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.
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
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
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
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 www.alertnet.org
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
“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