After a Tragedy at Sea, a Wrecked Ship Becomes a Powerful Symbol in Italy

ROME – To most eyes, the unkempt, sun-faded ship that left Venice for Sicily last week might have looked like a junkyard wreck.

Instead, when the ship began its final voyage by barge and tug, arriving in Sicily on Tuesday, others hoped that it would become a memorial to the devastating number caused by human trafficking across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe by unscrupulous people Operators.

The ship, the relic of the Mediterranean’s deadliest wreck in living memory, is a symbol of contemporary migration in Europe that has become part of its cultural heritage, said Maria Chiara Di Trapani, an independent curator working on future projects for the ship .

On April 18, 2015, the unnamed ship – originally built as a fishing vessel for a crew of around 15 – capsized off the coast of Libya and became a water grave for the more than 1,000 people on board, many from Mali, Mauritius and the Horn of Africa crammed full. Only 28 passengers survived.

The ship’s fate “must be a reminder that this situation cannot occur in a civilized country,” said Cristina Cattaneo, a forensic pathologist and anthropologist who worked to identify the hundreds of victims trapped in the hull in the sinking .

The ship became a tangible symbol of Europe’s failure to migrate, of the continent’s inability to devise or even implement coordinated measures to cope with the mass arrivals of migrants, which has increased in recent decades. Since that disaster, the International Organization for Migration’s project on missing migrants has recorded at least 12,521 deaths or disappearances while migrating along the Mediterranean route.

The ship sank after colliding with a Portuguese freighter that came to his aid. An analysis of the shipwreck was treated by migration activists as a case study of the dangers of inexperienced aid at sea. The ship was later used as evidence in a case against the Tunisian captain who piloted the ship and convicted of human trafficking in 2018.

“The history of the boat is very complex and involves many people,” said Enzo Parisi, spokesman for Comitato 18 Aprile, a civic group in Augusta, Sicily that wants the boat to be a monument, “a testimony to tragedies at sea . “

In June 2016, the Italian government decided to raise the wreck 1,200 feet above the sea floor to identify the victims. The ship was taken to a naval base in Augusta and the victims extracted.

Genetic data were taken, corpses and remains were photographed, as well as items such as passports and vaccination records, and scraps of paper with hand-drawn phone numbers found during the operation. Everything was sent to a forensic laboratory at the University of Milan to do the tedious task of cataloging and possible identification.

At that point, the ship’s fate was to go to the junkyard, like hundreds of ships confiscated by Italian authorities.

But the symbolic power of the wreck had become evident. In 2019 Augusta’s local council was granted custody of the ship with the support of Comitato 18 Aprile. The region worked to have it declared a Monument of Cultural Interest and the committee made proposals for a monument that would place the ship at the center.

“As a seaport, Augusta has always been welcome,” said Giuseppe Di Mare, the mayor of the Sicilian city, which is a first landing point for many migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, before being processed and diverted to other Italian cities. Due to the coronavirus, sea rescues now include a stop on quarantine ships, and there are currently two such ships in the port of Augusta.

In 2019, the ship made an unexpected detour when the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel, with the approval of the town hall and the committee, brought the wreck to the Venice Biennale and moored it at the Arsenale, the former shipyard of the once impressive Venetian Republic.

The ship, which has now been christened “Barca Nostra” or “Our Ship” in Italian, was presented at the art exhibition as a “Monument to Contemporary Migration” and as a restriction on personal freedoms.

Last Wednesday the ship was loaded onto a barge. It arrived in Augusta on Tuesday.

Upon its return to Sicily, the wreck may become a “starting point to reflect on Italy’s responsibility for these marine deaths,” said Giorgia Mirto, Ph.D. Columbia University student who mapped where migrants who die at sea are buried in Italian cemeteries. In a 2019 documentary about the disaster and attempts to identify the victims, Ms. Mirto counted gravestones in a cemetery with the inscription: “Unknown immigrant died on April 18, 2015 in the Strait of Sicily.”

The victim identification project continues and is sponsored by the Italian Special Commissioner for Missing Persons. Dr. Cattaneo, the forensic scientist The pathologist in charge of the university laboratory in Milan said the lack of funding has hampered the work and that so far only six victims have been identified using their methodology of comparing the DNA extracted from the victims with that of the family become members as well as anthropological and dental traits.

Confident that progress will be made this year as the university is now working with other academic institutions as well as Italian law enforcement agencies, but warned that the state in which researchers found the bodies after a year underwater made it all ” Extremely complex. “

The International Committee of the Red Cross and other national affiliates were also involved in identifying the victims of the tragedy. They took a different, complementary approach and tried to compile a list of passengers on board by referring to the reports of survivors, witnesses, relatives, friends, as well as the items recovered from the ship. They are currently calling some of the nearly 1,500 phone numbers that have been tracked in 56 countries and found in the rubble in hopes of finding new clues.

“For us, the passenger manifest is the most important thing because when you name victims, you recognize them as people,” said Jose Pablo Baraybar Do Carmo, national forensic coordinator for the Red Cross, who has been “like crazy” on the wreck since 2017. “It is important to remove these people from invisibility ”and to let their families know that“ someone is trying to find out what happened ”.

So far, his team has identified 474 people who were on the boat.

The coronavirus has drastically reduced the number of Mediterranean crossings and deaths in the past 14 months. Even so, it is known that as of Tuesday, 449 migrants had died in the first few months of 2021.

The ship is now in urgent need of maintenance after being exposed to a northern Italian climate for two years.

The city of Augusta has envisaged placing the ship in a space designated by the authorities as the “garden of memory”, which “must be outdoors because this boat gives a feeling of the sea, the air and the sky. Enclosing it in a building would conflict with its history, ”said Mayor Di Mare.

“Certainly the ship has reached an international dimension and we want this garden to be a place of reflection for the world so that all people can think about it,” he said.