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Forgotten Ferries – The untold story

Grueling rescue on
land and sea

 

The moment that Kassim Ibrahim Ali heard the news that a passenger ferry had capsized off the coast of Grand Comoros Island, the Comoros Red Crescent volunteer went straight to the rescue operations center of the Comoros Civil Protection Department, along with another volunteer.

 

“We left from there with some civil protection workers to the site of the drama,“says Ali.  “There, we made four evacuations, a total of 64 people, to the towns of Foumbouni and Ouzioini.”

But it was no easy task. Access to the site, a particularly hard-to-reach section of the rocky coastline, was impossible by vehicle. “We had to walk there,” he says. “We walked 8 kilometers to reach the site.”

The challenge then was to get survivors to the nearest road, where they could be taken by car or truck for medical treatment.  “There were pregnant women and children and it was necessary to carry them.”

“Some of the victims could walk and some not,” says Ali. “For those who could not, we transported them on stretchers — or improvised stretchers. The head of security for the area took charge of some vehicles to  evacuate people to the closest hospitals, notably in Foumbuoni where doctors and paramedics were available to treat the injured.”

Volunteer Saïd Mhoudine told a similar story, but he went to the site by boat and saw far fewer survivors. “The moment I heard [of the ferry disaster], I returned to headquarters and the chief of operations sent me to the site. Once there, I worked with a team from the rescue operations centre for the Civil Protection Department that was searching for bodies,” he said. 

“But the sea was very agitated, with big waves. On board the rescue boats, it was not easy. We had to place the dead in body bags while fighting the rough seas.”

Later, Ali also helped search for bodies. “We brought them to the beach in Chindrini and put them in bungalows,” he said. “Then we identified the bodies by age and sex and put them in body bags.” Then efforts were made to contact relatives and identify the dead before the bodies were cleaned and prepared for burial according to local custom.

More than a year later, the memories from the wreck of the Madjariha are still strong. “I was very touched by this tragedy,” says Ali. “I was truly heartbroken. But I kept my cool. To see the injured and the dead, particularly women and was not easy. I had to concentrate to do my work and respond as effectively as possible.”

“My emotions were huge,” adds Mhoudine, recalling days of around-the-clock rescue work. “I went three days without sleeping. I was involved in the response to the crash of Yemania [Flight 626, which crashed while landing in Grand Comoros Island] in 2009, but I didn’t suffer then as I did with this drama. When I saw the bodies and I didn’t have the means to recover them — either because of the waves or simply because they were trapped [inside the boat’s hull] — my heart was really crushed.

“It was there that I felt the limits of the Comoros Red Crescent and also the State in terms of disaster response.”

Though the rescue efforts of Comoros Red Crescent volunteers were heroic, the ferry wreck and the difficulties faced in responding has prompted new debate on the Comoros Islands, as well as efforts to both prevent future accidents and to increase local capacity to handle maritime emergencies.

“We need to be better prepared, particularly when it comes to nautical rescue so that we can intervene effectively,” Mhoudine says.

Ali agrees. “I understand that at our level, we don’t have the means necessary for rescue and evacution, particularly  for rescues at sea,” he said. One case in point, was the need to requisition transport vehicles on the spot in order to evacuate survivors. If rescue agencies and the Comoros Red Crescent had more resources for transporting victims, there would have been less delay in getting help for those in need. Since the ferry sinking, there have been improvements in regulation of ferries between the islands and the National Society is working with local emergency response officials on ways to prepare for future maritime emergencies.

 

 

 

 

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