Senegalese town pays tribute to 1,863 victims of ferry disaster

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Family members pray at a grave on the anniversary of the sinking of the Joola at the Kantene cemetery in Ziguinchor, Senegal, September 26, 2022. Photo: AFP

twenty years later The Joola The ferry sank, the Senegalese city where half of the nearly 1,900 dead lived paid tribute on Monday to those killed in the disaster described as “a wound that never heals”.

When news spread that the ship had capsized on the night of September 26, 2002, no one in the southern city could believe it.

“It was unthinkable,” said Nouha Cissé, principal of a high school in Ziguinchor who lost 150 students in the tragedy.

A hundred relatives and officials took part Monday morning in two religious commemoration ceremonies – Catholic and Muslim – next to about fifty graves in the Kantene cemetery, on the outskirts of Ziguinchor.

An official delegation laid wreaths, before women in long traditional dresses and their families visited the graves.

“It’s very important for us to be here, to pay tribute to our mother and our nephew who we lost,” said 38-year-old Ndeye Astou Diba.

The Joola was one of the worst civilian maritime disasters in history.

A total of 1,863 people drowned or were lost – exceeding the Titanic more than 1,500 dead in 1912.

The Joola sailed in a storm off the coast of The Gambia on the way from Ziguinchor to the capital Dakar.

Calls to lift the wreckage

At another larger ceremony with several hundred people near the Casamance River from where The Joola had left, the head of the victims’ associations reiterated the call for the wreckage to be raised.

The Joola, which sank to a depth of 20 meters, would house many bodies.

The ferry had played a major role in Ziguinchor in the isolated enclave of Casamance, providing a lifeline to Dakar and transporting agricultural products as well as tourists.

Casamance, almost separated from the rest of Senegal by the small state of Gambia, had been ravaged by a separatist rebellion since 1982. September 2002 saw an upsurge in attacks.

On September 26, 2002, more than 1,928 people officially crammed onto the ferry, which had a capacity of 536 passengers. Victims’ associations say more than 2,000 passengers from more than a dozen countries died and only 65 survived.

An “unbearable” news

As crowds gathered at the port the following morning, the Prime Minister announced The Joola had capsized.

“Afterwards, it was unbearable in Ziguinchor,” recalls Ibrahima Gassama, a journalist who covered the disaster for Sud FM radio.

“No one could console anyone. The gendarmes cordoned off the area because some people were threatening to throw themselves into the sea.

“They had lost everything,” Gassama said.

“It was truly a disaster,” said Khadidiatou Diop, 65, who lost her mother. “In this house one person died, in this house another died, on the other side of the road one died. It was like that everywhere in Ziguinchor.

Questions remain

Two decades later, many questions remain unanswered.

The causes of the incident were never fully established, despite a Senegalese government investigation and a French investigation launched due to the deaths of 18 French citizens.

Engine failure, navigational error, bad weather, poor maintenance, and overcrowding – or a combination – were likely to blame.

Senegal closed the case in 2003 after concluding an investigation that implicated the captain, who was lost in the disaster.

French courts also threw out a years-long investigation, which found evidence against seven Senegalese officials, concluding that Paris lacked jurisdiction.

Associations of Senegalese and French victims have called for the erection of a memorial. One was promised five years ago but the site was still far from ready in Ziguinchor on Monday.

Later on Monday, Senegalese President Macky Sall tweeted that the country stood “in solidarity” with the victims, adding: “We must ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again.”

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