Senegal sinking victims want Paris probe

2012-03-19 17:27

Ziguinchor - Relatives of over 1 800 people killed in Africa's worst maritime disaster say the case must not be buried as Dakar attempted on Monday to have a French inquiry into the accident annulled.

In Ziguinchor in the southern Casamance region of Senegal, the air was heavy around a few white tombstones where victims of the 2002 Joola ferry disaster are buried at the overgrown Kantene cemetery.

"The Joola case will not go unpunished despite Senegal's acrobatics to have it buried," said Eli Jean-Bernard Diatta, standing among the graves.

She lost her elder brother who had been chaperoning 26 children on a football trip when the boat capsized in stormy seas off Gambia while sailing between Casamance and the capital Dakar. None of the children survived.

Kantene is one of four cemeteries where about 500 recovered bodies were buried in mass graves, most unidentified. The severely overloaded ferry was licensed to carry 550 people but had 1 927 passengers on board, of whom only 64 survived.

In 2003 Senegal declared the case closed after several ministers and high-ranking military officers were fired, without it ever coming before a court.

The dead captain was declared the main person responsible.

However, 22 French students died in the accident and their families that same year brought legal action against the Senegalese authorities in France for manslaughter and failing to help people in danger.

In 2008 France issued warrants against nine Senegalese officials, later withdrawing those against ex-prime minister Mame Madior Boye and ex-defence minister Youba Sambou.

Waiting for truth

A Paris appeals court in 2009 threw out an earlier bid by Dakar to have the case annulled, but a similar request was filed again a year later by the lawyers for the seven civilian and military officials still the subject of arrest warrants.

One of them was arrested in Paris in October 2010.

In the courtyard of her home in Ziguinchor, Marie Helene Mendy, who was widowed in the accident and left to raise two children, said she was still awaiting "the truth".

"The State closed the case but not the families. If we don't judge this case our children will. One of my sons tells me 'Mummy, when I am big I am going to look for my dad in the sea'. He hasn't forgotten."

Pierre Coly is one of the 64 survivors: "I am glad the Joola case is still in the news in France while in Senegal they want to stifle it. If it was possible to have a similar inquiry here that would be good," he said.

The Joola was carrying people from across Senegal, including school students and artists, as well as citizens from Belgium, Cameroon, France, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Lebanon, Niger, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Switzerland.

The official death toll of 1 863 was 300 more than the number lost in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, but other sources put the number at 1 953 at least.