At a glance, Cristina Cattaneo assessed the lifeless body on the floor of an abandoned Sicilian hospital — a thin, young Eritrean refugee about 180cm tall. While most of the corpse was intact, his face and hands were skeletonized, probably the work of sea animals.
It was the morning of July 3, 2015, and this was the first body to be recovered by a navy robot after a shipwreck on April 18 that year left more than 1,000 people dead.
They came from Eritrea, Senegal, Mauritania, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Mali, the Gambia and Somalia. They had been trying to reach Europe from North Africa onboard a fishing boat with a capacity of about 30 passengers, which sank in the night after colliding with a Portuguese freighter that had approached to offer assistance. Only 28 people survived.
The vast majority of corpses were in the hull, wedged 400m deep on the sea floor. The boy’s cadaver was one of 13 that Italian authorities had found in the water and recovered using a mechanical claw. He was wearing a black jacket, sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers. His remains were placed in a body bag and labeled with an identification number in white ink: PM3900013.
His identity is still unknown, like most of the hundreds of other victims. There is no official death toll, but about half of the thousands of asylum seekers who have died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea lie in unmarked graves in Italy’s cemeteries.
Since 2013, Cattaneo, a professor of forensic pathology and head of Labanof (the laboratory of forensic anthropology and odontology) at the University of Milan, has been committed to putting a name to every man, woman and child who has drowned at sea. Her goal is ambitious, perhaps impossible, and has underscored the indifference of European countries toward migrants and how states discriminate against asylum seekers, even in death.
“Let’s imagine, just for a minute, that a plane full of Italians crashes off the coast of another continent,” Cattaneo said. “Let’s imagine that those corpses are recovered and buried without identification. We would never allow this. So why should we allow it if the ones who die are foreigners?”
Cattaneo believes that indifference toward identifying the bodies is a cultural question.
“That most of the victims have dark skin and read the Koran is the likely reason why there is discrimination,” she said. “In simple terms, we’re in two different contexts. One, our own, ‘rich’ European, and the other, ‘poor or foreign.’”
NEED FOR IDENTIFICATION
One of the first to raise the question of identification was Morris Tidball-Binz, who at the time was head of the forensics unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and with whom Cattaneo had collaborated to identify lost and forgotten victims.
In February 2013, Tidball-Binz was visiting Milan. He telephoned Cattaneo and confessed over lunch that the matter was consuming him.
“He told me that the ICRC had been receiving many phone calls from Syria and Eritrea, from people who were expecting the arrival of brothers, children, girlfriends in Europe and who had never arrived,” Cattaneo said. “They were likely victims of shipwrecks and wanted to know how to find their bodies. He told me that the ICRC was conducting research in European countries to understand if there was a database for these people, and he asked me if there was a register in Italy. No, there was nothing, but the moment had come to create one.”
Early in 2014, the former government commissioner for missing persons, Vittorio Piscitelli, signed a protocol with Labanof for the identification of refugees lost in the Mediterranean Sea, making Italy the first country to engage in such an effort.
“Those corpses were at the top of my mind,” Piscitelli said. “The cries for assistance from the families contacting us from across Europe and Africa for information on their relatives could not be ignored. When doctor Cattaneo showed me new technology that could be used for identification, I knew it was an opportunity that we couldn’t miss.”
The first step in identifying bodies, the postmortem, is the most difficult, as Cattaneo’s team learned after a boat carrying about 500 migrants sank in October 2013 off the island of Lampedusa, killing 368 passengers.
Hundreds of people were searching for their relatives. Cattaneo’s work pushed her team at Labanof to the limit, as all of the difficulties in identification became apparent.
A postmortem is carried out to inspect the external tissues and internal organs, analyze bones and teeth, and collect DNA samples. Useful data, such as dental fillings, a tattoo or disease are entered into a database.
The second step, called the antemortem, involves collecting information from friends or family members. DNA from a close relative, an X-ray of a bone, or even a photograph is cross-checked with previous data.
“In theory, it’s very simple,” Cattaneo said. “Postmortem data plus antemortem data equals identification, but if one element is missing, it’s almost impossible to move forward. And for the migrants, we realized immediately that it is very difficult to find all of the right pieces.”
Precisely a year after the October 2013 capsizing, in a first-floor office of the Italian Ministry of the Interior, Cattaneo and her team met the first relatives of the refugees who perished near Lampedusa. In the following months, 80 families came forward and about 40 people were finally identified.
Although that number is relatively small, Cattaneo said that the work was important because “we had given back the bodies of sons or brothers. We had given them peace. Identifying the corpses is not just a question of restoring dignity to the dead, it is also necessary for the health of the living.”
Family of the unidentified dead are often referred to as victims of “ambiguous loss.” Unresolved grief can generate psychological challenges such as depression or alcoholism.
Personal effects are recorded and analyzed. In a room in the forensic institute at the University of Milan, the Labanof team has dozens of shelves holding possessions found in the pockets of refugees who died at sea: necklaces, bracelets, photos, spare change, soccer team emblems, report cards and so on. All cataloged.
“Migrants who have died at sea, often adolescents, have in their pockets the same objects that many of our teenagers have when we send them to school,” Cattaneo said. “The only difference is that they drowned while trying to reach our shores.”
In an abandoned hospital in Catania, while performing that first autopsy after the April 2015 shipwreck, Cattaneo noticed that the dead boy’s shirt had a pocket sewn up. It contained a small cellophane packet with a dark powder.
“It was sand,” Cattaneo said. “Sand from his village.”
A common practice among Eritreans is to take with them a physical reminder of their homeland before leaving, knowing they might never return.
EUROPEAN SUPPORT NEEDED
The other bodies were recovered by Italian authorities in June 2016. The recovery itself became a public spectacle, as an entire section of the Italian Navy was engaged in the operation, and the work dragged on for months at a cost of US$11.5 million.
Inside the ship’s hull were more than 500 corpses, 30,000 mingled bones and hundreds of skulls.
“Imagine skulls and bones of hundreds of people closed in a metal box and being shaken for a year,” Cattaneo said. “That’s what we found, along with hundreds of decomposed bodies.”
Only six of these individuals have been identified so far. The search for relatives and friends has become increasingly complicated, and funds are short.
“We’re working on it, but in order to complete our work, we need the support of other European governments,” Cattaneo said.
In April, the European Parliament voted on a resolution for the protection of the right to asylum, which includes an amendment on the right of identification of people who die during the attempt to cross the Mediterranean and the necessity of a coordinated European approach.
At least four Italian universities, alongside the forensic services of law enforcement agencies overseen by Italy’s new commissioner for missing persons, Silvana Riccio, continue the search to identify all of the victims of the April 2015 shipwreck, assisted by the ICRC and the Italian Red Cross. This disaster has become a symbol of sea tragedies, and the remains of the ship were displayed at the Venice Biennale.
Six years later, the body of the first migrant recovered from that shipwreck was buried in the cemetery in Catania. His tombstone bears the same number that was written in white on his body bag: PM3900013.
In the area near the Augusta wharf in Sicily, where firefighters in 2016 set up tents to hold the corpses removed from the salvaged boat, there is now a meadow of pink wildflowers. Cattaneo’s diary, where the experiences of those first migrant autopsies are noted, contains a petal from the meadow.
“I collected it in Augusta, where I returned two years after the shipwreck,” Cattaneo said. “I always carry it with me, like that boy who took the earth from his village with him. That petal is my version of African sand. That petal is what nullifies the distance between me and him, and that drives me, every day, to work in order to give that boy the name that has been stolen from him by Europe’s indifference.”
On a peaceful day in the open Pacific Ocean to the east of Taiwan, a US carrier and five accompanying warships were slowly sailing to guard the western Pacific. Another carrier battle group had just returned to its home port in San Diego. Suddenly, alarms went off as many intercontinental ballistic missiles were launched from the interior of China, flying toward Taiwan. Numerous Chinese warships, carriers, fighter jets, bombers and submarines were fast converging on the US ships. Not too long after, missiles, bombs and torpedoes were fired at the US carrier. The surprise to Americans was the number of
I was a bit startled last week when Legislative Yuan Speaker You Si-kun (游錫堃) suggested that the United States could extend official recognition to an independent Taiwan if China were to launch an invasion. While I think Speaker You is correct, I am not sure it is a helpful point of view. Naturally, there are contingency plans in Washington on diplomatic actions that could deter Chinese military action, but they contemplate the continuity of a democratic Taiwanese government that could survive offshore in exile if part or all of Taiwan is occupied by communist Chinese forces. China’s threat that “Taiwan
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) unscheduled visit to Tibet on July 20 attracted extensive international attention. Although Chinese media said that Xi’s visit was meant to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the accession of Tibet to China, Tibet has remained a politically charged issue for China as well as the international community. The genesis of the turbulent ties between Tibet and China dates back to 1951, when the Chinese regime annexed Tibet through a seven-point agreement. China has used this agreement as proof of its sovereignty over Tibet. Tibetans argue that they were forced to sign the agreement, leading them
The US House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs on July 15 introduced the Ensuring American Global Leadership and Engagement (EAGLE) Act. The act, if passed by the US Congress, would provide powerful support for Taiwan, including a requirement that the US secretary of state enter negotiations with the Taiwan Council for US Affairs to rename the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington to the “Taiwan Representative Office.” The effort to rename Taiwan’s representative office in Washington has long been a priority for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MOFA) US diplomats. Taiwanese based in the US, as well as