Sun, Sep 28, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Senegal mourns victims of horror

MARITIME DISASTER When the `Joola' ferry sank one year ago, it took with it the merchant class of Ziguinchor -- a tragedy from which the port city is still recovering


A man prays at the Mbao cemetery in Dakar, during a ceremony to pay homage to the victims of the Joola ferry which sank off Senegalese coast a year ago.


Thousands of Senegalese wearing black sashes gathered on Friday in the port city of Ziguinchor to mourn those that perished a year ago in one of history's deadliest maritime disasters, the sinking of an overloaded seagoing ferry that killed nearly 2,000.

President Abdoulaye Wade placed bouquets of flowers on the tidal river in this southern provincial capital, which has been largely cut off from the markets of the north after the state-run MS Joola made its final departure.

The Joola -- built for 500 but carrying some 2,000 passengers -- capsized hours later in a gale off tiny Gambia, a sliver of a nation separating producers in Senegal's tropical, agrarian south from the consumers in the arid, industrial north.

"A year has passed in our hearts but nothing from that horrible night has been erased," Wade told the 3,000 Senegalese in white T-shirts and black sashes across their chests standing at the empty slip that once housed the Joola -- the sole waterborne mode of mass transport between north and south before its sinking.

Some 1,863 died in the accident -- making it deadlier than the Titanic -- and only about 60 survived, many by clinging to the upturned ship's hull for hours as screams from the trapped and drowning faded below.

"When they left us ... they lit up a candle in our hearts and we must be sure it doesn't go out," Wade told the somber crowd, sweating under a merciless African sun.

Many of those aboard the Joola hailed from Ziguinchor and depended on the Joola to convey their fruits, rice and other products to the bustling markets of Senegal's capital, Dakar.

Senegal's roads are rutted and in the south, near Ziguinchor, they are threatened by bandits. The Joola ferry cost about half as much as a bus ride to Dakar, residents say. Flights between the regions are far beyond the means of most citizens of Senegal, among the world's poorest nations. Since the Joola sinking, Ziguinchor has been cut off, residents say.

This month, Senegal's transport minister announced plans to have a new boat running between Ziguinchor and Dakar sometime in October.

Many of the Joola victims were students or part the trading classes of Ziguinchor's 200,000 people. The city's economic vibrance sank along with them, residents say.

Anna Mane, the chairwoman of Ziguinchor's fruit sellers' association, said she lost many family members and her life-savings in the accident -- imperiling her own existence.

"I took all the money I had saved and invested in palm oil, honey, fruits and vegetables," to send with her three children on the Joola, bound for Dakar, she says.

Included in the group was her oldest son, who was supposed to use the money earned from the sales for school fees. Mane says he hoped to go to school in France, get a good job and support her in her older years. "Now, he's gone with all of my savings. Gone forever," said the woman, in her 50s.

Senegal's government has arranged a fund that will pay reparations to families of survivors.

In Ziguinchor, some said they would have to conquer their fears of sea travel before embarking again for the north of Senegal -- which gained independence from France in 1960.

"Every single day I wake up asking myself, who killed all these people," says Ben Bechir Badji, one of the Joola survivors.

Badji, 27, is terrified of boats now, but says "I have to beat my fears, otherwise my whole life would just be a total wreck."

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