After a Tragedy at Sea, a Wrecked Ship Becomes a Powerful Symbol in Italy


ROME — To most eyes, the scruffy, sun-faded ship that left Venice for Sicily last week might have looked like a junkyard-ready wreck.

Instead, as the ship embarked upon what may be its final voyage, via barge and tugboat, and arrived in Sicily on Tuesday, others were hoping it would become a monument to the devastating toll exacted by the trafficking of people across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe by unscrupulous operators.

The ship, the relic of the deadliest wreck in the Mediterranean in living memory, is a symbol of contemporary migration in Europe that has become part of its cultural heritage, said Maria Chiara Di Trapani, an independent curator working on future projects for the vessel.

On April 18, 2015, the unnamed ship — originally built as a fishing vessel for a crew of around 15 — capsized off the coast of Libya, becoming the watery grave for the more than 1,000 people, many from Mali, Mauritius and the Horn of Africa, crammed onboard. Only 28 passengers survived.

The ship’s fate “has to be a reminder that this situation cannot happen in a civilized country,” said Cristina Cattaneo, a forensic pathologist and anthropologist who has been working to identify the hundreds of victims that were trapped in the hull when it sank.

The ship became a tangible symbol of Europe’s failings on migration, of the continent’s inability to conceive of, let alone implement, coordinated policies to handle the mass arrival of migrants, which has intensified in recent decades. Since that disaster, the Missing Migrants Project run by the International Organization for Migration has recorded a minimum of 12,521 deaths or disappearances during migration across the Central Mediterranean route.

The ship sank after colliding with a Portuguese freighter that had come to its assistance. An analysis of the shipwreck has been treated by migration activists as a case study on the perils of inexpert assistance at sea. The ship was later used as evidence in a case against the Tunisian captain who piloted the ship and in 2018 was convicted of human trafficking.

“The story of the boat is very complex, involving many people,” said Enzo Parisi, the spokesman for the Comitato 18 Aprile, a citizens’ group in Augusta, Sicily, that wants the boat to become a monument, “a testimony to tragedies at sea.”

In June 2016, the Italian government decided to raise the wreck 1,200 feet from the bottom of the sea to identify the victims. The ship was taken to a naval base in Augusta, and the victims were extracted.

Genetic data was sampled, corpses and remains were photographed, as were objects like passports and vaccination records, and scraps of paper with hand-scribbled telephone numbers, found during the operation. Everything was sent to a forensic laboratory at the University of Milan for the laborious task of cataloging and possible identification.

The ship’s destiny, at that point, was to head to the scrap yard, like hundreds of ships that have been seized by Italian authorities.

But the wreck’s symbolic power had become apparent. In 2019, supported by the Comitato 18 Aprile, Augusta’s municipal council was granted custody of the ship. The region lobbied to have it declared a monument of cultural interest and the committee came up with proposals for a memorial that would have the ship as the centerpiece.

“As a seaport, Augusta has always been welcoming,” said Giuseppe Di Mare, the mayor of the Sicilian city, which is a first landing spot for many migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, before they are processed and shunted off to other Italian cities. Because of the coronavirus, the sea rescues now include an interim stop on quarantine ships, and currently there are two such ships in Augusta’s harbor.

In 2019, the ship took an unexpected detour, when — with the approval of city hall and the committee — the Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel brought the wreck to the Venice Biennale, mooring it at the Arsenale, the former shipyard of the once formidable Venetian Republic.

Now christened “Barca Nostra,” or “Our Ship” in Italian, the vessel was presented at the art exhibit as a “monument to contemporary migration” and restrictions on personal freedoms.

Last Wednesday, the ship was loaded onto a barge. It arrived in Augusta on Tuesday.

With its return to Sicily, the wreck can become a “starting point to reflect on Italy’s responsibility for these deaths at sea,” said Giorgia Mirto a Ph.D. student at Columbia University who has mapped where migrants who die at sea are buried in Italian cemeteries. In a 2019 documentary about the disaster and the attempts to identify the victims, Ms. Mirto counted headstones in a cemetery that read: “Unknown Immigrant Deceased in the Strait of Sicily on 18.4.2015.”

The project to identify victims continues, sponsored by Italy’s special commissioner for missing persons. Dr. Cattaneo, the forensic pathologist who is responsible for the university laboratory in Milan, said that funding shortages had hampered the work, and that, so far, only six victims had been identified using their methodology, which involves comparing the DNA extracted from the victims to the DNA of family members, as well as anthropological and dental traits.

She is hopeful that progress will be made this year, as the university is now working with other academic institutions, as well as Italian law enforcement authorities, but she cautioned that the condition in which researchers had found the bodies after a year under water made everything “extremely complex.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross and other national affiliates have also been involved in identifying the victims of the tragedy. They have adopted a different, complementary, approach, attempting to draft a list of the passengers onboard by cross-referencing the accounts of survivors, witnesses, relatives, friends, as well as from the objects that were recovered from the ship. Currently, they are calling some of the nearly 1,500 phone numbers — which have been tracked to 56 countries — that were found in the wreckage in hopes of gleaning new clues.

“For us, the passenger manifest is the most important thing, because by naming victims you are acknowledging them as persons,” said Jose Pablo Baraybar Do Carmo, transregional forensic coordinator for the Red Cross, who has been “working like crazy” on the wreck since 2017. “It’s important to remove these people from invisibility,” and let their families know that “there is someone who is trying to find out what happened” to someone who is missing.

So far, his team has managed to identify 474 people who were on the boat.

The coronavirus has drastically reduced Mediterranean crossings over the past 14 months, as well as deaths. Even so, as of Tuesday 449 migrants are known to have died in the first months of 2021.

The ship will now undergo urgent maintenance, after two years exposed to a north Italian climate.

The city of Augusta has envisioned placing the ship in what the authorities describe as a “Garden of Memory,” that “will have to be in the open, because that boat gives a sense of the sea, the air, the skies. To enclose it in a building would clash with its’ story,” said Mr. Di Mare, the mayor.

“Certainly, the ship has attained an international dimension and we want this garden to become a place of reflection for the world, so that all people can ponder,” he said.



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