be concerted," Prime Minister Abdoul Mbaye told lawmakers earlier this month.

The wreck is located off the coast of Gambia, a narrow, English-speaking nation that almost bisects Senegal.

Construction began at the start of the year for a memorial to be erected in Dakar to honour the victims, but work there has since ground to a halt.

In Senegal, the majority of families accepted 10-million CFA francs ($19 700) offered by the state for each victim, but others have refused, still hoping for successful legal action.

The greatest maritime disaster on record was the torpedoing of the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff packed with refugees by a Russian submarine in the Baltic in 1945, when more than 9 000 people died. – AFP

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