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Forgotten  ferries


When the massive Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia capsized off the coast of Italy in January 2012, killing more than 30 people, the world’s media responded. In other parts of the world, maritime disasters are claiming many more lives but few of those stories are told.

The sun had already fallen over the Mozambique Channel when the Madjiriha left the port of Moroni, Comoros, crowded with 180 passengers and crew, heading south towards the island of Anjouan, roughly 100 kilometres to the south-east.

Madjiriha is one of many boats that ferry people among the islands that make up the Comoros, a set of volcanic isles rising from the Indian Ocean between Mozambique and Madagascar. Only an hour into their voyage, one of the Madjiriha’s two engines failed, followed closely by the second.

For several hours the ship drifted while the crew tried to restart the engines. The drama continued as the ship approached the coast and seas became rough. Finally, around 03:00 on 9 August 2011, the ship smashed into the rocks along the south-west coast of Grand-Comoros island, causing the crowded vessel to capsize.

Once alerted, residents of the nearest coastal village rushed to the rescue. Volunteers of the Comoros Red Crescent also hastened to the scene to assist victims along with military and civilian officials.

But the wreck was not easy to reach. Foundering amid the rocks and crashing waves, the boat had overturned along a particularly inaccessible part of the coast. Throughout the morning and into the day, Red Crescent volunteers joined civilian and government boats, scouring the choppy seas for survivors, collecting bodies and bringing whoever they could find back to shore.

As the rescue boats went back and forth to a beach near the seaside village, other Red Crescent volunteers received the wounded and consoled the grieving survivors. They also carried bodies in sheet-covered stretchers and began caring for the dead according to local customs.

The local health centres were the first to receive the wounded while the entire community, with the support of Comoros Red Crescent volunteers, helped in any way they could before the patients, traumatized and in shock, were transferred to El-Maarouf, the main hospital in the capital Moroni.

By the time the sun set on 9 August, the official toll was 56 dead, nine of whom could not be identified; an additional 48 people were still missing. Among the victims were many children. Thanks to those who responded, 76 people survived, some of whom suffered serious injuries.

Resources overwhelmed
Despite the heroic efforts of the responders, the disaster quickly revealed weaknesses in the islands’ ability to deal with mass casualties. The hospital in Moroni, for example, was quickly overwhelmed. Some patients simply decided to go home. “Considering the overflow and panic of doctors and paramedics, and knowing the lack of means in this hospital, I preferred to go home and being able to rest,” said one of the survivors, who suffered damage to his spine.

In the following days, as it became clear that no more survivors would be found, Comoros Red Crescent volunteers turned their full attention to offering psychological, emotional and practical support to the victims. They worked to reconnect victims with relatives, identify remains and attended funerals, providing psychosocial therapy to the injured and relatives of victims.

To this day, the scars of August 2011 are still fresh. “I regularly relive this drama and directly think of my two children aged 3 and a half and 1 and a half,” said Ibrahim Drolo, a survivor who also felt that victims have received a very limited assistance. “I wonder, had I died, what would have become of my children?

“We are all morally wounded. And we are really disappointed that the government did not take care of us,” he said. Like many victims, he would like to see those responsible for the accident held accountable.

“My entire life has changed radically,” said Fatima Youssouf, the widow of one of the victims. She relives the drama almost every day as she sees her five orphan children, aged between 3 and12 years, growing up without a father and a breadwinner. “I do not work; if I did, how could I take care of my children?”

An ocean graveyard
Sadly, the tragedy of the Madjiriha is far from an isolated incident in the waters between the islands of the Comores and other Indian Ocean countries. 

Indeed, the crossing between the islands of Anjouan and Mayotte, which remains under French administration, has become a maritime graveyard for hundreds of people every year, many of whom were trying to immigrate to French territory.

In 2004, the San-Son ferry sunk with 120 passengers on board. Only one person, a woman, survived. In 2006, another ship, the Al Mubaraka, foundered, killing 20 people and 33 others reported missing, followed by the Niyati Soifa, taking 60 lives, with only ten survivors who were rescued by fishermen.

Another boat, the Ile d’Anjouan sank in 2009 off the coast of Tanzania with 47 passengers and 29 crew members, plus livestock and cargo. Fortunately, 75 people were rescued by a German container ship, which received a distress call while heading to Zanzibar.

The Comoros is not the only country in the region to face this problem. In July this year, the Tanzania Red Cross National Society was among the first to respond to a passenger ferry accident near Chumbe island in Zanzibar. The MV Skagit, certified for 250 people, capsized as it was travelling to Zanzibar from Dar-es-Salaam. Local sources said the ferry was carrying more than 280 passengers. “Strong waves hit the boat causing it to lose control,” said one survivor. “Passengers panicked as they scrambled for life jackets.”

Kibar Tawakal, disaster response manager for the Tanzania Red Cross, said the National Society set up a response unit in Zanzibar’s port to provide first aid and offer information to relatives. Rescuers that day saved 146 people.

What these later two incidents suggest is that lives could be saved if systems were in place to reach those in distress before it’s too late. The other part of the equation is what happens before these ferries leave port.

Lack of attention
In the Comoros, critics and groups of victims say there is a general lack of attention from both officials who oversee port activities and among ship owners, captains, crews and even those dealing with civil security.

One key issue is chronic overcrowding of vessels. While the Madjiriha had permission to carry 90 passengers, it left with 180 people aboard. Local media also reported that the ship had experienced technical problems linked to the engines a few days before.

A few days after the sinking of the Madjiriha, a national commission was set up by the Ministry of Transport with the mandate to “enforce the rules and laws in force without any complacency”.

Regular and unannounced controls appear to be taking place, and mechanical and safety checks are carried out before each boat’s departure. Many wonder if these measures will remain in place once local public attention wanes, but so far it appears that enforcement after the disaster has changed and reduced unregulated boat traffic between the islands.

Now, new rules force crews to have proper systems for giving life jackets to passengers in emergencies. The authorities have also taken steps to improve weather reporting and avert clandestine, unauthorized ferry services. They have also set up a system of coast guards. The state has established a Directorate for Civil Protection that recruited 120 young people who will be trained to become firefighters.

The Comoros Red Crescent has been studying ways to better prepare for future maritime emergencies, including developing response units and training rescuers specialized in nautical activities who would also need to be outfitted with appropriate equipment. The National Society must also strengthen psychosocial and material support to compensate for the lack of state services.

Meanwhile, one year after the tragedy, the hull of the Madjiriha still sits rocking in the waves, just a few metres from shore. A few days after the tragedy, a tugboat tried to turn the boat in order to recover bodies trapped inside. The tug failed and the human remains are likely still trapped inside — one more reminder for relatives and victims of a painful problem that still has not attracted a complete response.

By Ramoulati Ben Ali
Ramoulati Ben Ali is a communications officer for the Comoros Red Crescent.

The hull of the Madjiriha wallows among the rocks off the south-west coast of Grand-Comoros. Only approved for 90 passengers, the boat was holding roughly 180 people when it capsized in the early morning of 9 August 2011. Photo: ©Comoros Red Crescent
















A big part of the response to maritime emergencies involves proper identification and treatment of the dead. Here a policeman records the handprint of a woman killed in a ferry tragedy in Zanzibar, Tanzania in July 2012. Rescue workers including the Tanzania Red Cross responded after an overcrowded ferry sank in rough seas.
Photo: ©REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya, courtesy










While some Comoros Red Crescent volunteers joined boat crews searching for survivors, other volunteers on the beach rushed victims to medical care centres or to makeshift morgues. Photo: ©Said Abdou/Comoros Red Crescent






“I regularly relive this drama and directly think of my two children aged 3 and a half and 1 and a half. I wonder, had I died, what would have become of my children?”
Ibrahim Drolo, who survived the 9 August 2011 ferry accident off the coast of Grand-Comoros Island





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