With Those Mourning Italy's Shipwreck Victims — A Double Immigrant Tragedy
The death toll from a shipwrecked migrant boat off the coast of Italy has reached 63. Relatives of the victims and survivors, who have begun to arrive in the southern town, are all mostly immigrants themselves.
CROTONE — His world is about to be shattered.
In front of the Reception Center for Asylum Seekers in this southern Italian city, a man has arrived from Germany. He is a Syrian refugee, and he is asking about his wife. “She was on that boat! Please tell me she is here. Let me in." The man shows a photograph: "She texted me that she was arriving. It was four o’clock in the morning. She could see the lights of Italy.”
But his wife is not among the rescued, so the man keeps looking. He rushes into the San Giovanni di Dio Hospital in Crotone, in Italy's southern Calabria region. “I need to see the wounded, tell me if my wife is there.”
His wife, 23, was the only traveler of Tunisian nationality on the barge that left Turkey five days ago and crashed 200 meters off the Italian coast before dawn on Sunday. He would later recognized her body among the 63 bodies lined up at the sports hall.
They were married. But their documents did not suffice to allow her a plane ride. “We couldn’t apply for family reunification,” says the widowed man. “We paid the smugglers so we could live together. It was the only way. I was here waiting for her.”
It is a world in pieces.
There is an Afghan boy, a shipwreck survivor, who approaches Sergio Di Dato of Doctors Without Borders to ask him a single question, “What day is it?”
It’s the day a 28-year-old girl, who fled Kabul with her 16-year-old brother, drowned to death. And that brother now cannot tell his parents: “We had to leave Afghanistan because my sister was targeted by the Taliban. Mom and dad summoned the whole family; together they collected money from relatives. After a long meeting, they decided that we would leave together: she and I. We were sitting next to each other on that boat. And when the boat crashed and capsized, we went into the sea together. We used the waves to get to shore. But on the beach, she was no longer breathing.”
Now, this little boy has to talk to his family on the phone, they gave him the number. “I am alive, Anisa is in the hospital,” tells them, because he cannot say — because it is literally unspeakable — what really happened.
This chain of mourning is a direct consequence of Italy's choices. The fishing boat that left İzmir, Turkey, with 180 people on board was spotted at 10:23 p.m. Saturday night 40 miles off Punta della Castella, in the stretch of sea between the two small towns of Isola di Capo Rizzuto and Steccato di Cutro. It was there in the storm against the waves.
And our choice was not to go, not even to escort that boat loaded with people. Not even the patrol boat went to meet them, which now goes back and forth on the horizon line. But there are also our other previous choices that led to this event.
“I left Kabul because I was working with Westerners. I was working with you. With the Taliban we were all in danger, our family could no longer stay in Afghanistan.” This man lost his wife and three children aged 11, 9 and 5. Only he survived, with his 13-year-old son, because he was the closest to be grabbed in the current.
Young and alone
The Reception Center for Asylum Seekers is on State Highway 106, in front of Calabria's Crotone airport, which was closed due to bankruptcy. It is a militarized facility, far from everything. The 60 survivors were taken there to be identified: Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis, Iranians, and some Somalis. All but two of them, who are too young and too alone to be there. And that place, it’s clear, it’s not for them.
Rescuers looked for clues inside everyone’s pocket on the beach.
“One is a 12-year-old Afghan boy who lost his whole family,” says Ignazio Mangione of the Red Cross. “We found him at 6 a.m. Sunday in the group of survivors who had gathered on the beach after the shipwreck. He was asking about his mother and father; he lost seven relatives.” He will discover later that probably one survived — a cousin who has been hospitalized.
This also shows how confusing the situation is. Rescuers looked for clues inside everyone’s pocket on the beach. Documents are very important in cases like these. Here are the first names of the people aboard the ship: Yama Alì Erkek, born in Afghanistan in 2007, and Fatma Alì Mohammad, born in Afghanistan in 1998. A card issued on April 16, 2022, by the International Organization for Migration. Then there is the other young boy, who is also only 12 years old.
Remains of the shipwreck on the beach
Rotten and overloaded
The living, the dead, the hospitalized, almost all of whom were brought in for injuries and intoxication. They ingested the naphtha mixed with the sea when the boat crashed into a shoal 200 meters from shore. “It was an ugly boat, it was made of rotten wood. You could tell it couldn’t survive in that sea full of waves.”
All the survivors talk about the blue-wood fishing boat that was supposed to reach Italy. “It was overloaded.” “It was old.” “It was crawling in the sea.” “It was scary.”
"They are all families divided by death."
“The boat was in very bad condition. They were very worried that it wouldn’t hold up in the sea,” says Sergio Di Dato of Doctors Without Borders. “Yet they were almost there. They could have been rescued. Now we are faced with traumatized and disoriented people. They are all families divided by death.”
Someone hung a sign in front of the sports hall where the coffins are piling up, now numbering 63: “People at the mercy of the sea must be saved. Murderers!”
There was no explosion on board. There are no burn victims among the living or even the dead, but that crash against the shoal broke the keel and capsized the boat. “Why did the boat people treat us so badly?”
Horror in their eyes
Sister Loredana Pisani just visited the 22 injured, accompanied by a cultural mediator. “They kept asking me what they had done wrong to deserve this treatment. They left out of desperation. They were aware of the risks. There is no other word for it. They had no choice. Now they have horror in their eyes.”
In the orthopedic ward is a weeping mother. She had fled Afghanistan with her three children. She cries and pronounces the two names missing from the roll call. They are still in the sea, somewhere. No one has found them. “I was only able to hold on to one,” she repeats over and over. He is also hospitalized.
On the beach of Steccato di Cutro, this shattered world is visible for hundreds of meters. With each wave, a piece. Tampons, medicines, small bags with nuts and pistachios inside. Jackets with pockets full of sand. Dozens of mismatched shoes.
And these timbers broken by the sea and our decisions.